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President Richard M. Nixon shakes hands with Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow in this May 1972 file photo. During the “Moscow Summit,” as it was known, Nixon signed a treaty agreeing to cooperative exchanges between the U.S. and the Soviets in the field of environmental protection. That treaty led to a group of Soviet urban planners visiting Columbia in April 1973.
President Richard M. Nixon shakes hands with Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow in this May 1972 file photo. During the “Moscow Summit,” as it was known, Nixon signed a treaty agreeing to cooperative exchanges between the U.S. and the Soviets in the field of environmental protection. That treaty led to a group of Soviet urban planners visiting Columbia in April 1973. (/AP Photo)

In the Cold War's detente, the thawing of relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Columbia provided a degree of warmth.

On April 25, 1973, a group of Soviet urban planners visited Columbia as part of a tour of new towns in the United States, in order to exchange expertise on environmental issues.

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The trip stemmed from the "Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Protection," a 1972 treaty signed by president Richard Nixon and a Soviet official during a landmark summit in Moscow. The treaty called for professional exchanges between environmental experts. The Columbia visitors' main focus, the Evening Sun reported, was urban design.

"Everybody was polite," recalled Mathias DeVito, who was Rouse Co.president and accompanied the Russian visitors on their tour of Columbia. "Nobody showed any anxiety or anger, or even notice of the fact that they had the bomb, we had the bomb, and all of that. It was very, very absent. They were all very impressed with America in terms of what they saw, and [with] Columbia."

Rosemary Wakeman, a history professor at Fordham University who wrote a book on the "new town movement," said that new towns like Columbia provided a unique bridge between Americans and Russians in the 1970s, allowing them to "set aside concerns about the Cold War."

The trip, in which non-political experts cooperated on technical issues, was part of a movement that some believed would "save the world from politics," Wakeman said.

"There was a shared optimism and shared belief in the value of infrastructure," said Wakeman. "There was a vision of this that was shared internationally."

Aleksei Kudryavtsev, chairman of the visiting Urban Environment study group, noted during his visit the striking similarity between the planned new city of Columbia and the new cities that the Soviet Union was building as a part of its policy to "decentralize the population," the Sun reported.

The biggest difference, Kudryavtsev said, was that unlike Columbia's planners, who had to lobby the county for permission to build, Russian new towns were built by the government. The Sun noted that the Russian visitors were fascinated by the capitalist system in which Columbia had been built, asking DeVito about the city's finances and profit margins.

Asked when Columbia would turn a profit, DeVito answered that they expected to make a profit by 1980, the Washington Post reported. "That's not a bad return — from a commercial point of view," Kudryavtsev replied.

Most Soviets at the time were "cynical about the capacity of private capitalism to provide solutions," Wakeman said.

But the Soviets visiting the U.S., Wakeman said, would have paid close attention to the most well-known aspect of American infrastructure projects at the time — efficiency.

A walking tour of Columbia villages was canceled due to rain, according to the Washington Post. But the Soviets took a bus tour of Columbia, and walked through The Mall in Columbia.

"The visitors experienced the total American urban environment. They were transported on a van-like bus that stalled frequently," the New York Times wrote drily, going on to describe the van avoiding a wrong-way driver.

The Russians, however, were "overwhelmed with the mall," said DeVito. "They said that there was nothing like that in Russia."

Kudryavtsev pointed out the contrast between Columbia's focus on "beauty, comfort and services" and Soviet new towns, saying he was pushing for those to take a more prominent place in Russian design, the Sun reported.

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When DeVito asked if Kudryavtsev would like to have a town and a shopping mall in the style of Columbia in the Soviet Union, the Post reported, the Russian visitor was more ambivalent.

Smiling, he declined to answer, instead asking DeVito if he felt "that as a result of this you have done a great service to humanity?"

"That would be an exaggeration," DeVito replied, "but we've made life better."



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