THE recent agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union that brought a magnificent collection of Impressionist paintings from the Soviets' Hermitage gallery in Leningrad and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow to the Metropolitan Museum in New York represents the most important cultural exchange in a decade. In an era when the superpowers cannot seem to agree on anything -- whether to suspend underground nuclear testing, what to do about ``star wars,'' and ultimately, whether arms control is useful -- the ``Impressionists' accord'' serves as a refreshing exception to the general lack of progress in bilateral relations.
In addition, this cultural transaction was much more than a triumph of art over politics; it was the result of several years of delicate diplomacy, with lessons for anyone trying to strike a bargain with Moscow.
While art exchanges, of course, have no bearing on national security, their importance, particularly to the USSR, should not be underestimated.
The Soviets take such matters very seriously and apply the same tenacity in negotiations over 19th-century paintings that US arms controllers have come to expect in discussions about nuclear-tipped missiles.
One art executive involved in talks with the Soviets remarked: ``When you are dealing with the Russians, you are dealing with people who know what they are doing. I don't know where these people were trained, but I do know that if there were Olympic prizes for museum skills, these people would come up with gold medals.''
The negotiations began in earnest during 1983 and pitted the best in the US against theirs: The terms of the deal were hammered out in large part by J. Carter Brown, the director of the National Gallery, and A. G. Kostenevich of the Hermitage, but at various stages engaged the efforts of Secretary of State George Shultz; the ambassador to the Soviet Union, Arthur Hartman; and the indomitable Armand Hammer, who has done business with the Soviets ever since the time of Lenin.
The museum establishments in both countries were determined to continue negotiations even when official relations hit a record low after the Soviet shootdown of the Korean airliner. Each side had the foresight to work out the details of an exchange in anticipation of a new cultural agreement. When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev initialed the accord last November, all that was left was to agree on the exact composition and timing of the exchange.
From the very outset of the negotiations, the Soviets insisted on reciprocity, or as Mr. Brown explained, ``They always required symmetry.''
Against all odds, Brown managed to acquire Matisse's imposing ``Harmony in Red,'' originally from the czarist Russian collection of Sergei I. Shchukin, while the Soviets had their sights set on Manet's ``Dead Toreador.''
The American curators also acquired Matisse's ``Conversation,'' never before exhibited in the US, and the Soviets carefully and with great patience selected a number of Courbets, C'ezannes, Degas, and Pissarros, among others, from the National Gallery.
In the end, 40 paintings from the USSR were sent to tour three US galleries in exchange for 40 pictures from the United States. The Soviet collection was seen by huge crowds in Washington and Los Angeles before arriving in New York, and Russians this past winter often waited for hours in subzero temperatures to view the Impressionist masters from the United States.
A deputy director of the National Gallery summed it up: ``Think for a moment of the mutual trust that has taken place: our treasures there, their treasures here. They have sent the equivalent of hard currency -- millions of dollars' worth of pictures -- right into our bastion of evil.''
During the d'etente of the 1970s it was thought that cultural exchanges involving paintings, students, and musicians would serve only as an addendum to the more important task of removing the threat of nuclear war. The new cultural accord and the recent exchange of paintings, however, are the most important agreements to come out of the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting last year.
While some would dismiss these modest steps as irrelevant in comparison with the life-or-death questions of the strategic dialogue, the fact remains that the exchange of Impressionist paintings is one of few rays of hope in an otherwise deadlocked agenda of exotic weaponry, verification disputes, and underground nuclear testing. In this new phase of Soviet-American relations, perhaps it's time for the arms controllers to look to the artists for ideas and inspiration.
Kurt M. Campbell is a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.