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How a Famed New Age Retreat Center Helped End the Cold War

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Boris Yeltsin strikes a pose in his Moscow office in February, 1989. (Photo: Ted Thai/Getty Images)

Early one morning, in September 1982, hundreds of young Russians were waiting in a Moscow TV studio for an image of Southern California to appear on a giant screen. All of a sudden, there it was, live via satellite: a crowd of hundreds of thousands of sweltering Americans, blanketing the desert in front of a rock star-worthy stage and even bigger screens, backed by a ripple of mountains.

The Russians in the Gosteleradio studio started yelling, screaming, waving—they were being streamed onto those 60-foot-tall California screens, and they wanted so much for the Americans to see them!—and two Americans, who had traveled to the Soviet Union just days before to make this happen, grabbed the microphone and yelled:

“Hello, California! Here we are! Live, from Moscow! It’s Saturday night!”

This was the first Soviet-American “space bridge,” linking Moscow with the US Festival, the “Woodstock of the 1980s.” In this era, basic communication between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was so poor that a phone call required an appointment on one of the few lines that connected the two countries. Mostly, Americans and Soviets just didn’t talk to each other; they were enemies, after all.

As simple as this 1980s version of videochat might seem, connecting these people, live and face-to-face, felt like a breakthrough.

In the Gosteleradio control room during production of the ‘World After Nuclear War’ spacebridge, September 1983.  standing center: Pavel Korchagin, sitting left: Kim Spence

In the Gosteleradio control room (Photo: From the book “В СССР секс был! Как мы строили телемосты “ (“There Was Sex in the USSR! How We Built the Spacebriges”) by Sergei Skvortsov and Pavel Korchagin, published 2007.)

Until that signal came through in Moscow, no one was sure the space bridge would actually happen. About a year before, it had been just an idea discussed among like-minded people in a hot tub, on the cliffs of Big Sur, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and dreamed up, simultaneously, by an eccentric genius in the USSR. It had been dismissed by American TV executives and diplomats as an impossibility; the visas to Moscow, for the American organizers, had not arrived until days before the show. Back in California, the promoter running the US Festival was convinced the whole thing was KGB propaganda, pumped in from an embassy basement in Washington.

The dreamers in the hot tubs had other plans, too. This first space bridge was just one of a multitude of loosely connected Soviet-American exchanges organized by the Esalen Institute, the famed New Age retreat center, throughout the 1980s. These meetings brought together astronauts and cosmonauts, writers, psychoneuroimmunologists, KGB agents, veterans, and, ultimately, politicians operating at the highest levels of Soviet power. With Esalen as their host, these influential people could spend time with each other outside the highly regulated and stilted world of political communiques and official meetings, with one big aim: thawing out the Cold War.

In the early 1980s, the entire Soviet Union, 15 percent of the earth’s land surface, was obscured to outsiders. Virtually no Americans traveled there; even intelligence analysts had to rely on the Politburo’s annual appearance on Lenin’s Tomb for clues about Soviet politics and power. The dawn of the Reagan era was a particularly dark period in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and, later, shot down a Korean passenger plane, and official diplomatic relations had trickled to almost nothing, even as the world’s two great powers sat on immense stockpiles of nuclear weapons. In 1981, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists* turned its symbolic Doomsday Clock to show 4 minutes to midnight, the closest the world had been to destruction since 1959. In 1984, the clock ticked forward again, to three minutes to midnight.

Cultural exchange programs, between scholars, scientists, dancers, musicians, students, athletes, and other groups, had been happening on and off for most of the Cold War. But the tension of the early ‘80s stopped many of those government-led programs.

It is into this breach that Michael Murphy, one of the co-founders of the famed Big Sur consciousness-raising retreat, and a small group of colleagues stepped, with the Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program.

Moscow, early 1980s

Moscow, early 1980s (Photo: Ceri C/flickr)

Esalen’s original interests in the Soviet Union had an undeniably out-there flavor, but the Soviet-American exchange project soon moved to the forefront of a small social movement. In the 1980s, thousands of Americans, including many former anti-war activists, became involved in citizen-led exchanges meant to keep the US and the USSR from destroying the world with nuclear weapons. At the same time, many of these same people were keyed into the brand of self-exploration that the Esalen Institute had championed. By 1989, as Rolling Stone wrote, “No one looking at the peace movement today can deny the fact that it has turned inward, hooking up with the New Age.” Even the Pentagon had a meditation group that worked on visualizing world peace.

“We were in the midst of—the world’s going to blow up any minute!! And what can we do?” says Jim Hickman, who was the first director of Esalen’s Soviet-American program. “In those days, the world depended on changing this relationship.” The people who started Esalen’s exchange program did not believe they were going to solve the Cold War, but they knew that many Americans and Soviets did not hate each other. If the Esalen envoys could connect with Soviets around the spiritual pursuits that they were already interested in, perhaps, they thought, they could reach some higher ground.

That exploration would take the Esalen team into a different type of hidden world, of the KGB and FBI; each side thought Esalen’s people might be working for the other. But the program’s work was purposely apolitical, focused on midwifing seemingly impossible cultural projects into existence and creating space for personal breakthroughs. Esalen’s way of looking at the world had often inspired epiphanies on a personal level; this was a test of those tools on a larger scale. And, as crazy as it sounds, it worked.

Michael Murphy and Richard Price started the Esalen Institute in 1962, as a place to explore boundary-pushing ideas of psychology, art, religion, mysticism, psychedelic drugs, the supernatural phenomena of parapsychology, and all other manifestations of what Esalen came to call “human potential.” All through the 1960s, the retreat center hosted seminars, scholars in residence, and fabulous parties. (Viewers of Mad Men might know Esalen best as the place where Don Draper spent the final episodes of the series, supposedly around this time.) But by the 1970s, when Esalen had become a California destination, frequented by famous intellectuals, writers and musicians and covered in the press as a place for both “white-collar hippies” and sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, Murphy, now in his 40s, had moved away, to a town north of San Francisco.

Nude couples on balcony at the Esalen, 1970

Esalen in the 1970s (Photo: Arthur Schatz/Getty Images)

A born contemplative and a multi-talented, Renaissance man-like figure, Murphy was focused at the time on writing fiction, loaded with the same ideas that Esalen was exploring. In his 1982 book, An End to Ordinary History, for instance, a small group of researchers pursue psychic possibilities to the Soviet Union, while being closely watched by the CIA and KGB.

When asked how much of the book was based in reality, Murphy says, “All of it!”

The clandestine experiments of the Cold War era seem like jokes now, but in the 1970s both the U.S. and Soviet governments were dead serious about remote viewing, psychokinesis, and other tools of psychic warfare. “To use a metaphor from Star Wars, that was the Dark Side of the force,” says Murphy. “They were trying to develop this technology of the paranormal, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis. Nobody knows the exact figures, but certainly America put $100 million into this. And we knew all the central players.” The experiences of remote viewing—using psychic powers to gather intelligence from afar—that appear in Murphy’s novel came directly from the Stanford Research Institute’s government-sponsored studies; parapsychologist Russell Targ, who ran the remote viewing project, had passed Murphy the protocols.

It’s in that context that, in the 1960s, Murphy had begun writing to civilians in the Soviet Union, who were doing research, independently of the state, into psychic abilities. After two Americans attended a 1968 conference on parapsychology and ESP in Moscow and reported the stirrings of a “race for inner space,” in which Soviet scientists were trying to tap into these powers to gain an advantage over the U.S., Murphy and two friends crossed the Iron Curtain in 1971, to see what of this world they could find for themselves.

On the other side, they found dowsers, yogis, shamans, psychologists revolting against traditional ideas, and more sympathetic souls exploring the same plane of existence as Esalen—“a movement that was identical to ours in its revolt against the constricting images of what being human actually is,” Murphy says. Contrary to the anti-religious, bureaucratic reputation of the Soviet state, Russia had a long history with the occult and mysterious, and Murphy had a favorite shorthand for the result: “You scratch a Russian, and you find a mystic.”

Well before the satellite-linked space bridges, he and Karl Nikolaiev, a well-known telepath living in Russia, experimented with another form of transcontinental information exchange. Not long after his 1971 trip, Murphy attempted to psychically send Nikolaiev the images of five random objects from San Francisco. The first was a wooden toy elephant, with a tiny, moving trunk, and the image Nikolaiev received was “wooden…round at one end” with “something like a moveable nose-dropper.” Though the four other transmissions did not go through with as much clarity, this one was considered a success—and ended up in An End to Ordinary History, too.

While he was pursuing this line of research, Murphy and his wife, Dulce, met Jim Hickman. Hickman was 27, trained in psychology, and full of ebullient energy, and, having traveled to the USSR in 1972, he and Murphy “immediately bonded.” As Hickman tells it, their shared interests included “the psychic research, the healing, the shamanism, all that stuff” and, in particular, its manifestation among Soviets. They began working closely together on projects both professional and personal—Murphy was Hickman’s first meditation teacher—and their relationship would be one of the foundations of the Soviet-American exchange program.

Hickman and the Murphys are exceptional networkers—“you never know who is going to be able to contact with whom,” Dulce Murphy says—and they wanted to meet more people in the Soviet Union studying these parapsychological phenomena. In 1979, Hickman traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia, to speak at a conference on the unconscious, a long-taboo subject, and there he encountered one of their most important connections, Joseph Goldin.

Joseph Goldin (Photo: Courtesy of Anya Kucharev)

Shortish, bearish, and bearded, Goldin was, by all accounts, extremely smart, extremely energetic, and notably uninterested in conforming to the strictures of Soviet society. “He was an outlaw, philosophically and by his life values. When I met him, he lived in the top floor of a run-down, abandoned building,” says Hickman. “He was a kind of explorer, of all kinds of strange things.” Goldin’s unconventionality sometimes got him in trouble with authorities, but he was brilliant and apolitical enough to have a remarkable degree of freedom, for the most part. And he knew fascinating and often powerful people all across Soviet society.

That December, though, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the official relationship between the world’s two superpowers began to deteriorate. In January 1980, President Jimmy Carter threatened a boycott the summer Olympic Games, in Moscow, unless the Soviet army pulled out of Afghanistan; in March, he announced that the United States would not be participating.

This put a crimp in the small group’s informal dealings between nations. The Murphys and Hickman had been planning to travel back to the Soviet Union for the Olympics: thanks to a Joseph Goldin connection, Michael Murphy and Hickman were supposed to participate in a conference on sports psychology, and the group wondered if they should cancel their plans. But they knew a Soviet specialist on Carter’s National Security Council, and they sought out his opinion.

That specialist told them: Go anyway. “And so we did,” says Dulce Murphy. “It changed our lives.”

All of a sudden, the informal relationships they had started to form took on a new importance: they were back-channels of communication between two countries whose government bureaucracies were barely speaking to each other. In 1980, in the excitement of their trip, the Murphys and Hickman formalized the work they were doing into a new endeavor: The Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program. The philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller provided seed funding; they hired Anya Kucharev, a Russian speaker, to work on the program; and Hickman started planning regular trips to Moscow.

A view of the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building in Moscow during the 1980s. (Photo: Ceri C/Flickr)

They weren’t entirely sure what they were doing, at first. But early on, Joseph Montville, a career foreign service officer, gave them a framework in which to understand their work. In his long involvement with the Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program, Montville’s role, he felt, was to give an “unauthorized but symbolically very important blessing from the Department of State.” But in 1980, at the first Esalen-sponsored conference on Soviet-American exchanges, he was also inspired to coin a new term—“Track II diplomacy”—to describe what the program was aiming to do: to resolve, or at least ease, a conflict by appealing to a common good will, outside official government channels. “It was an additional way to try to understand the difficulty of human relationships, particularly in avoiding violence and war,” he says. “Citizens can’t sit by because of the lack of imagination of Track I politicians and diplomats, who are acting out tribal roles. They can’t be creative. Citizens can.”

What had begun as a project to find common cause with Soviets around human potential grew to include this progressively more political mission. What the Esalen exchange programs were doing felt important. As Michael Murphy wrote in An End to Ordinary History: “All things seemed possible when Russians and Americans conspired like this about their nations’ futures. Suddenly the world lit up.”

Over the next few years, the people involved in the Esalen exchange program gathered together a network of friends and sometimes high-up contacts in the Soviet Union, a sort of proto-Davos crowd of creatives, scholars, scientists, writers, and political movers. “If someone was allowed to come to the U.S., we would invite them, no matter what their field was,” says Dulce Murphy. And they learned from Joseph Goldin this rule for operating in the USSR: Anything that isn’t explicitly outlawed is acceptable.

“You could do all kinds of stuff, as long as you didn’t step over that line”—as long as no one said no, says Hickman.

The scope of the work they did was wide, in part because, as Hickman puts it, when openings occurred, they would step in. In the early 1980s, for example, they were working on organizing ongoing meetings between between astronauts and cosmonauts, but also, as Michael Murphy wrote in a letter to a donor, “an exchange of farm and garden techniques…a continuing cooperative program in human development; and exchange visits to Esalen by various scientists over the next several years.” Around that same time, Murphy remembers, Esalen connected Soviet engineers who had been given the ill-advised task of reversing the flow of a Siberian river with then (and current) California Governor Jerry Brown, a friend, who gave the engineers state irrigation plans that could illustrate to the Soviet Central Committee the pitfalls of that course.

“This was a long way from hidden human reserves,” says Murphy. “But one thing led to another like that.”

That first space bridge, for instance, would not have happened without the astronaut-cosmonaut project. In 1982, Hickman and Rusty Schweickart, a former astronaut, were in Moscow, meeting with officials who might help their cause, including a high-ranking party official who vetted foreign contact with Soviets. But Joseph Goldin had also called up a TV executive (this, his Esalen friends say, was one of his magic abilities, to get anyone on the phone) and finagled a meeting at Gosteleradio, the Soviet state-run TV and radio organization. “Joseph dangled Esalen and an American astronaut,” Schweickart says. “In those days, if you were an astronaut or a cosmonaut, you could open almost any door in the world. But after that, you had to have something worthwhile.”

Rusty Schweickart in 1971

Rusty Schweickart in 1971. (Photo: NASA/Public Domain)

In this case, they had a crazy idea—a live satellite connection between Moscow and the U.S—and a piece of important information. As they were talking with the television executive, Goldin let drop that they’d just met with the party official for foreign relations. After that, the Gosteleradio man left the room, made a call, and, when he came back, Hickman remembers, he agreed to help shepherd the space bridge into reality.

And that first satellite link led to a dozen more in the next seven years. Everyone agreed it had been a huge success, even though almost nothing of what had been envisioned actually occurred. Soviet officials had been sold on the idea as a Labor Day celebration, not a rock concert, and on the American side, the audience hardly registered the event: some people thought the Russians were being broadcast from backstage. And the festival’s producer, convinced the whole thing was a KGB set-up, cut the connection after just a few minutes.

None of that mattered, though. Moscow and California had connected; the propaganda-minded Soviet media could claim that half a million young Americans had seen a series of educational broadcasts; the Esalen team and the producers at Gosteleradio started organizing another space bridge for the second US Festival, in 1983.

This second time around, two bands played together, in a transoceanic “jam session.” Small audiences in Moscow and in California asked each other unscripted, if pointedly unpolitical, questions—do you study our language? What are your favorite sports?—and two panels of scientists, one in each country, took part.

When a high-ranking Soviet nuclear physicist called nuclear weapons “a cancer,” the audiences erupted into applause.

“No one that high-level had ever acknowledged or expressed themselves on that subject. Ever,” says Kim Spencer, one of the American video producers who originally conceived the idea. “That’s why it was such a big deal.” Spencer and his partner, Evelyn Messinger, worked with Hickman and the Esalen exchange program on those first space bridges; after the first two, Esalen stepped back, and, with the Gosteleradio producers, Spencer, Messinger and others went on to use the same form to connect Carl Sagan and other American scientists with Soviets counterparts to talk about nuclear war, students working for world peace, and ultimately, U.S. Congress and the USSR Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative body in the Soviet Union.

Soon, the Esalen exchange program was doing more than just making relationships; they were successfully connecting people from many facets of Soviet and American society. At the Esalen retreat center, they held a series of seminars on the political psychology of the conflict, led by Montville, the State Department officer. Dulce started meeting with people in Soviet psychology departments and putting together a health-promotion project; in 1984, she and Michael spent the winter in Moscow, in an apartment outside both American “ghettos,” for diplomats and journalists, where they hosted an anthropologist who lectured on shamanism and an expert in animal healing. They had become friendly, too, with Norman Mailer and started introducing him to the members of the Union of Soviet Writers; those connections would eventually led to creation of a Soviet chapter of PEN International. Astronaut Rusty Schweikart’s Association of Space Explorers was officially formed in 1985, and though at first it was a hair-pulling struggle to keep Soviet propaganda out of any statements the organization made, it thrived.

Often, Esalen projects pushed against Soviet boundaries. In 1983, ‘85, and ‘87, for instance, Anya Kucharev and her colleagues at the Soviet-American Book Exchange, an offshoot of Esalen’s program, gathered books from small American publishers to bring to the Moscow International Book Fair. “You’d see these young people sitting at our book stand all day, copying paragraphs. We were supposed to give the books to a secret library, but I gave some to people who were interested in the subject.” The KGB brought her in to demand what she was doing, and she said that she was just doing her job. “They didn’t like it, but we brought so much material, that they didn’t stop me,” she says.

“We occupied a free zone,” Murphy says. “We were like a moving free zone of friends, lively adventurous friends between these two countries.”

May 1983 Esalen catalog

May 1983 Esalen catalog. (Photos: Courtesy of Anya Kucharev)

Soon, the relationships they made started to complement each other, as well. At one of the hotels for foreigners, the National Hotel, there was a “dollar bar,” which took foreign currency and was one of the only options for visitors looking for an evening diversion. One night, in the bar, Hickman met Don Kendall, the CEO of PepsiCo. Kendall’s company had the license to import Stolichnaya vodka, and he’d come fairly regularly to Moscow, on the PepsiCo jet.

“We’re telling stories, and he’s like: Are you kidding? You’re doing that here? No one’s ever done that,” says Hickman. “And so because of the circumstances, I made a connection that wouldn’t have happened any other way.”

Later, Kendall would help support the Association of Space Explorers and John Denver’s tour of the Soviet Union, which Hickman organized. At one point, Kendall sent Hickman an unsolicited check for $10,000. ”You don’t just talk about improving Soviet-American relations; you go out and do something about it,” Kendall wrote in the letter that came with the check.

In 1983, early on in the exchange program, Newsweek wrote an article about the work the Esalen Institute was doing in the Soviet Union and gave it another name: “hot-tub diplomacy.” The Big Sur campus wasn’t even the base from which Hickman or the Murphys worked. But the name stuck, in large part because the retreat center–both the physical space and its track-record in personal transformation–was an asset to the program, luring in both Americans and Soviets to profound experiences.

“Everyone who came to Big Sur was enchanted with it,” says Montville. “You could have a meeting at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, but it doesn’t have dolphins and whales, the sounds of waves hitting against the rocks, flowers and ancient trees, and all of the natural beauty that’s denied us in our centers of power,” he says. “It’s a stunningly beautiful place, and a lot of people would loosen up.”

When Hickman first approached him, Montville had already heard so many wonderful things about Esalen that he signed on and “never looked back.” And Kucharev had been coming to the baths during public hours, from midnight until 6 a.m., before she joined the exchange program; a friend from those late nights made the connection between her Russian language skills and Michael Murphy’s interests in the early ‘80s. She met Hickman one day at Esalen, and, she remembers, “We’re sitting in this hot water, naked, and he starts asking me all these question, and I realized it was an interview.”

“They always had unconventional approaches—the idea was to keep an open mind and leave institutional baggage at the gate,” she says.

When the program started bring Soviet visitors to the tubs, she says, they were not fazed by nudity, either: the Esalen hot tubs are not unlike Crimean and Georgian spas. Before Esalen could bring any Soviets over, though, they needed to be authorized by the government, and a handful of high-enough ranking members of the KGB came to investigate. “And I remember the first time they go to the baths, with all these naked women running around, they’re like, yeah, yeah, we want to go back there again. We’re going to tell everyone it’s ok,” Hickman says.

The KGB wasn’t just interested in the hot tubs, though. The clandestine agency actively recruited Michael Murphy—as did the CIA and FBI. (“I never succumbed,” he says.) The Esalen group had a policy to deal with spooks on both sides: they would tell anyone who asked them what they were doing in the Soviet Union, but they would not volunteer information. So Hickman ended up meeting regularly both with the KGB and with agents from the San Francisco field office of the FBI.

“They understood that you had to keep your spooks informed, and not incite their suspicion,” says Montville. “They’re always suspicious of someone being seduced and recruited.”

Moscow's Red Square, early 1980s

Moscow’s Red Square, early 1980s (Photo: Ceri C/flickr)

And both sides did become suspicious of Hickman. When he was in the Soviet Union, he would often get a call from a KGB agent named Alex, with a request to meet at some room in his hotel. At one point, Alex wanted Hickman to take a lie detector test, in order to show that he was not working for the U.S. government (and, perhaps, to start the process of recruiting him—the tester was a somewhat attractive woman, and Alex later offered to set Hickman up on a date with her). Not long after, Hickman got a call from an FBI agent to whom he regularly talked. Now it was the FBI that wanted Hickman to take a lie detector test.

“At the end of it, the results were: well, you’ve answered all of our questions honestly. But we can tell from the test that you haven’t told us everything,” says Hickman. “And I said, I’ve been going to the Soviet Union for 15 years. How can I tell you everything? And I told you from the beginning, you have to ask me, before I volunteer information.”

And so the FBI did just that. Over the next 18 months, Hickman estimates that he took 12 or 13 lie detector tests: the FBI would show up at random, all over the world, and ask him to come to a hotel room to take a test.

“Neither side could see that this Esalen Institute had a network around the world that could facilitate unbelievable things,” he says. The only explanation intelligence teams on either side of the conflict could come up with, originally, is that Esalen had some secret purpose. But within a few years, officers who had worked for the CIA and the KGB were among the many Soviets and American meeting each other at Esalen.

“CIA guys would meet KGB guys, and they would have these big emotional dynamite moments,” said Murphy. There, in this special space, they might see and connect with each other as people, and it could be overwhelming to them. Increasingly, though, these sort of transformational experiences were happening for all sorts of participants in the Soviet-American exchange program. “We knew this process of liberation,” says Murphy. In the 1984 movie Moscow on the Hudson, there’s a scene where Robin Williams, who plays a Russian defector, starts freaking out in a grocery store over the many, many brands of coffee he can chose from. “We were having that experience constantly,” says Murphy. “It’s as if they wanted us to torture them with sights of success.”

“You take people who have been enduring Soviet winter in drab Moscow, take them to Esalen and put them in a hot tub with gorgeous men and women, good food and good conversation, and you change people’s lives,” says Jim Garrison, the exchange program’s second director. “You do that with adult apparatchiks, and it has an effect. That was Esalen’s genius.”

And, of all the people who were drawn into this sort of transformation, perhaps the most important was Boris Yeltsin.

Just a few months before Yeltsin arrived in New York City on September 9, 1989, Jim Garrison had received a call from a friend in the Soviet Union, asking if he’d heard of this upstart politician, who had been kicked out of the Politburo, then elected to the newly formed Soviet Congress as a representative from Moscow. Garrison did know of Yeltsin; he had made it his business to stay informed of the people in the highest levels of Soviet power.

Garrison had taken over as director of the Esalen Soviet-American program early in 1985, just a few months before Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, the USSR’s highest position of power. It was an electric moment in Soviet history. All of a sudden, it was clear to people around the world that Gorbachev could change the way his country operated, within and without. Up until that point, the Esalen exchanges had been primarily cultural, but Garrison, more than the others involved, was a political person. Active in the anti-nuclear movement, he had been arrested at the Pentagon; in 1988, he had run in a Silicon Valley district for the Democratic nomination to Congress. His goal, as director of the Esalen Soviet-American program, was to reach into the upper echelons of Gorbachev’s political world.

“My intent was to get as high up as possible into the Soviet hierarchy, to meet people,” he says. “I was after Gorbachev, I was after the Politburo.”

Tevelev Square in Kharkov, USSR (now the Ukraine) circa 1980-1981.

Tevelev Square in Kharkov, USSR (now the Ukraine) circa 1980-1981 (Photo: Л.П. Джепко/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

As director, Garrison started to figure out who he could reach on the Communist Party’s Central Committee. He found a couple accessible people and began to develop relationships with them. Soon, he had tracked down Abel Aganbegyan, an economist who was advising Gorbachev on perestroika, the restructuring of the Soviet economic system, and invited him on a three-week tour of the U.S. This was to be a mind-boggling encounter, Garrison says, on both sides. Aganbegyan was seeing the American economy firsthand; Americans who met him were hearing directly from a Gorbachev advisor who understood free-market economics.

It wasn’t obvious that Esalen’s exchange program should organize a similar trip for Yeltsin, who had never been to the U.S. before. He had been building his reputation as a reformer and, now, a populist critic of Gorbachev and his government; the Esalen Soviet-American exchange team approved of Gorbachev and his reforming work in the Soviet Union. Later, Garrison would help create the Gorbachev Foundation, and Joe Montville believes, as well, that Gorbachev was listening closely to the work going on at Esalen and picking up ideas directly from those meetings.

“We enormously admired Gorbachev, and we used to think there was a direct wire between the big house at Esalen and the Kremlin,” Montville says, and one time, he had the chance to ask Gorbachev if it was true. “He just smiled and pointed at the ceiling. That’s the classic indicator of—can’t talk now, we’re being bugged.”

Esalen worried that hosting Yeltsin could have negative consequences for the exchange program, but finally thought that it would better to say yes to this opportunity and see what happened. After that first call, Garrison flew to Moscow to meet Yeltsin; just a few weeks later, he arrived in America for a two-week tour. A group of nine or so people, Yeltsin and his handlers, Garrison, and other Esalen staff, including at times, Dulce Murphy, traveled in a private jet, leant by an Archer Daniels Midland executive, from New York down the East coast, to Texas, Chicago, and Florida. Yeltsin toured the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, gave speeches, visited former President Reagan in Rochester, where the president in a hospital recovering from neurosurgery, and even met with President George H.W. Bush, in the White House, while drunk.

Drinking, as part of business, was normal in the Soviet Union but Yeltsin took this to an extreme. “Yeltsin was probably the most physically intimidating man I’d ever met,” says Garrison. “He was drunk most of the time, and he was aggressively drunk much of the time.” One morning in Baltimore, while visiting John Hopkins University, Yeltsin became exceedingly, unmanageably drunk, when the call came that the White House would meet with him at noon. “We bundled him in the limo and gave him coffee,” says Garrison. “He was drunk when he went into the White House meeting that included President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Brent Scowcroft.” The Esalen team wasn’t quite sure how to handle their guest’s enormous consumption of alcohol, and they tried to hide it from the reporters who were closely covering the trip. At the same time, Yeltsin displayed an incredible force of personality, irrespective of, or perhaps enhanced by, his drinking. “He was able to hold his own in ways that I found remarkable,” says Garrison.

It was Yeltsin who wanted to make an unscheduled stop at a grocery store, on the outskirts of Houston. The group had just visited the Johnson Space Center and were on the way to the airport, to fly to Miami. The driver pulled over in the next town, a suburban place, with a moderately sized supermarket, where not much had been happening that day before Yeltsin, who was 6’2”, came in with five other Russians and started to careen around the aisles. Among the shelves and shelves of bright produce, packaged food, and products of every sort, each with its own varieties, Yeltsin accosted Garrison.

“You just did this, to trick me,” he said.

“Mr. Yeltsin, we are not tricking you,” Garrison replied. “This is just an average American supermarket.”

Yeltsin did not believe it, at first. He went up to the supermarket employee and asked them, “Were you put up this this? Do you work here?” He gazed at the meat counter—he had never seen so meat in his life, he said, and there was no line; he wanted to know the price per pound; he asked shoppers how much they were spending on food, and the store manager how many items were in stock. Garrison had to convince the supervisor not to call the police, that this was a Soviet official internalizing what it meant to be an American consumer. Then, he remembers, Yeltsin started talking to his own people.

“He said, ‘They’ve been lying to us. The Communist Party has been lying to us, all this time. If these people can have this, this is a better country. No one has this, not even the elite has this.’”

Back in the van, on the way to the airport, Yeltsin was quiet. He held his head in his hands. Only when they had gotten on the airplane did he have anything more to say.

“I’m going to get Gorbachev,” he said, according to Garrison. “These guys are lying to us. Communism needs to be destroyed.”

This trip, this moment, was not the culmination of Esalen’s work in the Soviet Union or with citizen diplomacy. Garrison tried to warn Gorbachev and his allies of the danger Yeltsin posed; later, he brought Gorbachev’s foreign minister and, after that, the Politburo members who had orchestrated Gorbachev’s rise to power on tours of the U.S. (He and Hickman would bring Gorbachev, too, although not until after Yeltsin had ousted him from power.) After Garrison left the program in 1990, Dulce Murphy took over as director, and continued to organize and host exchanges between Russians and Americans, through the next decades. The program eventually expanded its geographic reach, working in other regions in conflict and spinning off from Esalen into an independent organization, now called Track II.

But the Yeltsin moment does stand out as a moment in which Esalen’s theory of personal transformation intersected with “the forces that can change the course of history,” as Garrison puts it. There were many moments, people, decisions, and relationships that led to the end of the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Community Party in Russia. But this one should be counted among the important ones.

“Dick and I, when we started Esalen in 1962, I never thought we would end up so involved with Russia,” says Michael Murphy. “But we were into personal social transformation, and it goes together. It’s more than a coincidence that Esalen brokered Yeltsin’s breakthrough. We’re good at midwifing these dramatic changes in people’s lives.” And, in this case, one of those changes helped make a dramatic change in world history, too.

*We originally attributed this to the Union of Concerned Scientists and regret the error.