Iowa citizen diplomacy lives on, speakers tell Khrushchev conference


The Des Moines Register
By William Petroski – [email protected]
August 28, 2009

The legacy of citizen diplomacy that led farmer Roswell Garst to invite Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to Iowa 50 years ago lives on in many ways, speakers told an international conference in Des Moines today.

Panelists recalled Khrushchev’s Cold War visit to Garst’s Coon Rapids farm in September 1959, and talked about the state’s commitment to international understanding in the decades since.

About 30 Russian visitors, including Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, are attending the four-day “Khrushchev in Iowa” conference, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the historic Iowa visit in which the head of the world’s largest Communist superpower was welcomed by a capitalist farmer in the heartland of America.

Conference events began Thursday and will include an agricultural progress festival starting at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Coon Rapids. The conference concludes Sunday night with an Iowa-Russia Sister States symposium and barbeque at Camp Dodge in Johnston. One of the highlights will be a banquet tonight at the Hotel Fort Des Moines where guests will dine on the same menu of prime rib, potatoes, pea soup and peach pie that guests enjoyed in 1959.

One of the keys to the Iowa-Russia relationship since 1959 was the work of the late Coon Rapids banker John Chrystal, who became an adviser to Russians and made many visits to the former Soviet Union, said Valentina Fominykh of Des Moines, a native of the former Soviet Union.

She called Chrystal, who died in 2000, a bridge between the U.S and Russia. Chrystal befriended former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and many other Russian leaders

“You can build a bridge, but the task is to maintain it and keep it healthy," Fominykh said.

Chuck Montgomery, a member of the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy in Des Moines, said Iowa has a “rich heritage” of citizen efforts towards international understanding.

He noted that Herbert Hoover helped to feed the hungry after World War I, saving the lives of millions in Europe and Russia. Iowa is also the home of Norman Borlaug, who dedicated his life to feeding people, he noted.

Montgomery ticked off a long list of others, including former Gov. Bob Ray, who welcomed thousands of Southeast Asians to Iowa after the Vietnam War, as well as Roswell Garst and those involved in the Iowa Council for International Understanding, the World Food Prize, the Stanley Foundation , and many others.
Montgomery said Iowa should increase its emphasis on citizen diplomacy and he expects to see growth in those efforts over the next 18 to 24 months.

“Please stay tuned,” Montgomery said.

Kim Heidemann, deputy director of the Iowa Sister States program, recalled a wonderful friendship between Iowa and Japan that developed after typhoons in 1960 struck Yamanashi Prefecture.

Iowa conducted a “hog lift” that resulted in 35 Iowa hogs being flown across the ocean to Japan as a method of providing help after the natural disaster, Heidemann said. That act of kindness, which was prompted by an Iowa serviceman who had served in Japan after World War II, was unexpected and has never been forgotten by the Japanese, she added.

Iowa volunteers are a lifeline to international programs by hosting foreign visitors, Heidemann said. People give up their time and money and are devoted to the needs of foreign visitors for up to a week at a time.

Iowa citizens “are our best ambassadors,” Heidemann said.

Rachel Garst of Coon Rapids is the granddaughter of Roswell Garst and the co-chair of this week’s conference, which is sponsored by a long list of groups and individuals. She recalled the tense times in the late 1950s when the U.S. and Soviet Union were separated by the Iron Curtain. She said Roswell Garst helped open a breach in that wall.

She read from memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, who recalled Roswell Garst as a individual of great respect, and who wanted to pass on his knowledge for another economy, even a socialist one. Khrushchev described Garst as a master craftsman and said that even though he was wealthy, he didn’t sit around all day simply eating chocolates, she said.

Rachel Garst said that Khrushchev watched her grandfather intently and used his relationship with Garst to signal to the Soviet people that it was OK to learn from the Iowa farmer. “He just wanted them to learn how to grow corn,” she said of her grandfather.

Rachel Garst said her own life story was very much influenced by her grandfather and John Chrystal. She spent 22 years living in Guatemala, before returning to Coon Rapids, helping the Guatemalan people in various ways and adopting three children.

She said Coon Rapids has 1,300 people and has a goal of 5 percent diversity in its population. Each year there is a welcoming picnic for immigrant workers, which she described as testimony to her grandfather.

“The impacts of Roswell Garst and John Chrystal have certainly been seen in my life,” she said.

Leave a Reply