When Soviet teen-agers praise an American president who once described the U.S.S.R. as an “evil empire” and a young San Diegan--a bona fide capitalist--trades Brezhnev jokes with an aspiring journalist from Moscow, you can be sure of one thing:
The Cold War is losing its chill.
The unflattering stereotypes and numerous misconceptions that brewed in both nations after World War II fostered distrust between Americans and Soviets for decades and accelerated fears of a nuclear holocaust.
But such hostility has melted away in recent years as successful superpower summit meetings and reforms undertaken by Soviet leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev have paved the way for open discussions between the two nations.
That warming trend has been clearly exhibited in San Diego, where students from La Jolla and San Diego High Schools are serving as hosts to 31 visiting Soviet students participating in a unique educational and cultural exchange program.
It’s Soviets’ Turn to Sample U.S.
Last summer, about 20 students from the two San Diego high schools visited Moscow. During their three-week trip to the Soviet Union, the students took part in educational camps and stayed with Soviet families. Now, it is the Soviets’ turn to experience American culture.
“We fell in love with the Americans when they came to visit us,” said Ivan Scheulov, 17. “We wanted to come back and see them again. We want to feel the American way of life. We want to know what they are eating, how they spend their leisure time.”
The young Soviet ambassadors--many of them from high schools No. 23 and No. 45 in Moscow--were eager to learn about their American counterparts.
Hoping to promote an exchange of information, Soviet students initiated conversations with their American hosts and spoke frankly about superpower relations, noted differences in life styles and gave their opinions of political leaders as they were led on a whirlwind tour of downtown San Diego by the Central City Assn., the private downtown commerce group.
“We have great respect for Ronald Reagan,” said Andrey Sreshnikoff, 16. “It is because of his efforts that student exchanges like these are possible.”
Andrey and his friends praised Reagan primarily for his participation in superpower summit meetings. Similarly, they held their nation’s leader in high regard.
“Gorbachev is the leader of the young people,” Ivan said. “Everybody up to 50 is a supporter of Gorbachev. The older people, the conservatives, are the ones who oppose his reforms.”
Andrey and Ivan, who are both planning to pursue careers in journalism, expressed their support for Gorbachev’s approach to international relations-- glasnost , the policy of openness--rather than the Cold War practice of spreading anti-American propaganda.
“For many years, we listened to the wrong people,” Andrey said. “The leaders of our country after World War II made us believe there was an American monster. But there is no such thing. We were fighting an enemy that did not exist.”
The Role of Women
Errors of the past that soured U.S.-Soviet relations may well be avoided with the help of sound female leadership, according to 14-year-old Maryanne Nezhivaya, who hopes to enter the political arena one day.
She said sexual discrimination is not an overt problem in the U.S.S.R. but added that there are Soviet men who believe a woman’s place is at home.
“Men reign supreme everywhere,” Maryanne said sarcastically. “In the Soviet Union, some men think that a woman will get married and settle down. They feel women will not work as hard. But as long as you have a good brain and do well in school, you can do what you want.”
Even though the Soviet students expected to receive a warm reception from their American hosts, they appeared overwhelmed by the hospitality shown by San Diegans. Practically everywhere the Soviet students visited, they were showered with souvenirs.
“In the Soviet Union, we are told that Americans are selfish . . . they care only about themselves,” said 17-year-old Volodya Bernstein, who carried bags of San Diego trinkets. “But everybody here is so friendly. That is a stereotype. When I go home, I will explain to everybody that it is a lie.”
The exchange program has proved just as enlightening for the American students. Even a bona fide capitalist like Matt Starr, 18, a San Diego High senior who plans to pursue a career in real-estate development, returned from Moscow with a new impression of the Soviet Union.
“We seem to think that everybody in the Soviet Union is brainwashed by the government,” he said. “That’s not true at all.
“And when I was over there, I didn’t see major malcontent. They didn’t want to leave their country. They are as proud of their country as we are of ours. I think that’s the whole point of this program . . . to get a better understanding of each other, not to prove who is better.”