|Anecdotal account of the first Moscow Study Trip in 1980|
In the Beginning
© 1996 by Eric Fenster. All rights reserved.
Luckily I was in my office when the phone rang that winter day in 1979. The Soviet way of saying "yes" came without prior notice and might never have been repeated. "There's some guy from Moscow who's going to be here in half an hour, says he knows you and wants to see you." Walter Pflug, the Deputy Director of the Walter Reuther Labor Archives, was calling.
"I don't know anybody in Moscow, but I'll be right over."
* * *
We had been introduced around 1972 when he was at the University of California, Berkeley to write a book on the American New Left and I was teaching at Stanford University. I had grown up in a family with several generations' tradition of labor union activism: my grandfather in fur and leather, my father in the automobile industry. The other family tradition was unrelenting inter-generational arguments over politics. Inevitably, if my father saw only the good of which the Soviet Union was capable, I was condemned to look for the contradictions. If there was one place I had no motivation to visit, it was Moscow.
Sasha was external to this ancestral destiny and was to provide a human reality that probably influenced my attitudes and decisions years later.. He had the stolid pugnacious features that make many doubt the possibility of underlying humor and warmth at each first meeting with a Russian and that stereotypes of pre-détente Cold War reinforced. Thaw and friendship take time.
Sasha raised the temperature, literally, when after several meetings and long discussions about what each of us thought the other was--or should be--seeing in that America of war and social change, he announced he was coming to my house to make borsch. I knew of borsch as a soup, but not as an art form. Sasha donned an apron and let nobody near the kitchen for the whole day while he created his masterpiece. This was a happy man.
On another occasion, Sasha said he wanted to introduce me to two Russian graduate students who were studying physics on a one-year exchange at Stanford. This required a ceremony that amused him greatly. Under the rules of the game, Soviet visitors could travel without permission only within a twenty-five mile radius of their approved residence. No matter that the San Francisco Bay Area was an integrated metropolitan area, UC Berkeley and Stanford University were more than twenty-five miles apart, and Sasha had to call the State Department each time he headed south.
Sasha directed me to the Russians' apartment to get acquainted, a procedure that introduced me to the Russian way of toasting and drinking a glass full of vodka followed by a morsel of food. I don't drink as a rule, but I didn't yet know any of the skills to avoid doing so without offending Russian sensibilities. I had arranged for us to have dinner at a student coop, but when the four of us set off in my car I no longer had any sense of direction and had to rely on instinct. At one point, I just parked. "I have the feeling it's here," I slurred. It was.
In honor of their guests, the Stanford students served wine with the meal. At the end, with everybody happy, Stanford challenged Russia to a match of two-minute chess. Victor played for Russia, the Americans brought out their house champion, almost apologetic at what they expected him to mete out.
The first couple moves went quickly. Then came several in which Victor calmly rotated on his elbow between the chess move and the clock while the American began to hesitate at the coming disaster, then to tremble. By the sixth move it was mate. Victor extended his hand and tried to soften the shock. "I'm sorry, but you know in our lab there is plenty of dead time when we are doing experiments, so I have a lot of practice."
America has it's stereotypes, too, and if blond, beautiful, "California" girls was one of them, the Russians should get to know it.. There were five living in the apartment we visited. One was Becky Love, the daughter of the Governor of Colorado, one was Susan Haldeman, whose father's name was not yet associated with Watergate. Victor made sure we had stopped to buy vodka and also brought his guitar. The bottle was opened and consumed to the accompaniment of a series of energetic or sentimental Russian songs.
We didn't get to observe Victor's water polo skills, and maybe he had other talents besides physics, sports, chess and music, but I began to get the impression that these Russians could do about anything and excel at it.
Back at their apartment, I was thanked for this look at America's "upper class," but was not allowed to leave until farewell bottles of vodka were finished off. Sasha was mellow enough to substitute the usual toasts with recitations of his own long poems. At two in the morning I finally got in my car and pointed it toward San Francisco.
The next year I was leaving for a research job in Paris. "You have to take care of Stepan," Sasha told me. Like Sasha, Stepan Salychev was from the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations, IMEMO. Many figures in perestroika would come from there, and its former director, Evgeny Primakov, eventually became Russia's foreign and then prime minister.
Stepan was in Paris for just three months, and Sasha was right to be concerned. I found Stepan holed up in a typical older hotel in the Latin Quarter near the Sorbonne. He offered me peanuts and Armenian cognac from his abundant supply of both, and we sat on the bed and talked.
"Why have they put me here?" he wailed. I'm over fifty; this neighborhood is for younger people. His analysis of his surroundings seemed to have been made from the vantage point of his room, and my impression was that he had hardly been out of it. Another visit and more peanut shells and empty cognac bottles later, I tried to persuade him to vary his diet by going to a restaurant. He was horrified and would have none of it. Praises of French cuisine and other persuasion tactics seemed useless. A restaurant was the last place Stepan wanted to be; he just wanted to be allowed to live his age of "over fifty" in peace and away from all the fun that seemed to be taking place outside his window.
Changing from persuasion to pressure, and helped by a friend skilled in rhetoric, I finally got Stepan out of his room and into a tiny Vietnamese restaurant, a quiet room with just four tables. Within minutes, he was a new man. "This is what a restaurant should be!" he beamed.
I would only understand years later. A restaurant in Moscow was a large hall where people spent a whole evening to celebrate an event like a birthday or other anniversary. Getting a reservation and getting past the doorman were feats, the menu was standard and often an illusion, the orchestra loud and the whole affair a predictable sequence of eating, toasts and dancing. Better peanuts and cognac.
* * *
This was the knowledge of Russia I brought to the meeting at Walter's office. The man waiting for me was named Sharapov. He was rector of the Higher Trade Union School in Moscow, the institution that offered the equivalent of higher education withing the training schemes for Soviet trade union personnel.
His interpreter was Valery Evseenko, a young man whose dress, manner and English were all quite correct, even a bit straitlaced. I think I foolishly said something about my parents having had an interpreter named Val when they visited the Soviet Union eighteen years before and tried to imagine whether he could be the same person. I didn't know yet how many Vals, Sashas and Alexeis I was going to come across in Russia. I also didn't know that this Val, who lived in Russia and had a Ukrainian name, came from Estonia. I didn't know that his reserved manner might have had to do with the loss of a child in a fall from an apartment balcony.
Sharapov explained that he was touring American university labor studies centers and that when he'd paid a courtesy call at his Embassy on arrival in Washington, they had shown him my letter and suggested that he check it out while in Detroit.
* * *
I had written months before and almost given up getting any response. We had created, in Detroit, a program that allowed working adults to earn a university degree in the same four years it took "traditional" students, designing it to be compatible with job and family responsibilities. We also wanted to reach into sectors of the community not usually reached by university education. In Detroit, one of those was the automobile industry. Relations between academics and workers were rare, however, so the intermediary was the workers' union, the United Automobile Workers (UAW). The union had negotiated educational benefits into its contracts long before; now there was a higher educational institution willing to meet the needs of its members and deliver courses in ways that made study feasible.
A colleague and I had decided it would be consistent if another traditional opportunity were open to these people: study abroad. We couldn't take them away for a semester or year, but we could offer one-month intensive study of the political, economic and social conditions of a country. The first courses were done in Paris and after several successful ones I was ready for a new challenge. Hence, the letter I wrote to the Soviet Embassy in 1978, explaining who we were and asking whether cooperation were possible.
It was not the educational innovation of which we were so proud that attracted the Soviets, but our collaboration with American trade unions. The policy of George Meany's AFL-CIO was that Soviet trade unions were not "real" trade unions, so there should be zero contact in either direction. The idea that dialogue could be useful was not accepted, and this stance didn't change even after American unions found themselves without a reserve of contacts when Solidarnosc appeared in Poland. The AFL-CIO pressured the State Department not to accord visitor visas to anybody associated with Soviet trade unions..
The Soviet side saw the study trip proposal as the breakthrough to at least indirect contact with American unions, while I was looking for a new international educational opportunity for our students and a way to have open discussion between citizens of the two countries engaged in the world's most crucial bilateral relationship.
Détente (these were now the Carter years) made the difference. There was a brief window during which United States policy accepted that the country would not be endangered by visits from people with different political views. That was what permitted Sharapov, despite his association with Soviet trade unions, to make his tour. A couple years later, the window was closed. In one of those closing night acts of Congress, the AFL-CIO asked Senator Howard Baker (Dem) to introduce an amendment to the immigration law that would ban visits from Soviet trade union officials without special exemption. The tradeoff was that Senator Jacob Javitz (Rep) would get a similar ban on visits by the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Sharapov explained that I should write a letter to the top Soviet trade union body, the All-Union Council of Central Trade Unions (AUCCTU) and propose to bring a group of students on an exchange in which we would pay none of the costs in the USSR but would similarly host a group of Soviet students and teachers for an educational program about the United States. Do that and it will be approved, he said. He also invited me to Moscow for an introductory visit in the summer of 1979 to meet and plan directly.
* * *
In getting there, I was surprised to discover that I was not immune to certain clichés. When the Brussels Aeroflot office was closed at what I thought a normal afternoon working hour, it was sufficient proof to me of the bad working habits of faceless bureaucrats who cared nothing about customers, so I bought my ticket from an agency specializing in Soviet travel. At the airport the day of my departure, the Aeroflot desk wasn't occupied when I expected it to be. I approached a young, Belgian woman who worked for Sabena Airlines with a condescending question, something like: "Is this Aeroflot operation really functional?"
"Don't worry," she assured me. "Aeroflot here is run perfectly well and the dispatcher is really quite nice. In fact, I married him. He's a communist and I'm Catholic, but we get on just fine."
That's how I became acquainted with Misha Orlov--a young and efficient optimist with a perfect command of Russian, French, English, Flemish, Spanish and probably more. Later I got to know his father and sister, others of the Orlov clan who worked for Aeroflot in Brussels. When I told Misha about problems with my ticket and what I'd paid, he chided, "But you should have come to us directly," and named a price I wouldn't refuse in the future.
I didn't meet Robert (not an Orlov) until the perestroika years. He reigned over the second floor of the Aeroflot office, which was down the street just east of Poland's LOT Airlines, replicating geography. Robert was invariably glued to his computer, puffing on his small cigars and managing group space from nine to three without lunch; then out the door. He wasn't gruff, just to the point. For years, especially when travel to the Soviet Union became popular and space was tight, he wouldn't reply to space confirmation requests I made in ordinary ways: through other airlines' computers, by mail, by telex, by fax. When I'd see or phone him, frustrated that we'd have a stranded group, the answer was always the same. "Why do you worry? I'll always get you on. If we need to tell Moscow to send another plane, we'll do that. Here, in Brussels we do what we want." It was true. Belgium's national airline didn't fly to Moscow, so there were no reciprocal agreements to worry about. I had stumbled on a treasure.
Approaching Moscow, I let myself imagine the dangers. It was of course a controlled border, like a lobster trap, and I was not in control. Border guards in green uniforms formed an impassive cordon from the airplane to the booths where they checked passports, ritually making two round trips from the traveler's eyes to his photo. Everybody noticed that these were 18-year-olds, doing the military service by protecting the country from external dangers, but only on a second visit could one dare to wink and engage in other eye games to get them to smile. (It was really quite easy.) It was impossible to see what was going on inside the booth below the shoulders shuffling the documents and, after a long wait for no apparent reason, stamping them. The window was marked in inches and centimeters so nobody could cheat on his height, and an overhead mirror allowed the guard to see to the feet of the person outside. Cleverly, the reverse view was not reciprocal.
Many years later, glasnost (transparency) changed this, literally; the glassed portion was enlarged downward so one could see the machines and machinations inside. Later still, women replaced the men. The double eye check remained, though more furtive.
I was met inside the customs area by man and woman. When I started to open my baggage for inspection, they stopped me. "Don't bother." They showed a paper to the customs inspector and we went out to where a car and driver were waiting. The long drive to the city was quick because the streets had a lane reserved for official cars, and we qualified.
This VIP treatment was my first experience with privilege in the USSR, but whether that was the right word was a matter of polemic. Like so much else, there were at least two interpretations. Were visitors being treated with the respect due guests in the tradition of Russian hospitality or were they deliberately being kept from knowing the difficulties of Soviet life so that they would take back the impressions desired by their hosts (handlers)? Did an objective answer exist or was it to be found only in preconceptions?
Anatoly Zayatsky represented the international department of the Higher Trade Union School (HTUS). Nina was a teacher who moonlighted as an interpreter. Anatoly spoke through her in the car and at dinner. His English surfaced only the following year and made remarkable progress from stumbling to passable as we got to know each other better.
After checking into the trade unions' Sputnik Hotel and dinner, I was given an appointment for breakfast and left on my own. Very pointedly, Anatoly told me I was free to go where I liked. He knew the USSR's reputation for restricting the movements of visitors.
My official host was Kirill Staev, one of the School's Vice Rectors, and for several days my schedule was sightseeing and then eating meals with him. On the first morning I was given some rubles as spending money. This was my "salary," because I was on a working visit, and the amount was based upon where the School thought I fit in their academic hierarchy.
I was beginning to wonder if we would ever get down to business when I was asked if I would like to visit Leningrad. I muttered some response about how that would be a dream, but was anything but firm. Nina was upset. "You must insist quite definitely that you want to go and they will arrange it." I was already overwhelmed by the hotel, the meals, the car and driver, an interpreter and the rest and thought it would seem greedy to ask for more. If a dollar was a dollar, wasn't a ruble a ruble? "No," said Nina. "Forget about money here. This is their job and you should accept."
Soft class on the Red Arrow was a compartment with two lower berths and full bedding. Tea and cookies were served after the midnight departure and just before arrival at eight in the morning. The tea was served in glasses placed in a pewter holder, and Nina told me that when she escorted one of two sisters who were well-known British actresses, progressive politics were not an obstacle to her putting one of the containers in her purse. Since the train attendant would have had to pay from her own pocket for whatever was missing, Nina paid herself and avoided a scandal.
Another car, driver and interpreter were waiting to take us to the Hotel Astoria and its turn of the century elegance: the grand staircase, rooms in period furnishings and special sleeping alcoves with a canopy in even the simple rooms. The story was that Hitler planned to celebrate his victory over the Soviet Union here and had already printed the invitations.
Soviet hotels had straight corridors. The floor attendant had her desk facing the elevator doors and could survey everything by looking left or right. The old Astoria had right angles. Were the large mirrors part of the original decoration or were they added so that the attendant could see the entirety of each corridor, per Soviet practice. Nina understood I spoke no Russian but the remnants I remembered from a college course. She was nearby when I asked for my key one night: "Cto pyat', pazhal'sta." [105, please]
"But you said it like a real Russian!" Surprise... mixed with suspicion?
Our Leningrad guide-interpreter was from Intourist, not a free-lancer like Nina, and both of us felt cool toward her. On the last day, she assumed that "of course" I would want to shop, so we went to a Beriozka store where quality souvenirs could be purchased in foreign currency. They were off-limits to Soviet citizens, not as a direct prohibition, but by the simple logic that since possession of foreign currency was illegal there could be no reason to enter such stores.
It was my second encounter with privilege, and I was uncomfortable at having access to what citizens in their own country did not. To demonstrate my liberal credentials, I bought nothing for myself but got a gift for our Leningrad guide, a thick Italian liqueur made with eggs called Vov that was as far from what Russians drink as one could get. It disappeared into her purse with the quick gesture that became familiar to me when Russians "obtained" something out of the ordinary and didn't seem to want to call it to the attention of their neighbors.
During the trip back to Moscow, Nina told me she had Jewish friends who had left the Soviet Union more than a year before. She hadn't been able to exchange news except for an occasional telephone call and wondered if I could take a letter out with me-my privileged status would not require me to pass through exit customs--to mail to New Jersey. After talking about this for a few minutes, she stopped and glanced meaningfully and the walls and ceiling of our train compartment. "You never know, maybe they can even listen here." Trust, or a test? Again, preconceptions were everything.
A meeting was finally convened with members of the AUCCTU's international department to discuss the exchange. Nina came with me, but Vladimir Nikitin decided to interpret. Nikitin alternated with Ruben Grigoryan as "labor attaché" in the Soviet Embassy in Washington and his English was excellent. Conversation and interpreting are not the same, however, and terminology in fields like education has meanings that vary widely by country. ["College" in many countries is a level for very young pupils, not post secondary level as in the United States.]
I told the story of our university program, Nikitin translated and very soon questions and answers, comments and responses had no relation with each other. The Soviet side remained polite, but increasingly cool. We seemed to conclude with an agreement, but it had an ephemeral quality to it.
When we left, I turned to Nina. "Can you tell me what on earth happened in there?"
She was livid. "Nikitin got the key words all wrong. He translated university as secondary school and instead of an academic course it seemed you were offering some sort of recreational program. Of course the others weren't interested in such a relationship. Once he decided to translate, I could say nothing. He's a big official and I'm just an interpreter."
That night at supper with Staev I was morose, and he noticed. "What's wrong, Eric?"
I vacillated, not wanting to criticize his colleagues. "Well, we had some misunderstandings..."
Nina jumped in. "Tell him straight. Everything is screwed up!"
Staev listened, smiled and said not to worry. The exchange would happen.
* * *
The trip was planned for late September 1980. Half the participants would come from Detroit, the remainder from Kansas City MO, where a college had adopted our degree model. The recruitment was done, the flights booked and I mailed a five-page letter to the HTUS detailing the nature of our program and the subjects and visits that seemed most useful during the stay in the USSR.
The only thing I lacked was a promised telegram from Moscow with an official confirmation and invitation. Over the months, I kept writing reminder letters. Whether and when they were delivered was uncertain. The fax didn't exist yet, the institutions in Moscow had no international telex and I had not yet been told of any person at the Soviet Embassy whom I could contact.
There were several possible explanations for the silence, one being that the misunderstanding about who we were had never been resolved to somebody's satisfaction. My only option was to cancel the flights and write to the members of the group calling off the trip. I explained that all communication with Moscow had ceased though I couldn't understand why because Russians were known for their courtesy and for keeping promises. I mailed a copy of the letter to Moscow.
As soon as the letter reached Moscow I received a telegram. "Of course" the trip was on and this telegram would serve as invitation for the visas. Within days I had rebooked the flights and contacted all the participants.
This trip was to count as a university course, and new courses went through an approval process that was normally a formality beyond the department offering them. However, in December 1979 the Soviet Union had had the indelicacy to invade Afghanistan. The American government reacted mainly with some bluster, but also suspended official exchange programs and decided to boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow.
With bureaucratic predictability, neither the department chairperson nor the dean was willing to assume responsibility for final approval. The matter was passed on to the Provost, the chief academic officer. Guy Stern had previously directed the international programs at the University of Maryland and was German himself. He might have been expected to have a perspective on this sort of situation, but he was also cautious and hesitated in order check things out.
Meanwhile, I called the State Department. Their policy was that only official (governmental) programs were suspended, they had no business interfering in private exchanges. I also phoned the director of the State University of New York's long time exchange with Moscow State University to ask the status of their program. It was going forward as usual. I sent these results to Stern's office, but he was still "checking."
We reached the make or break point on a Friday in June. The flight had to be settled, a decision had to be made. Stern promised it would be, and I said I would stay in my office the entire day to be sure not to miss the call. Nothing had happened in the late afternoon, so I phoned. His secretary told me he was still at work and would call. Again at five o'clock, but not to worry because he was staying late. Six o'clock, the same. At seven I called a final time. "Tell Dr. Stern the following. I have waited patiently all day. There is no legitimate reason for holding up this course. I am going home, here is my number. If Dr. Stern does not phone me with a positive decision during the weekend, on Monday morning at breakfast he will be reading about an academic freedom case in the newspaper."
I saw him at an event during the weekend and put the question. "Oh, didn't the Dean tell you the course had been approved?"
* * *
When our group arrived in Moscow I expected the familiar face of Kirill Staev, but another Vice Rector led the welcome committee, Marat Baglai. I had to start again to peel back what appeared to be another inscrutable face. There was a different Valery, who would be the staff person in charge of our delegation (we would always be known as a "delegation"), and a sinister figure in a black leather jacket who liked to give orders, Alexei Zhinkin. This large group--we were, after all, the first American delegation the School ever received--was completed by and army of four interpreters: scholarly-looking Guenna, quiet and formal Grisha, a new Nina and Natasha Gretchko (granddaughter of Marshall Gretchko.).
The welcoming banquet was our first meal on the mezzanine of the Sputnik Hotel's restaurant where foreign delegations ate. The table was loaded with salmon, sturgeon, red caviar and other hors-d'oeuvres (zakuski). Guenna, looking bored, mumbled a translation of Marat Baglai's welcoming; he'd heard it all before. I managed a response and the series continued whenever the orchestra took a break and we could be heard. Finally people could succumb to travel fatigue in their single rooms (another privilege of being the first American group).
There was no prostitution in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, there was a knock on the door of Don St. Clair, my colleague from Kansas City, late in the night. Don was a teacher, playwright, actor, union organizer, raconteur who never quite managed to conceal his incisiveness behind his "I'm jus'po'country folk" routine. He arrived in Moscow in cowboy boots and with a feathered Stetson covering his silver head. The urbane Marat Baglai took an immediate liking to him.
The conversation between Don, who didn't know a word of Russian, and the young lady, whose command of English ran out at "fifty dollars," was mutual groping for comprehension. Finally, Don understood. "Oh, I get it! You want me to pay you fifty dollars! Why, Miss, back where I come from the ladies pay me, but you're so nice I'll do it for nothing." Somehow, she understood, and went away laughing at her encounter with this phenomenon.
The first formal opening ceremony took place in the School's Council room. High-backed reclining chairs, a symbol of hierarchy, were at the head of the rectangular table. Behind this "presidium," a large wooden mosaic of Lenin hung on the wall. Through the glass windows at the other end of the room, we could see the booths where simultaneous translation would occur. The master of all the machines there was Sasha, eternally ebullient and helpful, and always wearing a brown blazer with all his Great Patriotic War (WW 2) ribbons.
Baglai, Zhinkin, Zayatsky and others were all present. Sharapov was not; the man who had made it possible had died.
Each seat had an earpiece, microphone and channel selector, made in East Germany. When the speeches of welcome started in Russian, the voice in the earphone was perfect "American" bass. We were later introduced to Carl Watts, a.k.a. Kirill Yegorov. Carl was a Canadian whose enthusiast parents had brought him to the Soviet Union as a boy. At age sixteen, when one receives an internal passport and becomes defined, Carl was made a Soviet citizen. Now fiftyesh and distinguished gray, his language and voice were his career. He was a newscaster for Radio Moscow, but his first love was his weekly jazz program. Whenever asked if he had gone back to visit Canada, he evaded mention of restrictions on external travel with a stock phrase: "You know how it is. When you have the time, you don't have the money; and when you have the money, you don't have the time."
Carl was a crack simultaneous interpreter from Russian to English and showed only minor hesitation in the other direction. He spoke an English that was familiar, even if his colloquialisms were sometimes dated by his long absence from "home." In all the years he worked with us he was only once lost for a word, and it was very telling. It was in 1987 and perestroika had begun. An American asked a question concerning stocks, and Carl had no idea what the Russian equivalent might be; after all, the Russian stock market had closed seventy years before. (Despite my meager Russian, I knew it was aktsia [actions]. A moment of satisfaction.) His greatest challenge came in the early years when a Soviet speaker, unfamiliar with the etiquette of simultaneous translation and totally carried away, "answered" a question in a ten minute rapid-fire tirade. We were glued to our earphones, not listening to the content but awed that Carl was keeping up. At the end, there was a spontaneous ovation from everybody in the room. The speaker was bewildered, thinking his speech had had that powerful effect and wondering why.
While Carl loved to converse, it was never about politics; he seemed a man without opinions in that domain. His only complaints were the plaintive pleadings over the headsets for a break when a long-winded lecturer would not quit.
These lectures, four hours' worth in the morning, were the mainstay of the program. If we were encouraged to get out and see because "seeing once was worth hearing a hundred times," the certainty was that we were going to hear a hundred times. Alexei Zhinkin did most of the introductions. He always began by telling us that today we had with us a very famous professor, as if by a sudden stroke of good fortune, and we always let our hopes rise that something exciting was about to happen. The reality was what it was.
Example. Harris Sabirov proved with statistics that the percentage increase in production, gross national product, education and general well-being was now in favor of the USSR compared with the west. The gap was closing and socialist countries would soon be moving ahead. Harris was unflappable at question time. He could handle anything, and it became a friendly challenge over the years to try to rattle his poise. Once when he had finished a discourse on the highly democratic nature of recent elections in which everybody had voted alike, I turned to him. "Harris, you know perfectly well that voting consists of one member of the family collecting the passports of all the others and going to the polling station to register their votes before noon so that everybody can leave to spend Sunday in the country."
"Ah!" he began his answer, tranquilly. "My esteemed colleague knows far more about the Soviet Union than I do. You should always direct your questions to him."
After an introduction to the political, economic and international policies of the USSR, the bulk of the course dealt with the trade unions. First came an overview, beginning with the conflict between Lenin and Trotsky over whether unions had any logical purpose in a workers' state. Lenin won of course; in the young and inexperienced country, the unions would be the organization, the conveyor belt, by which policy would be transmitted to the masses: "a school for production, a school for politics, a school for communism." To accomplish these tasks, unions would have five functions: production, education, health, leisure, culture.
Oh! how many times we were to hear about the five functions. Each was accorded a four-hour lecture. Each lecture resembled the recitation of a bureaucratic organization chart and regulations manual. Many speakers came in with a pile of old lecture notes that seemed ever so high and would never be exhausted.
Tanya Grishina handled production by explainingsocialist emulation, a kind of boosterism by which pay and celebrity (having one's picture on the wall) were linked to filling the output plan . . . or at least not missing it by too much. Then, I could not persuade Tanya it was all a fiction; today she cannot believe she said those things.
Alexei Zhinkin's lectures on labor law were the exception. Alexei did everything possible , such as the black leather jacket at the airport, to cultivate suspicions that he was attached to the KGB. He talked while slowly pacing around the rectangular table. Looking down to write notes meant losing track of where he was. Suddenly, he was right behind you, bending over your shoulder to see what you were writing. He spoke in caricature English. "Worker who wishes to quit job must give two month's notice." "Two!" he'd repeat, thrusting his finger to the spot in your notebook where he wanted it written. "If employer violates rights of worker . . . SIBERIA! Hmpf!" His mock terrorism played on every preconception, but what pleased him most was gifts of Western imprinted T-shirts.
On subsequent trips I temporarily transferred my International Herald Tribune subscription to the Sputnik Hotel address. Interpreters said I was foolish; such publications were not allowed into the Soviet Union. I insisted the papers would arrive, and they did. They were a favorite of Alexei. He had sharp eyes, quick hands and when he borrowed it was for good. It was never easy to keep him from discovering and making off with a new issue before I and a few of the group were able to read it.
A few days into the trip we were taken to a concert of Russian folk songs and dances. During the intermission, I was having a drink at a stand-up table with Guenna and Nina. The bells rang for the second half, and I started to leave. Guenna stopped me. "You'll see plenty of Russian folk concerts. Stay here and talk with us instead." I couldn't refuse this first chance for a real conversation.
Guenna wasted few pleasantries before getting to the point. "The problem is Grisha. You have to tell the School he's not working out and should be changed."
It was unexpected. "What do you mean he's not working out? He's fine. How could I ask that he be fired for absolutely no reason?"
"Just do it. You don't have to explain anything. You are the head of the delegation and they'll do what you ask."
No explanation was given. If I wanted to imagine that Guenna was warning me that Grisha was a (the) KGB observer, that was my business. (In the upside down Cold War world I was also free to suppose Guenna was the agent and testing my reaction.) Maybe they just didn't like each other.
I made clear there would be no purge of Grisha, and the subject changed. I began to talk about how I was trying to enliven our lectures with some provocative questions. Guenna interrupted. "Stop, I don't want to hear about it. Look, do you like this country? Do you want to come again with another group? Then don't ask such questions. Let your group ask them. It won't matter. But not you."
At the end of the first week, Zayatsky came to the hotel during dinner and invited me to join him for a drink and zakuski at another table. He pulled a document from his pocket. It was my five-page list of explanations and requests for the course. It had actually been given attention, and he wanted to know if our objectives were being satisfied. I had a strange sensation just seeing it again. All of my letters during the year had disappeared into a void, and I still didn't know who pulled the strings. This gave human character to the relationship.
A few days later, an announcement was made to me. "Tomorrow your group will go to the Kremlin." Oh, they would get to visit the churches I had seen the previous summer? "No, they will meet with our government." Why was this being done? "Well, in your letter you said you wanted to cover the subject of how our country functions politically. Where would they know better than in the Kremlin?"
Baglai came with us, and at the official entrance he showed the identification in the small, red leather folding wallets that opened doors in the Soviet hierarchy. We were led directly to the great hall with the long table and chandeliers that I would recall later whenever handshaking ceremonies were televised with visiting dignitaries.
We received apologies that Leonid Brezhnev could not see us because he was receiving the Syrian president in another room and we were introduced to our four hosts, the heads of the Secretariat and of the International, Legal and Social Questions departments of the Supreme Soviet. Two secretaries were poised to take verbatim notes in Russian and English, and they were backed by two tape recorders.
The historic session lasted two hours, during which nothing more enlightening was heard than in our lectures. The roles of the Supreme Soviet and the departments represented were catalogued. As our hosts loosened up they began to swap anecdotes about the old times with each other--it was the most interesting part--and in answer to a question about whether Brezhnev had to be elected to his post as President they told us what an extensive and exhausting campaign he had conducted, fortunately ending in a successful (99%?) vote.
We seemed to have concluded when somebody asked a final question. I was dismayed. There was no such thing as an answer that took fewer than fifteen minutes and I had to go to the toilet. What suffering. Relief finally came before we were taken to the chamber of the Supreme Soviet and invited to take our place at the podium and pretend to be Brezhnev.
The details of the conversations that day
will eventually be unearthed by scholars of the Soviet archives.
A Soviet visa was not permission to visit the country, only specific cities. I had hoped that our group might get to Leningrad and was totally surprised when the visas arrived and I saw the list: Leningrad, Minsk, Tashkent, Samarkand.
Leningrad was like a homecoming, a return to the luxury of the Astoria Hotel, the beautiful landscapes of buildings overlooking the Neva river, another chance to see the Hermitage, the Peter and Paul fortress, the battleship Aurora that fired the shot to signal the revolution, the palace at Pavlovsk. It was also, perhaps foremost, the cemetery where hundreds of thousands of victims of the nine hundred day siege during World War 2 lay buried. Another reading in the cemetery's memorial museum of the successive pages of a diary of a Tanya, a young girl who endured the seige: "Today papa died... Today auntie died... Today mama died. Tanya is all alone."
One day we boarded the bus and were driven without explanation to a parking lot on the city outskirts. From there we started to walk, still not knowing where or why. I already had enough experience to think instinctively: "It's about Lenin." The clue was the path through the forest: perfectly laid asphalt and spotlessly clean. Sure enough, we arrived at Razliff, the reconstruction of the hollowed-out haystack where Lenin hid out and the tree stump next to it on which he sat and wrote, "State and Revolution."
From then on I took amusement in comparing similar shrines. Any Lenin museum of two stories would have a well-functioning escalator and it was a sure bet that it was made by Otis. Each museum had a jacket with a bullet hole in the back, the one Lenin wore during the assassination attempt. Certain paintings or photographs were also a required part of the history, and if one were feeling a bit unkind (sadistic?) it was always possible to innocently ask the guide why the faces of people known to be in the original central committee of the Party were missing.
During a stop on another excursion I was approached for the first time by a man on the street. "Tell your group you'll rejoin them later. Let's go talk somewhere. I have a car and I'll bring you back to your hotel." It was the kind of spontaneous contact I thought I was looking for, and it was a way to signal to the group that they were not constrained and under surveillance and could also go off and explore.
The beginning of the conversation met my
expectations, all sorts of criticism of Brezhnev that were not part of the
discourse in our lectures. Imperceptibly and then more insistently a new
topic entered into and finally took over the discussion. The man had icons
to sell and wanted me to be the middleman for my group in exchange for a
commission or a selection of the best icon. It took several explanations that
we were guests and were not going to abuse that status to persuade him that
I was serious; ie, a hopeless case.
Minsk was less interesting to visit, but it was not the city's fault. All but twenty buildings had been leveled during the war and the replacements were in Soviet style and by necessity done as quickly as possible to provide shelter.
The exciting part came in the visit to a tractor factory where some members of the group were allowed to mount and drive the giant dirt-hauling trucks made there and exported. We also witnessed out first love affair between a factory director and the trade union leader. They may have thought they were doing the right thing to paint a picture of labor peace and total mutual understanding, but their efforts just made the Americans incredulous.
The only friction came when we wanted to take pictures inside the factory. The School in Moscow, wanting to prove that we were visiting an open society, told us that when we were on the road we should say we had the right to photograph anything. Nobody ever explained our privilege to the local people, who always felt there was less risk in adhering to the adage that anything not expressly permitted was forbidden. Sometimes they would be supported by group members who knew that photography inside an American factory would rarely be tolerated. Usually there would be an exchange between the director and the union representative, the latter speaking on our behalf. An exception allowing us to photograph would be granted, then the hosts could joke about this being proof of the power of Soviet trade unions.
The delicate part was the excursion to Katyn. Countless Byelorussian villages in this region had been decimated by the Nazis and the people massacred. One, Katyn, had been selected for the building of a monument to symbolize all the others. Skeletal cement constructions were placed on the sites of destroyed houses, there were moving statues and inscriptions to the horrors that had occurred. It was the Byelorussian equivalent to Lidice in Czechoslovakia or Oradur-sur-Glâne in France, but multiplied many fold.
The problem was that not too far to the west was the Katyn forest across the Polish border where Stalin had ordered that thousands of Polish officers be executed instead of being reintegrated into the army to fight Hitler. It was insurance that post-war Poland would not be dominated by the current government in exile in England. For decades the Soviet Union officially blamed the massacre on the Nazis despite all evidence to the contrary. It was hard not to conclude that the choice of Katyn to represent all the victimized villages was meant to distract attention from Poland and to associate the name with the Nazi barbarism committed in Byelorussia.
We were all moved by what we had seen and
the difficulty was how to say so in an appropriate toast at our farewell dinner
that night. If our hosts knew about the Polish Katyn, which was not all that
certain in 1980, I wanted them to know we did too and were not taken in by
the name game, while at the same time paying tribute to the reality of Byelorussian
losses. The solution turned on saying that the name Katyn evoked the image
of injustice and suffering wherever it was spoken and building on that generalizing
theme of what war had meant on both sides. If the tears on both sides at
the end were a gauge, the tactic worked.
To reach Tashkent meant learning to fly, Soviet style. The waiting lounge for foreigners at distant Domodedovo airport was a separate small building and it was years before I saw the terminal that "ordinary" people used. Everybody had to show a passport before boarding a domestic flight, an internal one for Soviet citizens, so one could not go far very fast without proper documents. In the spirit of our initial visit, showing an official letter exempted our group from having hand baggage examined.
The boarding process was a fixed ritual. We'd arrive at the foot of the stairway by bus, where a queue of Soviet passengers were already waiting. They did not protest when asked to step aside so that we could climb up first. Nevertheless, protocol seemed to require that the cabin crew standing in the hatch have a short conversation and look over some papers once more before allowing anybody to mount, as if they were reluctant to really let the flight get underway or wanted to give the impression that if it did, it was a special case for which the passengers should be grateful. Aeroflot was the world's biggest airline, yet the successful loading of each plane was a triumph.
The privilege everybody shared on a long flight was chicken. It was rare in those days and seldom showed up even in hotel meals, but was what Aeroflot served. Always. Chicken and peas. Most of the elements of the meal were wrapped separately in thick cellophane and by somebody specialized in handling it. Once unwrapped, the cellophane expanded stiffly and no passenger was able to make it compact again. The result was to finish one's meal behind a mountain of the transparent, noisy stuff.
Uzbekistan was truly something different, both in history--Samarkand went back five millennia--and in the present. I discovered this when I tried to speak with some young boys and found they knew less Russian than I did (in fact, none) and were only intent on forcefully making themselves a gift of the pen in my pocket. These were the Uzbeks. At the same moment a group of Young Pioneers in red neckerchiefs marched by with their impeccable manners and far from oriental features.
This impromptu display said more than all the discourse about Soviet nationalities policies and the equal opportunities they provided to both Russian and indigenous populations. The right to be schooled in one's own language, for example, was certainly a good in itself and respected local culture, but if children like those I met did not also learn Russian their economic futures were dim. One result was evident by the time boys reached eighteen and did their obligatory military service. Unable to follow orders in Russian, they could only be assigned to construction and other undesirable tasks.
Soviet medical care was one of the subjects on my list and it was satisfied by taking us to a hospital there. A Dr. Levy took us around, but I did not ask him if he had chosen to practice in Uzbekistan for the sun and good cuisine, if his family had been moved eastward out of harm's way during the war, as many Jews were, or if this were a gentle form of internal exile.
I cannot insist enough on our importance as the first American "trade union delegation." All doors were to be open to us, in this case the doors of the operating room. We were marched in with our street clothes and bacteria--it didn't make a big difference because the window was open--and from there we went to the post-operative recovery room to be shown the patients emerging from anesthesia.
Religious practices were also on the list, and we had already visited the Russian Orthodoxy center in Zagorsk, north of Moscow. There, after a welcome speech, a viewing of a photo of the Soyuz and Apollo astronauts made during their visit and a glass of kvass, the famous Russian drink made from fermented bread, a priest gave us the standard tour of the monastery and churches. The two exceptional parts, for our special status, were entry to the Academy where priests and monks were trained and to the refectory with its elaborate gilded wood iconostasis.
In Tashkent our meeting was with the mullah who was second in command of the institute training Moslem clergy. After showing us an astonishing collection of ornate Korans and explaining how Islam was thriving harmoniously with Soviet power, he was ready to answer questions.
We were not that many kilometers from the border with Afghanistan where the fighting was going on. I had to ask, but tried to make the wording non-political. Leaving who was right or wrong in the conflict aside, there were Moslems on both sides of it and many people in Afghanistan were ethic Uzbeks. How was the church trying to handle the human side of a war that had pitted brothers against each other?
Our host switched onto automatic pilot and
recited the litany we had already heard in Moscow. The Soviet Union had not
wanted to become involved in this internal problem, but it had certain treaty
obligations and after repeated requests by the legitimate authorities for
assistance it became impossible to refuse, etc. In Moscow I'd sometimes follow
up by wondering why the "legitimate authority" who requested the intervention
(President Amin) was executed on the first day of Soviet presence, but I
did not bother the sheik with this.
At the end of our short flight to Samarkand, the pilot received an ovation for his feathery landing. He strutted out of the cockpit beaming to acknowledge the appreciation of his art. For some reason, he wore a sidearm in a holster.
I was awakened in the middle the night during our stay there by shouting. When I was conscious enough, I recognized Don's voice and was sure it was coming from street level on the plaza in from of the hotel. "Neeena, I love you! I only have eyes for you, Neena!"
The plaza was empty, so I followed the plaint until it led me to Grisha and Guenna's room. The scene was of empty vodka bottles and half-eaten sausages. Grisha was the instigator. "Don, go out and call again." Out, was the balcony. The adjacent balcony belonged to Nina and Natasha, who were inside pretending not to hear this surreal parody on Romeo and Juliet.
I imagined there had to be some behavior limits in the country and we might soon be discussing this with the Soviet militia. We negotiated. I could rescue Don but only if I would down a certain quantity of vodka and sausage myself. The price was tasty and the agreed amount of the former would not suffice to turn us into a chorus.
The satisfaction I had was that the reserved Grisha was out of his shell and there was no more sign of the tension between Guenna and him.
A related incident happened during our farewell dinner in Tashkent. We were enjoying a magnificent lamb pilau and toasting with vodka, when the (very large) lady next to me turned, rolled her eyes back into her head, and fell like a stone. Don and I looked at each other and had the same thought: How are we going to get the body back to America?
We detected a pulse and breathing, and within a half hour she came to. The explanation was that she was taking medicine for diarrhea and also decided to participate in the toasts. The experience was frightening enough that I've never since failed to warn people against such imprudent mixtures.
The flight to Moscow was to leave at eight p.m., but at the airport we were asked to stay in the waiting room (always the waiting room for foreign guests). After some time, we were given the vague message: "Moscow cannot receive." Weather? Mechanical problem? Fuel shortage? We never knew, but the flight would not depart until six the next morning. This, I would learn on a later such adventure, was an enormous and invaluable piece of information.
The first American trade union delegation would not be asked to spend the night in an airport waiting room. We were driven to the hotel, checked back into the rooms we'd just left and told to sleep until four a.m.
When we returned to the airport it was already
six and the plane was being held for us. The 150 other passengers didn't
even notice when we boarded; they were all asleep after their nightlong ordeal.
We sat down and the loudspeaker came on. As if nothing had happened. "Ladies
and gentlemen, welcome aboard our flight from Tashkent to Moscow. Our flying
altitude will be ten thousand meters. [All Aeroflot flights in any direction
flew at the same altitude and speed in those days, the one in the text the
attendant read or memorized.] As soon as we reach our cruising altitude,
we will serve supper." And they did. Chicken and peas.
During the final week we were taken to elaborately decorated former mansion of the pre-Revolution merchant Morozov that now housed the many Friendship committees to meet representatives of the Soviet-American version. After an explanations of the Committee's activities, we were invited to ask questions based upon our four weeks of observations. "Any question is welcome," our host repeated when there was hesitation.
One member of the group filled the gap. "Where can I buy Kodak film for my camera?"
We were embarrassed, and another person in the room was probably not very impressed. He was Gennady Gerasimov, then political correspondent for the Novosti press agency and sent to see what this first American trade union delegation was all about. Five years later he would become a familiar face on American television as official spokesman for the new Gorbachev government.
When the meeting broke up, he and I took a walk. The American Presidential election was about ten days away, Ronald Reagan was sure to win and Gerasimov was satisfied. Reagan was an anti-Communist Republican, Nixon had been an anti-Communist Republican. Nixon in office had taken significant steps (e.g., SALT) toward better US-USSR relations. Reagan could be expected to do the same.
I questioned his syllogism. "Reagan is very different, and we are in for some very bad times in Soviet-American relations. You didn't understand Carter, and so you didn't know how to respond to his disarmament offer. [Carter had proposed to negotiate total and complete disarmament. Brezhnev's government rejected the idea out of hand, thinking it wasn't serious and preferring a step-by-step approach.] Russians are Europeans and on top of that you are like the French, always expecting complexity and plots even when they're not there. That doesn't prepare you for an American fundamentalist Protestant like Carter who might have intended to do exactly what he said. If you analyzed him as you would a European politician, you would never know that."
Gerasimov's demeanor was reflective as he reacted. "You mean we really lost a opportunity?"
It was the first time I heard a phrase from somebody who processed information, formed an opinion and was willing, or highly enough placed, to express it and not a formula to a foreigner.
The last afternoon, press and radio journalists came to interview members of the group. Several engaged in a conversation with me, during which I told them that I had visited Warsaw in the summers of 1979 and 1980, before and after the Solidarnosc movement had begun. They wanted to know what I observed and how I read the situation there. I must have talked for more than half an hour. The journalists had recorders and they continued to hold the microphones up to me, but the tape had long since run out. I understood this had become not an interview for broadcast or publication but a way for them to get first hand information about a delicate subject.
Early in the trip I had asked the American Embassy to give our group a briefing on current US policy toward the Soviet Union. They agreed, and it was done by a commercial section officer and a first secretary. (At that time of little trade, the commercial section was thought to harbor intelligence functions.)
Our Soviet hosts not only encouraged the idea that we inform ourselves about our government's views, but later Marat Baglai suggested that we invite the two Embassy officials to our farewell banquet. They obtained permission from their superiors to accept, and came.
The toast were well along that evening when the first secretary, whose conscientious drinking to friendship gave him courage, leaned over to me and said, "Well, what the hell, I'm gonna do a toast to George Meany." He pulled himself to his feet and belted out something like, "I know there are a lot of disagreements about George Meany over some things, but ya gotta admit he was a damn fine union leader who cared for the working man." Emptying another glass took precedence over contesting the argument.
When the banquet ended the party continued in the lounge on our floor of the hotel. I was sharing a small hassock with the Embassy first secretary. Suddenly Guenna came over. "Make room for a third," he said, claiming a non-existent space. "Just pay attention to the others and don't listen." He began to talk into the ear of our diplomat guest.
When the conversation ended, the secretary decided it was time to leave (it was after one in the morning), so I offered to show him out. As soon as the elevator door closed, he burst out: "Well, I've met a lot of KGB agents in my day, but this one takes the cake!"
"What did he say that makes you think that?
"The son of a bitch wants me to help him
Such was the upside-down world of mutual suspicions and mutual friendships we left the next morning. We were spared the long lines of people going through exit customs examination, but the moment of separation came at passport control. Nina shed the most tears at seeing us leave. Back at the School, Don's Stetson hung from a peg in Marat Baglai's office, as it would for all the years Marat would remain there.
The flight to Brussels was normal. People ate their chicken dinner breakfast quietly, tired or in thought. The variety started when we began our descent. "Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your safety belts for our landing in Paris."
I heard running in the aisle, then saw the contorted face of one of our delegation. "Damn you! You put us on the wrong flight!"
I persuaded him to sit down until we could sort this out. When we landed, the Soviet Ambassador to Belgium, flying in first class, was allowed to deplane. The French authorities wouldn't allow the rest of us to do so. I found the pilot, who explained that we were diverted because of an air controllers' strike in Belgium. We'd wait to see if it ended soon; if it didn't, we'd be bused to Brussels. The certainty was that when the controllers went back to work, our flight to the United States would leave.
After more than an hour, the French decided they could risk a Soviet invasion of the waiting lounge in the international zone, so they let us off to get coffee. We'd barely done so when we were ordered back aboard; the two-hour strike was over.
The plane to the United States was not only gone, but the computers reported that no airline had seats from Brussels, London, Paris or elsewhere to New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston or anywhere else for a week! We seemed stuck until an agent located space the next day from London-Gatwick to Atlanta on British Caledonian, the now defunct Scottish carrier.
The rest of the day was spent rewriting tickets while we waited for the flight to Gatwick at five p.m. We were just ready to board when there was an announcement: the air controllers were conducting another two-hour strike. For a trade union delegation we were seeing some very effective tactics. The controllers could tie up the whole system at will at practically no cost in lost salaries.
It was late when we arrived in Gatwick, but British Caledonian told us to drop our baggage and go straight to dinner, a good night's sleep at the hotel, breakfast and a nice ride to Atlanta.
It was, but it was also just a little late and the gate for the connection to Detroit at the new Atlanta airport was at the last stop of the shuttle train. Customs clearance was quick, but not worldly. "Where are you coming from?"
"Moscow? What would anybody want to go there for?"
We still had to go through the security check for hand baggage and our Moscow hosts had given each person an electric samovar packed in a cardboard box.
I approached the security guard. "In a moment, twenty-two metal samovars are going to pass through your X-ray machine. These people received them as gifts in Moscow. I promise you there is nothing in them, but if you make us open them we'll miss our flight." He let them go. Only four people were too late for their flight.
* * *
What remained was to complete the exchange. I had told the Soviet side we didn't have their resources so the people they sent would be housed with families and not in hotels. From our point of view, that would be a better way to get to know America, but skeptics insisted the Soviets would not allow people to travel abroad so unsupervised.
They would. That posed no problem. We made all the plans and issued the invitation for 1981. We were ready, so were they. So was the new Baker Amendment to the immigration law. Two days before the Soviet delegation was to leave, the Americans notified them their visa applications had been denied. I guess nobody at the AFL-CIO had heard about the toast to George Meany.