When Josephine Butler tells her friends "the Russians are coming," it strikes fear in their hearts . . . the fear of having to host another group of visiting dancers, or scientists or politicians with little time and resources to prepare.
While the rest of Washington has been preoccupied with the excitement of Mikhail Gorbachev's visit, Butler and her colleagues at the Paul Robeson Friendship Society have been taking a break. The Robeson Society, which Butler founded 11 years ago, receives up to 400 visitors from the Soviet Union each year.
The society is one of 29 groups nationwide making up the National Council on American-Soviet Friendship.
"Somebody out in Oregon or Minneapolis might be begging for a delegation," Butler said, quietly laughing, "but we're overwhelmed by them."
Because many visiting groups pass through Washington even if it is not their ultimate destination, Butler's organization often is asked to plan a reception with the local community. For example, Butler, a longtime Washington activist and founding member of the Statehood Party, arranged for a group of more than 80 local government officials from the Soviet Union who came to Washington for sightseeing and to meet their counterparts in local government here, members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
Both groups were enlightened by their meetings, Butler said. " "They found out that they were doing the same things, at the same levels and that they were all volunteers."
Butler founded the Robeson Society in 1976, the year of Robeson's death, as a memorial to his life as an artist, activist and athlete. The goals of the organization were to educate people about Robeson and to build cultural bridges, with special attention to promoting exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union. Robeson spent much of his life working toward increasing international understanding.
While the paid membership of the society is only about 30 to 40 people, officials of the group say that up to 1,000 people have participated in its activities and consider themselves a part of the organization. As the 90th anniversary of Robeson's birth approaches in April, the Robeson Society is active in England, Ireland and South Africa as well.
In addition to receiving visitors from the Soviet Union, the Robeson Society arranges for Americans to travel abroad. In 1983, the Robeson Society sent Peter Schwartzman, then a 15-year-old Arlington student, to camp in the Soviet Union. At Camp Artek, with 4,000 Soviet students and 1,000 young people from 63 countries, Schwartzman was one of just a dozen Americans.
"I was sort of scared," said Schwartzman, now a freshman studying engineering at Harvey Mudd College in California. "To some extent I was ignorant about what life was like over there," he said. "I learned . . . that the children my age were very much like me and had very much the same desires I had."
In 1985, Imani Countess, then 25, and eight other Washingtonians went to the 12th World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. "Before I left I thought myself to be fairly broad-minded," said Countess, who works for the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy. "But even those of us who consider ourselves broad-minded . . . still carry around the perceptions of there being no sun, KGB agents on every street corner, people that don't smile, long lines and all of those things."
"But when we got there what we found was this incredible outpouring of warmth and respect and admiration."
In Washington, Countess continues to join members of the Robeson Society in welcoming Soviet delegations to the United States. "I always enjoy doing it because it's an opportunity to recapture that moment, that friendship," she said. "It's an experience that has changed my life."
One of the highlights of Butler's work with U.S.-Soviet exchanges was her recent trip down the Volga River, on which she led more than 100 Americans into five ports of call in the Soviet Union. This year Soviet visitors are expected to make a tour down the Mississippi River.
Butler, who has been to the Soviet Union "eight or nine times," said that when there's a lot of interaction between ordinary citizens it has an effect on the political leadership as well. "Our leaders are followers." She said that "the president is turning around because the number of people going to the Soviet Union has increased dramatically."
"The one thing about politicians, they can count numbers really well."