113. Research Note Prepared in the United States Information Agency1




“Photography-USA,” an exhibit of technical and artistic achievements in American photography, concluded its six-city tour of the Soviet Union in Moscow, where it was viewed by 262,425 people.2 The exhibit included over four hundred photographs and equipment for [Page 320] amateur and professional photographers. Twenty one Russian-speaking American guides demonstrated equipment and answered visitors’ questions. This report is based on systematic debriefings of the guides by a research officer who was attached to the exhibit staff, as well as on his own observations.

Response to the Exhibit

Public reaction to “Photography-USA” in Moscow was positive and enthusiastic, as it had been in the five previous cities. The exhibit areas which received the most attention were those involving demonstrations of the Polaroid process—the portrait studio, the SX–70 stand, and the Polaroid close-up camera demonstration.3 The most popular of photographs, judging from remarks written by visitors in the exhibit comment book, were those of children and those taken in space—particularly during the Apollo moon missions. Individual photographers most often singled out for praise were Hiro, Jay Maisel, and Milton Green. As in previous cities, the main criticism of the exhibit was that the pictures did not depict life in America. (The “Reflections” photo exhibit, with pictures of the type many visitors expected to see at “Photography-USA,” had been in Moscow six months earlier as part of the “USA–200” exhibit.4)

Some visitors commented that many of the photographs on display had been published previously in America Illustrated. A number of visitors felt the exhibit contained, in the words of one man, “too much technology and too little art and humanity.” Much, of course, depended on visitors’ expectations. Some thought “Photography-USA” would be an exhibit of American artistic photography, while others expected to see life in the United States depicted in pictures. Almost everyone, however, clearly enjoyed the exhibit. The comments regarding the selection of photographs concerned only one aspect of “Photography-USA,” and that not the most important one for most people.

The main attraction of the exhibit, as always, was the guides. They were able to answer visitors’ questions on a wide range of topics—from the equipment they were demonstrating to, more importantly, life in America and American attitudes toward a wide variety of subjects. Guides were not criticized in Moscow for not being specialists in photography, as had often been the case in other Soviet cities. Muscovites did not appear to expect technical expertise from the guides, perhaps because they have had the opportunity to visit more U.S. exhibits than residents of other cities of the Soviet Union. Most visitors were much [Page 321] more interested in talking about America than about photographic technology. The exhibit’s three professional photographers, meanwhile, were kept very busy meeting with Soviet specialists.

Press Coverage

The opening of “Photography-USA” and a brief description of the exhibit were reported by several Moscow newspapers and TASS. Komsomol’ skaya pravda, the official organ of the Soviet youth organization, Komsomol, carried a lengthy and very flattering article on the exhibit written by Vasilii Peskov, co-author of The Country Across the Ocean (1975), a very popular book about life in America as seen by two Soviet journalists who travelled across the U.S. by car.


In Moscow there were fewer reports than in previous cities of visitors being picked up and questioned by the KGB for visiting the exhibit too often or for socializing with guides away from the pavilion. On the other hand, monitoring of visitors and their conversations with guides on the floor of the exhibit was much more obvious. The police in charge of crowd control around the pavilion were supplemented by a dozen members of the volunteer civilian militia, who occasionally removed their red armbands and wandered through the exhibit. In addition, the plainclothes security agents working within the pavilion on more than one occasion asked certain visitors to leave the exhibit. The “Photography-USA” staff, however, was not always unhappy to see the militia and crowd-controllers doing their job. The exhibit attracted its share of crackpots, including a self-proclaimed anarchist who wanted to “blow a hole in the Iron Curtain” and a Ukrainian religious fanatic who managed to alienate the guides by combining preaching with halitosis. Such individuals were banned from the exhibit by Soviet authorities, a move welcomed by all. But half a dozen militiamen were required to physically remove Karl, an aging and increasingly desperate Soviet of German origin, who reportedly has been trying for thirty-five years to leave the Soviet Union.

Visitor Questions

Questions posed by exhibit visitors in Moscow did not differ from those asked in other cities. They were primarily concerned with such U.S. domestic issues as education, unemployment, crime, pensions, and the cost of living. As a result, only about a quarter of the guides’ time was devoted to answering questions concerning photography. (This figure varied from stand to stand, with those demonstrating color printing and the Polaroid SX–70 speaking almost exclusively about the subject at hand.) In the area of international affairs, relations between the U.S. and the USSR were of most interest to visitors in Moscow. [Page 322] President Carter’s attitude toward the Soviet Union was frequently cited, and usually criticized, by Muscovites.

Education was one of the American domestic issues discussed most intensely throughout the exhibit’s stay in Moscow. Visitors—almost forty per cent of whom were between fifteen and twenty-five years of age—were mainly concerned with the cost of and access to higher education in the U.S. They asked about college tuition and the availability of scholarships and other types of financial aid. Most visitors were unaware that a greater percentage of American high school graduates goes on to colleges and universities than is the case in the Soviet Union. Some asked about the cost of attending primary and secondary schools, and many were unaware that public schools are free in the United States. Others were interested in high school curricula, especially mandatory subjects and courses concerning the Soviet Union or Russian language and literature. Teachers asked about teachers’ salaries and work loads. Visitors frequently asked what American children are taught about the role of the Soviet Union in World War II, a subject dear to the hearts of Soviet citizens and one which they feel is neglected in American education. Racial issues in education were not a major topic of discussion at the exhibit in Moscow, although visitors often asked whether blacks and whites study together in American schools. Progress in the racial integration of American schools did not especially impress exhibit visitors, who as a general rule viewed unfavorably any contact with blacks.

Employment and unemployment were also major subjects of discussion in Moscow, as they have been in every city visited by this and previous American exhibits in the Soviet Union. Because, according to Marxist theory, unemployment is one of the inevitable contradictions of a capitalist society, it is the American “economic ill” most heavily stressed by the Soviet media. The spectre of millions of jobless American workers haunts people who live in a country where college graduates are assigned jobs and where there is a constant labor shortage. Lectures on unemployment compensation did little to dispel this very negative image visitors had of the labor situation in the United States. Guides had the impression that most exhibit visitors would opt for job security, even though it would entail little or no choice in where they worked, over the American system—which, while offering the freedom of choice, also places on the worker the burden of finding employment in a market which Soviet citizens perceive to be already glutted with millions of jobless people. In this, as in other areas, visitors generally preferred security to freedom of choice with its responsibilities and risks. Exhibit visitors pictured labor-management relations as much more hostile than they are in reality, seeing employers as holding all the cards and workers virtually powerless.

[Page 323]

Crime was the second most negative aspect of life in America in the minds of “Photography-USA” visitors in Moscow. Visitors generally asked guides to confirm the reports by Soviet media about the high incidence of violent crime in American cities and then asked them to explain the causes. The most commonly posed question on this subject—and the usual conversation opener—was: “Is it true that people are afraid to go outside at night in American cities?” The problems of crime and unemployment were not generally raised by visitors to embarrass guides or to gloat over the relative absence of these particular ills in their own country, but rather out of genuine curiosity and a desire to check the validity of their own sources of information. Specific incidents, such as the “Son of Sam” murders, although covered by Soviet newspapers, were hardly ever mentioned by exhibit visitors.5

Conspicuous by their near absence were questions concerning current affairs, with the exception of those relating to the U.S. or U.S.-Soviet relations. Muscovites, like their compatriots in other cities, did not display the same interest in world events that most westerners do. One reason is that they cannot follow world events on a day-to-day basis in the Soviet media, which do not, for all practical purposes, report what is going on in the world. Newspapers and television provide only the scantiest coverage of international affairs, and that is so slanted and barren of detail as to make it of little interest to the average citizen. Visitors tended to ask about those things which they felt had a direct bearing on their own lives. This included, above all, questions on America and on U.S.-Soviet relations. Asian, African, South American, and Middle Eastern affairs were rarely brought up aside from an occasional “Why do you support the Israeli aggressors?” or “Why do you support the racist regime of South Africa?” Discussion of Soviet domestic issues, particularly Soviet leadership, was taboo at the exhibit. The new Soviet draft Constitution was felt to be either uninteresting or irrelevant. In private, however, Brezhnev jokes and talk of a new “personality cult” were common.

Soviet-American Relations

Most guide-visitor discussions of Soviet-American relations revolved around the person and politics of President Carter. Visitors made it very clear that they strongly desired friendlier relations with the United States. They saw in the policies of President Carter an obstacle to such relations and held him personally responsible for increased tension between the two countries. Some viewed as hypocritical the President’s criticism of the Soviet Union for human rights viola [Page 324] tions while the United States continued giving aid to South Korea and Chile. He was criticized for not fulfilling his campaign promise to strive for arms limitations. His prestige with Soviets suffered another blow when it was announced that the United States was planning to develop a neutron bomb.

President Carter was not, however, completely without strong supporters among exhibit visitors in Moscow. They included dissidents, Baptists, Old Believers, would-be emigrants, and others who had run afoul of the Soviet security organs. Many of these people left at the exhibit letters and appeals addressed to President Carter or the U.S. Congress.

Some visitors complained that the United States seemed more eager to improve its relations with China than with the Soviet Union. This is a delicate issue with the Soviet people who appear to dislike and distrust their Chinese neighbors and who feel that Russians and Americans are natural allies. In spite of Richard Nixon’s initiatives to re-establish contacts with the People’s Republic of China, he is by far the most respected of recent American Presidents because of his policy of detente with the Soviet Union. President Carter, on the other hand, is seen as having undone much of the good work of Nixon in the area of Soviet-American relations.

Voice of America

The subject of VOA was raised in Moscow more frequently than in other cities where “Photography-USA” was shown. Visitors often referred to news items they had heard on VOA-Russian broadcasts in conversations with exhibit guides. This was often in connection with matters not covered by the Soviet mass media, such as criticism at the World Psychiatric Congress of Soviet use of psychiatry for punishing political dissidents. Only on a very few occasions did exhibit visitors accuse VOA of distortion or an anti-Soviet bias. Most often people simply asked guides if what VOA broadcasts is true. Many were impressed with the Voice’s coverage of Soviet internal affairs, clearly of very great interest to listeners. Visitors often asked how VOA obtains information about events in the Soviet Union and is able to air them so quickly.

People occasionally asked about individual VOA personalities, particularly those broadcasting in Russian. Several Muscovites brought gifts to be delivered to Voice of America announcers. Some expected to find VOA represented among the exhibit guides, as has been the case in several previous exhibits.

Exhibit visitors had numerous and often predictable suggestions for improving VOA broadcasts. Dissidents, for example, wanted more coverage of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union and a harder [Page 325] line in the news. Several people suggested that VOA make more direct comparisons between life in the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Everyone, regardless of their political views, expressed interest in programs which present American views on the Soviet Union and its achievements. Also of interest to many listeners were VOA reports on Soviet emigrants living in the United States—how they adjust to life here, how they are treated, and, especially, how they have fared in finding jobs. Several exhibit visitors in Moscow suggested that VOA should offer to provide American pen-pals for its listeners. A young scientist said he very much regretted that VOA stopped giving English lessons in its Russian-language broadcast.

When young people mentioned VOA on the floor of the exhibit, it was most often in connection with music programs. Several recurring music-related themes were voiced by such visitors throughout “Photography-USA’s” stay in Moscow:

1) American country music is gaining popularity in the Soviet Union. Several country and western songs have been translated into Russian and are performed by Moscow groups.

2) Considerable interest exists in the fate of Soviet musicians who have migrated to the U.S. For example, a number of visitors inquired about the San Francisco group “Sasha and Yura.” One visitor suggested that an entire VOA program be devoted to this group, with interviews and details about their life and work in the U.S. People involved in the Soviet jazz world, such as jazz historian Alexei Batashev and lecturer Georgi Bakhchiev, expressed strong interest in the activities of such prominent ex-Soviet jazz musicians as Valeri Ponomarev, Vladimir Chizhik, and Vladimir Sermakashev, all of whom are now living in New York.

3) Visitors constantly stressed that they want to hear only the very newest and best of rock music with as little time as possible devoted to playing listeners’ requests.

4) Music fans and performers alike frequently suggested that the lyrics to popular songs be read by announcers, as foreign radio—especially VOA—is a primary source of new material for Soviet musical groups.

The most popular of VOA’s Russian-language music shows, judging from comments of exhibit visitors in Moscow, are Pop Concert I & II and the Saturday Dance Show. Several people said that they and their friends dance to the music of the Dance Show and would prefer that particular program to have more music and less talk. One young listener suggested that songs be introduced and dedications made over the music, as Radio Luxembourg does on its music programs. Judging from “Photography-USA” visitors’ remarks, VOA’s main competition in the area of popular music is Deutsche Welle.

[Page 326]

Young Soviets are extremely serious about popular music. Moscow listeners were very eager to obtain more biographical information on their favorite performers, details of their private lives, their musical backgrounds, and their earnings. This is especially true of jazz and jazz/rock enthusiasts, who approach their music in an almost academic manner, attending lectures and circulating samizdat translations of articles from “Downbeat” and other western publications.

There was much more reaction to VOA English-language broadcasts in Moscow than in any other city visited by the “Photography-USA” exhibit. Most often mentioned was Willis Conover’s Jazz Hour, unquestionably the most popular program of its type on the air in any language. One young man said he had learned English by listening to Conover over the past ten years. To say that Conover is practically a household word in the Soviet Union is no exaggeration. A number of exhibit visitors in Moscow also mentioned VOA’s “Now Music-USA” and “Breakfast Show.” One man said he had been a fan of Phil Erwin6 for about thirteen years. Another listener suggested that the lyrics to selected popular songs be read on “Now Music-USA.” They need not be read at dictation speed, he said, since those interested record the programs and would not have any trouble understanding the words or, at least, having them translated. Another visitor said he had recorded all of the “Words and Their Stories” series. He noted with regret that some of the programs of the series are now being repeated after two years.

Comment Book

Between seventy-five and a hundred persons daily took advantage of the opportunity to write in the “Photography-USA” comment book, located at the exit from the pavilion. The book was constantly surrounded by a crowd of visitors—most of whom spent more time reading the remarks of those who had preceded them than writing their own comments. The comments as a whole reflected the same positive attitude toward the exhibit and America that guides detected in their conversations with Soviet visitors on the floor. Moreover, visitors’ comments in Moscow did not differ significantly from those registered in previous cities. The great bulk—approximately ninety per cent—were brief expressions of appreciation and approval of the “Photography-USA” exhibit and wishes for closer ties between the United States and the Soviet Union. Comment book writers were not, however, totally uncritical.

[Page 327]

Regarding the exhibit itself, there were a number of complaints including among others, complaints that the pavilion was too small; the hours were not convenient for working people; not everyone was able to be photographed by the Polaroid SX–70; brochures on the equipment were not given to specialists; exhibit pictures were positioned too low for easy viewing in a crowded pavilion; many of the pictures had already appeared in America Illustrated; and there was too much technology and too little art. The most frequent criticism concerned the photography on display, on the grounds that they did not depict everyday life in America. Several felt the exhibit was too small. One wrote: “The kasha is good, but the portion is small.”

The comments of several visitors were directed against the neutron bomb and President Carter. “No! to the neutron bomb!” could be found on pages of the exhibit comment book. One comment was addressed to the President: “I hope that this exhibit is meant as a peaceful gesture toward the people of the Soviet Union.” Visitors occasionally engaged in arguments or dialogues in the comment book, responding to each other’s written remarks or writing over those with which they strongly disagreed. For example: “Too bad there were no biographies of Carter handed out today.” “When the neutron bomb goes off,” wrote another visitor, “the biography of Carter won’t help!”

Several visitors complained in the comment book that there were no signs in Luzhniki Park directing visitors to the pavilion, as is usually the case with special events. Others said there was no advertising or promotion of “Photography-USA” except on the Voice of America, even though the opening had in fact been reported by several local and central papers.

Positive comments far outnumbered complaints, and those who wrote in the comment book most frequently singled out for praise, the guides, the space pictures from NASA, pictures of children in the amateur area, the photographs by Hiro, Milton Green, and Jay Maisel, amateur equipment—especially the Polaroid cameras, but also slide projectors and Instamatics,7 and the exhibits exchange program in general. Many visitors used the comment book to express gratitude to the organizers of the exhibit and to invite more American exhibits to Moscow. That “direct people-to-people contact at an exhibit can only improve relations between the U.S. and the USSR” was a major theme of the entries in the comment book in Moscow, as it had been in all other cities visited by “Photography-USA.”

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, Office of Research, Foreign Opinion Notes, 1973–1989, Entry P–118, Box 1, N–11–77. Limited Official Use. The International Communication Agency prepared a final report on the “Photography-USA” exhibit, based on field reporting and interviews of exhibit staffers. The June 1, 1978, research report (N–2–78), entitled “Summary of ‛Photography-USA’ Exhibit Experience in the USSR,” is in the National Archives, RG 306, Office of Research, Foreign Opinion Notes, 1973–1989, Entry P–118, Box 2, N–2–78.
  2. The exhibit traveled to Kiev, Alma Ata, Tbilisi, Ufa, Novosibirsk, and Moscow.
  3. The SX–70, an instant camera first produced by the Polaroid Corporation in 1972, automatically ejected photographs and developed the image.
  4. The “USA–200” exhibit commemorated the American Revolution Bicentennial.
  5. These murders and attempted murders took place in various New York City boroughs during 1976 and 1977.
  6. Reference is to Phil Irwin, who co-hosted the Breakfast Show, a prerecorded program, with Pat Gates.
  7. Reference is to a series of easy to load cameras produced by the Eastman Kodak Company, beginning in the early 1960s.