`We call this the American year,'' says Vitaly Suslov, the deputy director of Leningrad's Hermitage museum. With good reason.
While political relations between the United States and the Soviet Union continue on an uneven path, cultural relations seem to be quickly warming after years of estrangement, as witnessed by Sunday's concert in Moscow by 'emigr'e pianist Vladimir Horowitz, which was televised live in the US.
In coming weeks and months museums in both countries will add to the exchanges.
Starting on May 1 and going through June 15, Impressionist paintings from Soviet museums will be on display at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Later they will move on to Los Angeles County Museum (June 26-Aug. 12) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Aug. 22-Oct.5).
This major tour is the latest in a series of art exchanges under way between American museums and two Soviet museums, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage. And more are planned.
Mr. Suslov, shuffling the papers on his massive wooden desk overlooking the Neva River, unearths telexes from New York and letters from Chicago, San Francisco, and Detroit. Each outlines ambitious plans for art exchanges. If each comes to fruition, curators in both countries will be kept busy for years.
``Masterpieces of Five Centuries'' -- assembled from the collection of American oilman Armand Hammer -- is now drawing crowds at the Hermitage, and it will later move on to other Soviet cities.
French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from the National Gallery in Washington are now on display at Moscow's Pushkin. Museum officials estimate that some 200,000 people will visit the exhibit, which contains 40 paintings, including some by such masters as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet.
The National Gallery exhibition ``was very successful'' during its earlier stay in Leningrad, says Suslov, adding that it was ``a beautiful selection of paintings.''
The exchanges have the enthusiastic backing of both Soviet and American officials.
``Each exhibition,'' says Suslov, ``is an act of goodwill.'' Each is also ``a gesture of trust,'' says Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum.
National Gallery director J. Carter Brown, at the opening of the American exhibit at the Pushkin, observed that ``the fine arts provide a unique avenue for promoting understanding . . . of the hopes and dreams that transcend boundaries.''
Armand Hammer, for his part, says the exchanges are part of ``the legacy of Geneva [site of last year's superpower summit], and the world is already the better for it.'' In fact, the two countries have a fairly extensive history of art exchanges. Scythian gold artifacts from ancient tombs near the Caucasus Mountains have bedazzled Americans, while Soviets have marveled at exhibits on the life and times of Buffalo Bill.
But that history has a large gap in it, spanning the past seven years. In 1979, even as the Soviets were planning to send a ``small Hermitage'' exhibit of 400 art treasures to the United States, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Exchanges were called off as political relations descended into a sustained chill.
But Suslov says museum directors in both countries still felt they ``must play an important role in improving understanding and promoting contacts between nations and peoples,'' so they kept in touch throughout the period. ``Though there was no exchange of exhibits, there was a continuation of warm and friendly exchanges'' between people, he says.
``Both sides had the contacts and the experience'' to resume exchanges quickly, he explains. ``We only needed permission from the two governments.''
That came last November, with the signing of an exchange agreement at the Geneva summit by US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, while President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev looked on. It was perhaps one of the most tangible accomplishments of the summit, and cleared the way for a rapid resumption of art exchanges.
(Mr. Hammer, it should be noted, continued to stage art exchanges using his own resources even while political relations were sour. In 1984 he exhibited a folio of Leonardo da Vinci sketches in Moscow and Leningrad, although there was no formal exchange agreement.)
Shuttling art treasures back and forth between the two countries does involve a ``big risk,'' says Suslov. But he says the risk is justified by the mutual appreciation and understanding that are generated. ``Each exhibition is a smaller or a larger discovery,'' he says, involving either the personal discovery of the techniques and sweep of a particular artist, or a larger discovery -- that of ``new layers of nations and culture. From our point of view,'' he says, ``art should reflect the ideals of the nation.''
And, he adds, ``In this nuclear age, we should look for more contacts.'' Such contacts ``enrich one another.''