Column by Thomas M. Becker.
A very real hero in the history of Chautauqua Institution died on Wednesday, July 11. Greg Guroff, along with Steve Rhinesmith, was responsible for coordinating US-Soviet exchange programs, within which Chautauqua played a significant role. To be sure, John Wallach’s bold vision and unbounded daring stimulated the initiation of Chautauqua’s programming in US-Soviet affairs. Our president, Dan Bratton, and board chairman, David Faust, provided the Institutional direction and commitment. But Greg was the soul, glue, engineer, counselor, translator, psychiatrist, fundraiser, mediator and island of calm in a sea of turbulent events.
At the conclusion of the opening theme week of the 1985 Season we were invited to take a delegation of Chautauquans, speakers, performers and government officials to the Soviet Union. In the fall of 1985, presidents Reagan and Gorbachev signed an accord in which cultural exchange programs between the two countries were encouraged. Reagan created the office to coordinate such exchange in the U.S. Information Agency and placed Steven and Greg as the coordinators.
We began working with them in late fall of 1985 toward a planned trip to the Soviet Union in September of 1986. The details of this undertaking are legendary and filled with drama befitting an adventure novel. We conducted these programs until the concluding event held in the fall of 1989 in Pittsburgh in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh.
Greg was a fixture of the entire run of programming. He understood the complexities of both American and Soviet bureaucracies, the impact of media glare and the response to that glare by politicians and program participants. But Greg’s greatest gift to our program and to the larger sweep of his work was his understanding and affection for Russian people. His father, a classical musician, escaped from the Soviet Union, but many members of the extended family remained. Greg had a stint as cultural affairs attaché in the American Embassy in Moscow. He was tireless in making personal connections between the embassy personnel and artists, writers and activists in Moscow.
Jane and I had the incredible pleasure of spending an evening in his aunt’s apartment in Moscow toward the end of our first trip in 1986. The building was stark and cold in a way only Soviet architecture could achieve. The apartment itself was small and sparsely furnished, though what were there were treasures with stories and love running through. That evening, with Greg bear-hugging his aunt and patiently translating the conversation, went late into the night with offerings of food and drink that Greg himself provided. Jane and I blearily left the gathering to navigate the Moscow subway system in the wee hours of the morning.
Evenings with Greg and his wife, Kathie, and their children, Alec and Liza, in their home in Chevy Chase, Md., were similar experiences of art, music, joyous stories and serious consideration of the day’s events.
Greg repeatedly saved the day in the five years we worked together. His patience and wisdom and sense of the possible were gifts he shared with an easy grace. I believe Greg represents the finest qualities that can emerge when one’s personal history, rigorous scholarship and intense belief in the importance of exchange as a foundation of diplomatic relations come together. We have lost an important public servant. Chautauqua has lost a good friend.