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Taking Issue with “After the Fall of the Wall”

Our package on science in Eastern Europe provoked the following reply from Yale Richmond, an expert on the subject:

Elisabeth Pain and Kate Travis in Science Careers (November 6, 2009) are correct in discussing the changes in science that have taken place in Eastern Europe since “The Fall of the Wall.” But the two authors are mistaken when they write that “Research in those countries [the Soviet bloc] was done in near-complete isolation from the international community.”
Using primarily cultural and scientific exchanges, in addition to espionage, the Soviets had a very effective system for learning what scientists in countries of the West were doing. During the 30 years of the U.S.-Soviet Cultural Agreement more than 50,000 Soviet citizens came to the United States on exchange, many of them scientists and engineers, and many thousands more came to countries of Western Europe that had similar agreements. And because the exchanges were reciprocal, U.S. and other Western scientists went to the Soviet Union in exchange. The Soviets were all cleared by the KGB in advance of nomination for their exchange visits, but before their U.S. visas were authorized they were also screened by the U.S. intelligence community to ensure that they would have no access to U.S.-funded defense research, and that the exchanges were mutually beneficial. The watchword was “Is the Soviet scientist going to learn more from us than we will learn from him?”  And they were all “hims,” since no women scientists were nominated by the Soviets.

In our “flagship exchange,” of graduate students and young faculty for a full academic year, we would send real graduate students in language, history, and literature, while the Soviets, in the early years of the exchanges, would send us mainly scientists and engineers who already had their Kandidat degree, more or less equivalent to our PhD. Each U.S.-USSR cultural agreement, renegotiated every 2 or 3 years, also contained a section devoted to exchanges of delegations of scientists in various fields.

In addition to the exchange programs of the State Department, our National Academy of Sciences and Atomic Energy Commission also had exchanges with the Soviet bloc. To give you an idea of the extent of those exchange programs, when martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, we had several hundred Polish scientists stuck in the United States and unwilling to return home. Also, Pain and Travis fail to consider the 11 cooperative agreements in S & T signed with the Soviet Union during the detente years of the 1970s which brought hundreds more Soviet scientists to the United States, and a reciprocal number of Americans to the Soviet Union.
After their return home and their debriefing by science officials, the Soviet scientists who had studied abroad were required to give talks to their colleagues on what they had learned during their foreign visit. As a result of all those exchange programs, Soviet science was anything but isolated from the international community.

For more on this, read my book, Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003).

             – Yale Richmond

(We’ll post the authors’ reply in a separate post. My thanks to Yale Richmond for his thoughtful reply.)