Sunday, August 9, 2009

Jim Matisoff -- "...The Richest, Most Intense, Most Passionate Weeks of My Life"

Jim Matisoff's tenure as a guide at the American exhibition ended sooner than that of others, but in a way his story is illustrative of one of the more bizarre aspects of the Cold War -- namely, the strict barriers erected on both sides against close friendships and romantic liaisons across the ideological trenches. The American guides had been warned repeatedly to avoid developing personal relationships with Soviet citizens, who might simply be probing for individual weaknesses, and looking for an opportunity to create "provocations" to embarrass the American visitors. It is clear that Jim was only one of a significant number of guides who tested the limits to fraternization, and who forged friendships -- occasionally more -- with young people they met that summer. Jim, who was all of twenty years old, was probably less judicious than most of his fellow guides, and before long got himself in trouble.

Only three weeks after the exhibition's opening, Jim was caught, as he himself describes it, "in flagrante delicto" by Soviet militia in an escapade with an Armenian girl in the Sokolniki woods. His penalty for this indiscretion was a one-way plane ticket out of the USSR, since exhibition managers and the U.S. Embassy feared that the Soviet media might try to make a cause celebre out of Jim's ill-starred assignation in the woods.

Jim next found himself in Paris on a fellowship, where he wrote a multi-part series for a French newspaper about the Sokolniki exhibition. At the same time, he wrote a 300-page memoir in French which contains a great deal of interesting information about the recruitment, training and preparation of the guides, and which conveys very well the heady excitement of the opening days of the exhibition. He even recounts his awkward encounters with the Soviet opposite sex -- a facet of his youthful memoir which may or may not hold the same interest to today's reader.

Jim went on to forge a successful scholarly career in linguistics at UC Berkeley, where he became a leading expert on Southeast Asian languages. We were delighted to have him join us last month for the "Face-off to Facebook" conference, even if he wryly described himself as "the Black Sheep" of the exhibition.

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