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When glasnost came to Middlebury: Participants in groundbreaking student exchange look back

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Posted on September 2, 2018 |
By Nick Garber



TomBeyer8463.jpg
TOM BEYER, STILL a Russian professor at Middlebury College, was sent by college President Olin Robison in 1987 to the Soviet Ministry of Education to sell the Soviets on a student exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Independent photo/Trent Campbell. Below, articles in the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education and other national publications trumpeted a that pact.

First in a two-part series

MIDDLEBURY — In the late 1980s, as Mikhail Gorbachev led the Soviet Union through a series of major political reforms known as glasnost (sometimes translated as “openness”) newspapers across the United States began reporting on a burgeoning diplomatic effort that, if successful, could signal a change in the course of the Cold War.

“Unprecedented,” reported the Associated Press.

A “radical departure,” said The New York Times.

“Far-fetched,” noted the Burlington Free Press.

But unlike most high-profile dealings between the Soviet Union and the United States, this effort to bring the two superpowers closer together did not originate and grow in Moscow or Washington. Instead, it was taking place in Middlebury, Vt. 

Here a team of ambitious educators aimed to take advantage of the Soviet Union’s increasing openness by trying something truly novel: persuading the Soviets to send dozens of college students to the United States, for a year of unsupervised study at American liberal arts colleges.

To the surprise of many, that effort would eventually succeed, after being spearheaded by administrators from Middlebury College. The American Collegiate Consortium for East-West Cultural and Academic Exchange, based at the college, pulled off what had until then been unthinkable, as undergraduates from across the Soviet Union’s 15 republics came to America without chaperones, living and studying freely at institutions across the United States.

“It is the single most important thing we can do with the Soviets,” Olin Robison, the Middlebury College president who dreamed up the program, told the Times. “It’s even more important than arms control, which will come anyway. It involves their children. It’s the most daring expression of glasnost, because it tests their self-confidence.”

Thirty years ago, in August 1988, the first 52 Soviet students arrived in Middlebury for an orientation to American life, met by thrilled administrators and extensive media coverage. 

For this article, college employees involved in the consortium and Soviet students who made the strange journey to America reflected on the program, three decades after that first student delegation set foot in Addison County.

‘A NEW WONDERFUL SOMETHING’

The exchange took shape during a decade in which Cold War tensions remained high, punctuated by President Ronald Reagan’s bellicose rhetoric toward the Soviet Union.

“This was at the time when Reagan was making ominous noises about an arms race and an evil empire,” recalled Kate Brown, now a history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who worked as an executive assistant for the consortium. “It was scary.”

But Middlebury had its own specialist in-house, with a decidedly warmer attitude toward the Soviets. Robison, the college’s president since 1975, had previously served in the U.S. State Department and led diplomatic missions to the Soviet Union for multiple U.S. presidents.

“Olin was oftentimes used for connecting to the Soviets” during the Reagan Era, explained Tom Beyer, a Russian professor at Middlebury who helped set up the consortium. A trained Baptist minister, Robison was often dispatched to the USSR to deal with religious matters, and developed extensive contacts there.

“He was sort of a backchannel person — a Democrat under a Republican presidency who had the ear of people in the Soviet Union,” Beyer, who still teaches Russian at the college, recalled recently.

An undergraduate exchange was the brainchild of Robison, who is in poor health and could not be reached for this story. During one conversation with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Robison brought up the concept. The ambassador’s surprisingly positive reaction got the ball rolling on Middlebury’s side.

In the spring of 1987, Robison dispatched Beyer to the Soviet Ministry of Education, where he presented the idea, along with brochures from several American liberal arts colleges.

“But this somehow confused the Russians, who associated American education with major, leading, graduate institutions — Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton,” Beyer said. “Here we were touting Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Amherst, Bates, Colby — something that wasn’t on the radar of our Soviet colleagues. I left the meeting understanding how confused they were, but hopeful nonetheless.”

KATE BROWN, NOW a history professor in Maryland, traveled to Moscow in 1987 and 1988 while working with the Middlebury-led consortium that wanted to do a student exchange with the Soviet Union.

Photo by Annette Hornischer

Things picked up steam once Robison enlisted Raymond Benson, the cultural attaché at the American embassy in Moscow, who joined the Consortium as director later that year after retiring from the U.S. State Department. 

Through the summer and fall of 1987, the Middlebury delegation traveled to Moscow to navigate the dense Soviet bureaucracy. 

“We dealt with the Soviet Ministry of Education — a slow-moving, inefficient circle of guys that barely had a fax machine to communicate,” recalled Brown, who worked as Benson’s assistant in Moscow. “We slowly figured out how to bridge this divide.”

Between the negotiations, Benson, a seasoned diplomat who passed away in Middlebury last November, gave the 21-year-old Brown a taste of Russian life.

“We’d go to Moscow and Ray would hit the phone in the hotel, and he’d call up opera singers, ballet dancers, everyone he knew,” she remembered. “We’d go to the opera and then we’d go to dinner with the ballet dancers afterward.”

“It was a seat-of-the-pants time, with lots of hope,” she said. “We were on the horizon for a new wonderful something that could happen after we stopped being warlike.”

The negotiations culminated in March 1988, when a delegation of Soviet officials traveled to Middlebury to sign off on the agreement: 52 Soviet students would arrive in Middlebury that August for a month-long orientation, before spreading across the United States for a year’s study at the consortium’s 24 institutions. American students would begin arriving in the Soviet Union the following year.

“The mood in Old Chapel was one of celebration,” reported The Middlebury Campus newspaper from the ceremony. In the pages of the Independent, Mikhail Sleptsov, an official from the Soviet Ministry of Higher Education, hailed the consortium as a major step forward.

“This would allow students to get a real picture of life in each other’s country,” he said. “It will help take down psychological barriers which have prevented agreement even in specialist areas for so long.”

Following the signatures, Robison raised a champagne toast to “goodwill and cooperation,” and to lasting peace between the two nations.

“It was absolutely groundbreaking,” Beyer remembered.

Click here to read Part II, in which Soviet students who studied here reflect on their experiences, and discuss how their time in the United States changed their lives over the following 30 years.

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