The Incredible American Exhibition In Soviet Moscow

By Nolan Moore on Saturday, November 22, 2014
Kitchen_debate
“There are some instances where you may be ahead of us, for example in the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer space. And there may be instances, for example color television, where we are ahead of you.” —Richard Nixon to Nikita Kruschev, in the “Kitchen Debates”

In A Nutshell

In 1959, the Americans invaded Moscow. Only they weren’t soldiers with guns. They were artists and fashion models, tour guides and salesmen, and even a few futuristic robots. They were part of the American National Exhibition, an expo that attracted three million curious Soviet citizens, all hoping to get a glimpse of what Americans were really like.

The Whole Bushel

When most people think of the Cold War, they remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race, and “duck and cover” drills. In other words, people remember conflict. But amid all those shouting matches and proxy wars, there were moments when the US and the USSR came together and tried to understand one another.

Take the American National Exhibition in Moscow, for example.

In July 1959, 450 American businesses descended on Moscow. Companies like Sears, Kodak, and Macy’s set up shop inside Sokolniki Park, displaying their wares for thousands of curious Russians. It was all part of a cultural exchange program meant to ease tensions and give US and Soviet citizens a glimpse at life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The program started in June 1959 when the Soviets opened their own expo in the New York Coliseum. With $12 million from the Russian government, Soviet exhibitors proudly displayed their music, machinery, and most importantly, their satellites. As the Soviets had launched Sputnik into space just a few years before, the spidery spacecraft probably filled Americans with awe and a little bit of fear.

Of course, you wouldn’t know it by reading the visitor book. Many patriotic guests left barbs like, “I missed seeing your typical Russian home (dump) and your labor camps (slave camps),” and, “Russian music is for the birds. If they’ll take it.” It probably didn’t help international relations when the State Department decided the Red Army couldn’t sing at the expo.

The American Exhibition, on the other hand, was a little more successful.

While the Americans only had $3.5 million to work with (and had to clear 10 acres of forest to build a “city” with roads, plumbing, and power lines), the exhibition left a strong impression on the Russian people. On the first day, over 70,000 guests showed up. In fact, there were so many people, they actually tore up the concrete floors. By the time the expo was over, three million Soviets had passed through the convention hall.

Guests were escorted by one of 75 specially trained guides. Comprised of 27 women and 48 men, the guides were all young and could speak fluent Russian. Their job was to show off the wonders of Americana and answer any questions the Soviets might have. And they had quite a few.

Some were a bit pointed like, “Why is the US surrounding us with military bases?” Guides were allowed to give their own opinion, but of course, they were encouraged to keep things positive. That went double for the four African-American guides who were personally interviewed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to make sure they wouldn’t bad-mouth the good ol’ USA.

Other questions were a bit friendlier like, “Will you marry me?” In fact, one guide did end up marrying a Soviet guest. Of course, some of the guides were secretly CIA agents, instructed to glean as much info as possible.

So what were the guides showing off? Well, Soviets got to check out the newest cars from Ford and General Motors. They were shown works of art by Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. They could watch a fashion show where models wore the latest styles and loudspeakers played rock ‘n’ roll. Guests could watch chefs prepare easy-bake desserts, and they could ask the IBM RAMAC 305 computer a question and get a speedy, print-out answer.

One of the most popular exhibits was the library. In fact, exhibitors had to nail books to the wall to keep the literature-starved Soviets from stealing them. Another hot spot was the theater designed by Buckminster Fuller where guests could watch a film about daily life in the US. And of course, the Pepsi stand did especially well.

Perhaps the craziest exhibits were the RCA/Whirlpool kitchens. Portrayed as a typical American room, the kitchens featured gadgets straight out of a sci-fi movie. There was a Roomba-like vacuum that swept the floors, and there were special machines that washed, dried, and put away dishes, all at the push of a button. But really, the robots were operated by a guy with a remote hiding behind a two-way mirror.

While some Soviets were impressed, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was not. He loudly declared there was no way the average American could afford all the stuff on display. And that’s when Richard Nixon showed up. Vice president at the time, Nixon was escorting Khrushchev through the expo, and the two stopped in front of one of the contested kitchens to debate the merits of communism and capitalism. (This moment was captured in the picture above.) Despite the hostility, both men eventually took the time to enjoy a Pepsi together.

So was the expo a success? Well, in a way, yes. The amazing thing about the National American Exhibition is that it happened at all. Just a few years earlier, neither country would have even considered hosting such an expo. It might have been one small moment, but it allowed Soviets a small window into the West, and let Americans interact peacefully with their foreign foes. Plus people got free soda. Take that, communism.

Show Me The Proof

This Day in History: U.S. visitors to Soviet exhibition in New York express their feelings
Radio Free Europe: Fifty Years Ago, American Exhibition Stunned Soviets in Cold War
Telegraph: When USSR premier Nikita Khrushchev met US vice-president Richard Nixon in 1959
Paleofuture: The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia