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Cultural exchanges, covert meetings made space for peace between U.S. and U.S.S.R.

Laurama, second from right, with Pitsunda seminar participants in 1970. Photo: AFSC

From the archives

It was an unusual setting for an unusual conversation on disarmament and the arms race in the midst of the Cold War.

Twenty Soviets and Americans—mid-career professors, journalists, and leaders—hashing out their common concerns for the world’s future and their shared role in securing control of nuclear and other arms. Their meeting ground: the high-rises of Pitsunda, Georgia, on the coast of the Black Sea, amid vacationing blue-collar Soviet workers.

Over seven days in December 1970, as they covered everything from environmental disruption and the Middle East to space communications and relations between their two countries, they became colleagues despite the social divide.

They became friends during the breaks before dinner and on afternoon trips to nearby farms and factories.

This was the fourth “reciprocal seminar” organized by AFSC and the Institute of Soviet-American Relations, based in Moscow, following the first held in Sochi in 1966. 

Group at first Endicott seminar.

Group at first Endicott seminar. Laurama is in the middle
of the second row. Photo: AFSC Archives

AFSC organized ways for Soviets and Americans to form these bonds throughout the Cold War. The format and faces changed with the decades, but each gathering opened hearts and minds, leaving deep impressions on the representatives as they returned home to their lives in different worlds, now a bit less isolated from one another.

One American said after the seminar in Pitsunda that they had gotten to know the 10 Russian participants “as people, and well enough so that none of us will ever forget them, or think of Russia without it being somehow personified by them.”

Looking for peace in the midst of war

For 25 years, the woman behind these meetings was Laurama Page Pixton. Handling logistics as the coordinator of AFSC’s East-West desk, she was tasked with setting a scene conducive to the kind of open dialogue that tore away the masks of nationality and made space for diplomats to relate to each other on a human level. 

“She was a big believer in person-to-person relationships leading to diplomatic relations—that dialogues will lead to human understanding,” says Sally Harrison, who got to know Laurama in AFSC’s Philadelphia headquarters, where their offices were side-by-side. 

It was not easy work, but Laurama was a natural fit—humorous and likable, she made a good impression on Russians at the embassy, and over the years formed a close relationship with the ambassador.

“She had this open personality that made it effective,” says her younger brother, Ed Page. “She was naturally an outgoing and persuasive person.”

Laurama found her passion for peace-building as a student at Swarthmore College, where she first encountered and considered the Quaker testimonies. She graduated in 1944. Her brother says that among Quakers, “the whole system was looking for peace in the midst of war,” and Laurama was no exception. 

With husband John in Morocco

In Morocco, Laurama and John Pixton present a shipment
from AFSC to Lt. Cmdr. Philip Talbott and
Cmdr. Donald L. Gex. Taken in 1961.
Photo: AFSC Archives

She turned her eye toward international understanding. She spent a year working on a ranch in Mexico, directing recreational activities for Polish refugees during World War II. Later, Laurama, her husband John Pixton, and their children lived for a year in Morocco, where they carried out AFSC service with Algerian refugees. Laurama taught sewing and John taught carpentry.

A few years later, in 1964, she joined the AFSC’s International Division and began her work administering Soviet-American exchanges. In addition to the reciprocal exchanges of academics and journalists, she coordinated visits of disarmament specialists, and eventually assumed responsibility for coordinating annual work and study projects for young leaders, known as the Tripartite Dialogues.

Relating as people, not categories

Tripartite Dialogues had originally been held as seminar work camps, bringing together 20-somethings from the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the United States. But later on, the organizers experimented with a new travel seminar format, allowing the group to visit a cross-section of their host society. 

The 1973 cohort met in the United States, spending a week in formal and informal discussion at the Quaker study center Pendle Hill, outside Philadelphia; a week in homestays with families in Detroit, Akron, or Louisville; and a few days visiting Washington, D.C., and New York City, with meetings at the State Department, the Pentagon, the UN, and the Quaker United Nations Office. Among the group were teachers, secretaries, social workers, and graduate students.

Witnessing 20 young people divided by the Iron Curtain grow close over the course of three weeks, Laurama reflected on what it all meant:

“I know of no other project which allows Soviet and Western young people such an opportunity to be together in a relaxed and informal setting for such a long period of time, getting to know each other so well, and learning so much from each other. [These are] young people who need to understand each other, to work together for a better and more peaceful world, young people who will be leaders of the future.”

The seminar included much-needed time and space for people to challenge their peers’ and their own ideas without feeling threatened or pressured to maintain the party line.

The human spirit inevitably broke through every time. One American who participated in the 1973 seminar reflected, “It may be belaboring the obvious, but at different times it was absolutely exhilarating for me to realize that we are all moved much by the same things: the Soviet and English people are just as interested in life and living as we are.”

The payoff of quiet diplomacy

Three decades of this quietly practiced and persistent diplomacy did add up to what Laurama had predicted when, in 1973, she wrote, “One needs to have faith that the cumulative number of participants over the 11-year span of Tripartite projects will have a cumulative effect.” As professors, scientists, journalists, and political analysts, participants went on to influence foreign relations.

What she didn’t know when she wrote those words was that nearly a quarter of a century later, the man who served as Gorbachev’s foreign affairs spokesperson would publicly acknowledge her role in laying the groundwork for peace, for the impact she had on his own thinking.

According to Laurama’s brother Ed, Gennadi Gerasimov (1930-2010) was among a small group of diplomats who gathered in meetings organized covertly by Laurama in the mid-1980s. It was Gerasimov who said in 1989 that each Eastern European country is “now on its own,” as Gorbachev declined to intervene as popular unrest spread.

At a private-sector speaking engagement in Philadelphia in the late 1990s, Gerasimov asked Laurama to stand up as he said, “I want to recognize someone in this room, without whom I would not be here.”

Laurama passed away in 2006, but her memory lives on in the legacy of AFSC’s East-West desk, her allies in the Soviet Union, and their impact on countless Americans, Britons, and Russians.

Quakers working for peace today tap into the power of person-to-person cultural exchanges for revealing the shared stake people have in a peaceful future despite the conflict at hand.

In order to create peaceful ends through peaceful means, the shared security concept calls for the U.S. diplomatic presence in other countries to create security through building trust and friendship, not walls and fortresses. Revisiting stories of the past gives a reminder that an approach we see as possible in today’s world is more than a proposition—it’s a proven path to breaking the isolation that enables war. 

To dig deeper into the work of AFSC during this time, contact the AFSC Archives at

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