It is hard for those who did not live during the Cold War to imagine the intensity of the mistrust and fear engendered by that particularly sombre phase of human history. Young Westerners were taught that the USSR and its allies were out to dominate the world through subversion and such violent episodes as the Korean War (will we one day know how that clash really started?) and – mirror-fashion – Easterners learned that
“capitalist/imperialist war mongers” sought to destroy their countries.
I was born and grew up in the eastern U.S.A. and one of my earliest media memories is watching, aged about 12, live broadcasts of the U.N. Security Council during which Soviet Foreign Minister Andreï Vishinskii (‘Mr. Nyet’) repeatedly vetoed measures supported by a majority of its other Members. The summer I was 15, my compatriots Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died on the electric chair for having “betrayed atomic secrets” to the Soviets (will we ever know if they did?). American Boy Scouts were actively encouraged to denounce “red” activities they might come across.
Luckily, my parents had strong internationalist leanings and were, for example, founder members of the local chapter of the U.S. United Nations Association. So I grew up in a context that didn’t equate Russians or Communists with the devil. The secondary boarding school I attended was similarly open-minded – the Russian language was even taught there! – and certain teachers (hardly Communists since at least some were Quakers) were badgered by the witch-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy. Self-reliance and service were part of the school’s curriculum and it was only natural that, when I moved on to Harvard College (located near Boston), I contacted the American Friends (Quakers) Service Committee and started weekend workcamping in Roxbury, a Boston Black/Hispanic ghetto.
SCI weekend workcamping in Paris
I came to Paris in 1958 for my third university year, and found the educational system intellectually challenging – but also rather arid, and seeming to operate in isolation from reality. And what a reality it was with the Algerian War in full swing! One evening, after Sorbonne choir rehearsal, I actually saw an Algerian shot dead just next to St-Séverin Church.
What could I, personally, do to help relieve the harshness of the time? No, the miniscule Paris Quaker community didn’t organise workcamps, but it did direct me to SCI’s French Branch. And my weekend workcamping resumed.
The projects could be physically demanding: get to an address at, say, the Bois Colombes suburb by 8.30 a.m. Sunday; move all the furniture and other objects of an impecunious widow into the stairway (often leaving the beneficiary somewhat aghast at seeing her lifetime’s possessions thus disturbed); wash down grimy walls and ceiling; apply paint to the living room; swallow a quick bite to eat at midday; paint the bedroom and bathroom (and fix defective plumbing into the bargain); move furniture and possessions back to their place; rush back to my pension de famille just in time for supper. But there was also the undeniable satisfaction of having done something immediately and concretely useful.
Many of my French contemporaries at the Sorbonne scoffed at what they deemed the naivety of such hands-on initiatives. “Sure, there are poor and lonely old people whose apartments need repainting. But that’s why we pay taxes!” they argued airily. “You volunteers are just enabling the State to shirk its responsibilities!”
That didn’t discourage us. In retrospect, and to a certain degree, I think we unconsciously announced the youth/student uprising ten years later, in the spring of 1968. A main difference was that our protest was expressed, in accordance with SCI’s motto, with deeds, not words.
One thing led to another and I spent the following year as a subsistence volunteer at the UNESCO-based Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Workcamps (later ‘for International Voluntary Service’ – CCIVS) and got in more workcamping – France, England. There was much discussion among Committee member organisations about the appropriateness – even real possibility – of promoting volunteer exchanges
between the Cold War blocs. Some bodies argued that sending Western volunteers to the East was tantamount to exposing innocent youngsters to propaganda and brainwashing.
Having been co-responsible for what was probably the first East-West service project (converting a Warsaw bombsite into a playground, 1955), SCI obviously didn’t share this reticence. And it spearheaded efforts – generally in cooperation with the Budapest-based World Federation of Democratic Youth – to expand East-West volunteer exchanges: Polish and French workcamps in 1956, and a first one in the USSR, in 1958.
During the summer of 1960, I joined the SCI team (led by Henri Majewski) that took part in the second USSR camp to build the foundations of a secondary school at a collective farm in the central Ukraine. It was my first East-West project, and a real eye-opener! Although convinced enough of the project’s value to have signed on for it, at least some of us Civilists felt, at the outset, a bit like Columbus’s sailors venturing into uncharted seas. “What,” we wondered with somewhat giddy apprehension, “if the world turns out to be flat after all and we sail off the edge?”
The Soviet and other volunteers, totalling about 80, gathered in Moscow for an overnight train trip to the Ukraine. At first there were rather awkward ‘getting-to-know-you’ conversations in the different sleeping compartments assigned to us. “So you’re an American learning Russian, are you?” one Soviet asked me, a mite suspiciously (read “Aha – you’re probably CIA”). Another Westerner countered to a language student from Leningrad: “So you are specialising in African studies?” (read: “Hmm, probably to spearhead Communist penetration of newly independent countries in that continent.”)
A Russian team leader tried to break the ice by giving a somewhat formal speech about promoting mutual understanding among young people from different political blocs. I remember thinking “Yeah, he must be a Party spy, or perhaps even from the KGB”. His speech having been met by stony silence, he laughed and said: “OK, look here, everybody, let’s get teamwork moving right now by, err, working together to meet a challenge!”
The ‘challenge’ was to see how many of us we could fit into a single train compartment designed for eight people. We reached 19! The ensuing hilarity definitely thawed the ice and we broke into song. At that point, a train conductor arrived to see what all the ruckus was about. He scolded the Russian team leader so scathingly that I decided our companion certainly couldn’t be a Party spy or KGB agent. At the camp, he turned out to be my convivial tent mate. On the collective farm, we worked hard as a united team and met our construction targets. And, frankly, had a good time into the bargain: the world was round after all!
That autumn, I was surprised to open an issue of the popular American weekly magazine Saturday Evening Post and find a half-page photo of our workcamp, accompanied by a lead article presenting the project as a vile Soviet plot to beguile unsuspecting youth from non-Communist countries. That was just as slanted and ill-intentioned Cold War journalism as contemporary Soviet media claims that President Kennedy’s recentlylaunched Peace Corps used volunteers to promote neo-colonial capitalist infiltration of the Third World.
In fact, the evenings during our Ukrainian project were devoted alternately to Soviet and Western presentations, followed by relatively frank discussions among the campers. To be sure, the Soviet ‘side’ touted such accomplishments as the Virgin Lands rural development scheme; but nobody prevented Westerners from describing such ‘taboo’ themes as multi-party democracy and Christian pacifism.
I later participated in East-West volunteer projects (not all via SCI – but certainly in a Civilist spirit) in Czechoslovakia, the USSR (Russian Federation, and Kabardino-Balkarian Autonomous Republic) and the German Democratic Republic. East-West workcamping was beginning to bloom. In 1966 alone, 100 Czechoslovak young people participated in SCI/IVS projects in Britain. At about the same time, Polish volunteers joined a long-term SCI volunteer project in Algeria that one of them termed ‘a laboratory of co-existence.’
To be sure, SCI’s and other bodies’ East-West volunteer exchanges did not single-handedly stop the Cold War. But I think we proved that mutual distrust (not to forget reciprocal ignorance) was not inevitable. Even if only for project participants, and the relations and friends to whom they described their adventures and in the words of SCI’s then (1966) European Secretary Janet Goodricke, there emerged “ground for hoping that international rust has at last begun to get the better of the Iron Curtain.”
The personal impact.
I doubt that most human beings are radically shaped by a single kind of experience. It is living through, and mulling over, different if convergent clusters of experiences that shape one’s character, and life goals and commitments.
In my case, SCI workcamping and other volunteering stints were definitely a cluster of experiences that oriented me. It was natural, for example, that I did my two years’ conscientious objector civilian service at the CCIVS, where with other, like-minded (and also expenses-only) colleagues we stressed two main priorities: development of East-West exchanges and promotion of and leader training for Third World volunteering.
That in turn led me to join UNESCO where, during a varied career that lasted some 30 years, I strove continuously to favour deeds more than words i.e., innovative practical results more than time-worn declarations of good intentions – this, in a context humorously described by a woman delegate to one of the organisation’s biennial General Conferences, as ‘constant textual harassment.’
And ‘textual harassment’ abounded. One example: in the second half of the 1960s, we obtained a General Conference green light and funding to mobilise international (East-West, we hoped) teams of long-term volunteers for UNESCO field projects in developing countries. Some project directors were enthusiastic about the idea and, through CCIVIS, we obtained suitable young candidates. But the venture stumbled and ultimately failed when the Legal Office vetoed their draft contracts, arguing that the sacrosanct UNESCO Manual made no provision for such an activity!
When I retired from UNESCO in 1998, one country’s Ambassador to the organisation laughingly informed me that a very-high-ranking UNESCO official had disdainfully told him (not realising we were friends): “Ah yes, Gillette, a hard worker but too concerned with down-to-earth details, like a Boy Scout’s ‘good turns’.” That was meant as something of an insult; I took it as a compliment!