Anecdotal accounts: 1983
Copyright 1996 byEric Fenster

There would never be an attempt at an exchange after 1982, but we were invited to continue to return with groups. Zayatsky put it simply: “The two sides should keep talking and if the only place we can do it is Moscow, so be it.” Getting to the conversation in 1983 wasn’t easy though. Just weeks before we were to come, the Soviets shot down the Korean Air Lines flight.
    I had discussions with several of the participants. One explained that she lived in a small American town and to go to Moscow after that event meant neither her relatives nor neighbors would talk to her again. Another said how angry she was, and I suggested she had two choices: stay home with her anger or come to Moscow and tell the Soviets how she felt. I promised we would raise the issue. She liked the second idea.
    We had a group. The question was whether we could get to Moscow. One of the immediate punishments decided by Ronald Reagan was to indefinitely close Aeroflot offices in the United States and suspend its landing rights. European countries had to share their continent with the Soviet Union and were not willing to take such a radical step. Most forbid Aeroflot to overfly or land for one month. Our group was flying via Belgium, and Belgium procrastinated.
    I was in Paris compiling all the possible indirect routes and seat availabilities from Brussels to Moscow. Brussels to Warsaw on LOT Polish Airlines, changing to Aeroflot, looked the most sure. I listened to Belgian radio constantly for that government’s decision. Finally it came: a two-week suspension of landing rights, including the time of our flight. Immediately, all the tickets were rewritten to go via Poland.
    With this problem solved, another arose. Public employees in Belgium went on strike, and the strike was spreading. There were two stages through which it could pass. The first was to become a national strike, meaning that in a given sector all the workers in the country, not just in a city or region, would cease work. The final stage would be a general strike. Everybody in all sectors would join in. That meant trains, urban transit, airports, post office, telephone, just about everything in the country would be paralyzed.
    I planned for any eventuality to get from Paris to Brussels. I had a train ticket, but knew we would be stranded at the French-Belgian border if the strike affected the trains. I reserved a flight and also a car at the Brussels airport because the trains into the city would not function. Reservation of a rental car in Paris to drive the whole way was the last resort. Luckily, the trains were still running when I made the trip.
    The group was about to fly from New York when I checked with the airline about what might happen. If the airport were to be closed by a strike, they said, the flight from New York would be diverted to Dusseldorf, Germany. Our LOT airplane coming from Warsaw would be sent to Amsterdam. I would be in Brussels. Three cities, three countries.
    The complexity of labor relations in Belgium reflected the complexity of the whole country, divided four ways. There was the linguistic division between the Walloons (French) and the Flemish and the political one between Christian Democrats and Socialists. For a dispute of this magnitude to be resolved, the Christian Democratic Walloon, the Socialist Walloon, the Christian Democratic Flemish and the Socialist Flemish trade unions all had to agree to accept an offer.
    I listened to the news every hour. At eleven p.m., a settlement was announced. The planes could land in Brussels!
When we arrived in Moscow (via Warsaw) the next day, there was Alexei Zhinkin in his black leather jacket, but not at all stern-faced as he had been three years before. This was a happy man. It turned out there had been a betting pool among staff at the School, and only Alexei had placed his money on our coming. He had won the whole pot. “I knew you would bring them,” he told me. The bet only had to do with whether we would come despite the Korean Air Line shootdown. None of our Moscow friends knew what a close brushl we had had with Belgian politics.

Marat Baglai was surely the School’s Vice Rector for International Relations in part because he understood tact. Unfortnately, he had to be absent from the opening ceremony of our course, so the rector who had replaced Sharapov sat in for him. His speech was a bland formula that avoided the issue causing so much tension between the two countries.
    I had to say something about it, even though this moment was not appropriate for a real debate. In my response to his welcome, I simply stated that the failure of the sophisticated technology both countries possessed to prevent a serious accident proved the value of face-to-face contacts such as our visits permitted.
    The rector exploded. He energetically assaulted us with the memorized official position that KAL was conducting a deliberate spy flight over Soviet air space as a provocation, had ignored all warnings to cease the violation or to land and, basically, deserved what it got.
    There was no point continuing and the meeting broke up, the rector seemingly satisfied that he had done his patriotic duty while his colleagues were left embarrassed by his behavior toward guests.
    We had many subsequent occasions, collectively and individually, to argue and interpret the “facts.” The objective reality would only become better known over the years. What we had was a practical demonstration of Cold War rules. The Soviet official position was neither more nor less valid or absurd than the American one. Ronald Reagan had announced his conclusions and accusations within hours, before any investigation, and probably before his counterpart in the Kremlin knew much about what had occurred. Reagan seemed most offended that anybody could pretend not to recognize (in the dark) the silhouette of that great American pride, the 747. (The attack, it seemed forgotten, was not against an American flight but against an American-built airplane.) The positions of both countries hardened as quickly and immutably as crazy glue, and the rector’s blind obedience to that logic tarnished the different kind of relationship we had been building.
    A few days later, when we returned to the hotel after a morning lecture, we were told lunch would be in a different dining room. We entered and found a table spread with the zakuski of a formal banquet: caviar, sturgeon, smoked salmon, and the rest, plus vodka and wine. A number of staff from the School were present, and the rector presided. It was as if it were a welcome or farewell feast, but the toasts had no more content than the usual platitudes, sentimentality and clever turning of phrases. There was no explanation for this impromptu gala, but the meal was clearly an apology by the rector.

The lectures followed their usual pattern, despite my attempt to derail them into discussions. After our second course in 1982, I realized we were going to continue to have four-hour monologues from piles of old notes. Even if a subject was occasionally covered by a different speaker--whom Alexei, as usual, introduced as “famous,”--the content and delivery hardly varied.
In 1982 I took notes and had transformed them into a “reader” that I distributed ahead of time to the participants with the injunction to read the lectures before they happened so that we could move quickly to questions and discussion. I wrote to the School to tell them I had done this and asked that all the lecturers be informed about how we had prepared.
    This two-step chain of communication was too long to work. A lecture would begin, and people would have their readers open to follow it, turning pages in unison. It usually took half an hour for the speaker to notice. “But you have all this!” Yes, we said, and you should have been told. Each lecture always began with a proposal from the speaker to give a reasonably brief overview of the subject and then open the floor for discussion, and this sensible approach was always democratically accepted. Upon discovering our notes, the lecturer would suggest taking a shorter path to the conclusion of his "introductory remarks." To accept this was polite, and thus certain. And fatal. The "introductory remarks" filled the four hours as before. The variety in our lecture routine came in an unexpected way.

We were back “home” in the Sputnik that year. One afternoon I was standing, back against the wall, in the main lobby watching people come and go. Suddenly a voice beside me said, “Would you like me to introduce you to her?” The stranger was an older woman who gave the impression of being nervous and poised at the same time, more out of Chekhov than of the present, and she’d seen that I had noticed a woman at the entrance who was trying to shepherd a group of tourists.
That’s how I met Helen and finally discovered the Russian kitchen table. Lena’s full-time job was as a guide at the All-Union Exhibition of National Achievements (VDNKh) and she moonlighted as an interpreter for the trade unions. She was separated and had a four-year-old daughter named Ana. This situation was so typical that later I could being conversations with women I met by telling them they were probably twenty-five, divorced and had a daughter several years old (the name need not be Ana). The margin of error in age was narrow, and occasionally the daughter was a son. A detail.
    The reason was simple. Marriage and a child were the only way to move up the apartment waiting list and become independent from parents, so a heartthrob was interpreted as love at a very early age. The mean time necessary to discover incompatibility or lack of readiness or a drinking husband did not vary by much.
    Lena’s lucky difference was that she and her ex-husband-to-be had bought a cooperative apartment that she would retain. Unlike many others, she did not have to move back in with her parents and face the pressure from them to quickly marry again.
To go there meant respecting the ritual of not speaking English until inside with the door closed. It had nothing to do with being afraid, but more that people were nosy and liked to gossip. Better not to have to answer questions. If possible I would avoid the eyes and questions of the concierge. It was better to let myself in than to ring and wait for a buzzer. That was easy because the building's outer door had a coded lock. I knew the number, and even if I didn’t, as in many buildings it was written on the wall as just another way Soviets defeated what authorities intended for them, even for their own good. If the concierge spotted me and asked where I was going, I answered matter-of-factly as if I belonged. That much Russian I could handle without accent; I just didn’t want to give her time to look at my shoes. Once in Leningrad I was followed for a long time by somebody who finally pulled even with me and said in English: “You know, it’s amazing. The way you look, the way you dress, the way you move, you could pass completely for a Russian.”
    “So, how did you  ...?
    “Your shoes.” And he walked on.
    Like other Moscow apartments I came to know, people were always visiting, dropping in with equal ease before or after midnight. More tea, more sausage and bread. Unless it was so crowded that we were forced to the living room, we stayed around the kitchen table talking, usually quietly. Russians speak to each other and not to the air; anybody who has been in a crowded bus there has experienced that.
    My strongest sensation of those evenings was the sense of absolute security. During the day we were talking about the KAL flight and Star Wars and SS20 and Pershing missiles. Somewhere “out there” the rockets and the politicians’ rhetoric were pointed at each other, but none of this could threaten us, or was even relevant, so long as we were at the kitchen table drinking tea.
    Between guests or during any chance meetings the running joke between us was for me to learn and rehearse the litany Lena gave daily at the National Exhibition of Economic Achievements: its founding, the expansion, the number and kinds of exhibits, the natural attractions of the park "where Muscovites like to enjoy their relaxation on Sundays." There were also the tranquilizing answers to the standard questions, such as the inevitable one at the space exhibit about whether Laika, the dog the Soviet Union sent into space, survived the mission. Everything, including euphemisms about the fate of poor Laika, had to be pronounced each time as if it were the first time. The “spontaneity” was like that on Radio Moscow where, several times each day, an announcer would suddenly interrupt himself with: “Oh, by the way! Did you know that there has been no unemployment in the Soviet Union since 1931 and that rent costs only about four per cent of the average family’s income?” It was wonderful to go along with the game and constantly have the pleasure of discovering these achievements. The same with the exhibit discourse.
    Actually, the park was impressive. Near the entrance was a large circular fountain with statues of  fifteen gilded women representing the republics of the country. Eighty buildings housed exhibits about every sector of the economy. Although many seemed perpetually closed for renovation and we never went inside more than two or three, the space building alone was worth the trip for tourists. For Soviets, who had enough information about their economic accomplishments from the first half of every evening’s television news, there were forests, lakes and picnic grounds.
    That year the group went to the exhibition on the day after arrival in the country. During the excursion, a discussion broke out among them about Soviets who were trying to emigrate. My brother was in the group and exclaimed with a broad gesture: “Who would want to leave all this?” On the first day, he was seeing what he came expecting to see, and if others came with preconceptions of a different kind they would not go unchallenged. His deception seemed to be born and grow as the trip went on. The problem was that many of the achievements existed in the present only in the exhibition; the rest were only in an indeterminate radiant future.
    Lena had a (sometimes stormy) friendship with Marina (about twenty-five, divorced, two-year-old daughter). Marina dramatized everything; for her, saying hello after an interruption of, say, a day was almost histrionic.
    The most extraordinary thing about her invitation to dinner was that she served chicken. It was the first civilian (ie, non-Aeroflot) chicken I remember seeing in the Soviet Union. Her parents were in the diplomatic sphere, off in Spain or somewhere, so maybe that had something to do with it.
    We talked, the three of us, all night long. Marina had a doctor’s appointment for her daughter at eight in the morning, so at seven she announced that we should all get some sleep. We laid down for all of thirty minutes.
    To get to the doctor’s office, Marina flagged down a car and negotiated a price. We started off in a downpour. The driver chose a route that nominally was a construction site for new apartment buildings but in fact was a huge deserted space. Suddenly, what passed for a road was blocked by a small lake created by the rain. The driver hesitated only slightly then decided he could make it across. As soon as we reached the point of no return, the car stalled in a nearly a foot of water.             There was nobody around, the rain was coming down even harder. We could wade out, but to where, and we had a sick two-year-old. I was due in class, but that seemed a minor point.
    The driver got out and left. We waited. It wasn’t twenty minutes before he was back, riding in a truck that had a heavy chain and grappling hook. Where he found it, we never knew, but Russia survives on its wits. We were pulled out like a toy within seconds.
    For some reason all of us were soaking wet even though we spent the event in the car. The doctor was forgotten and I suggested going to the hotel to get dry. The three of us and the child walked past the doormen without giving any explanation and in our state they didn’t ask for any. The next hour was spent sharing a hair dryer. Baglai’s office called. Where was I? He wanted to see me. It would have to wait.
    My group arrived at the hotel for lunch looking absolutely sullen. What was wrong, I asked.
    “Today’s speaker was a warmonger!”
    We had had some give and take over the years, but never the personal animosity that had taken hold this time. I had to find out quickly what happened because the speaker was scheduled for two more sessions and a boycott was brewing. I also felt a bit guilty. The Soviets had begun to tease me about sitting through lectures I had already heard twice before, and now at the first one I missed in three years there was an explosion.
    Victor Orlov was a stocky, former colonel of about sixty whose blond hair tenaciously defied his age and who filtered a suave voice through a large moustache. He would not imagine coming to as formal an occasion as addressing a foreigh delegation without wearing his campaign ribbons on his jacket. This was the first year he had appeared before our group, and his subject was the evolution of East-West relations.
    I met him briefly that afternoon. He knew something had gone wrong, but didn’t know what. His conclusion was simple: “I think they hate me.”
    Liudmila, our new interpreter that year, was crestfallen when she heard the story. “You know, I saw him yesteday in the cafeteria looking worried. When I asked him what was wrong, he said he was preparing to give lectures to Americans for the first time in his life and was terribly afraid he wouldn’t do a good job.” It was not just a question of performing well. His subject was essentially war and peace, and he felt he bore the responsibility to convince his guests that the Soviet Unon wanted the latter. “He really is a good man,” said Liuda. “You need to figure out what happened.”
    Evgeny was our second simultaneous translator and astonishingly good in either direction. I was never aware of his making any mistake, and even that day only a matter of nuance provoked the incident. Orlov had been saying that the present state of tense bilateral relations had destroyed the era of détente. Somebody, apparently hoping Orlov did not see all as lost, asked the question: “Can you say what good came out of détente?”
    What Orlov heard in translation was a negative: “So what good was détente!”
    To which he blustered: “And what would you prefer as an alternative, war?”
    With that information I could talk to both Orlov and the group and effect a reconciliation, and at the end of his third lecture, they presented him with a bouquet of roses. That never happened before or since. It was a lesson for all of us in how misunderstandings might also occur during diplomatic encounters between nations, no matter how skilled the interpreters.

Our knowledge of who the Soviet people were and what they were thinking depended, in those days, on the few with whom we had constant contact. The most important were the translators who were with us every day and who shared hours of conversation and very often enduring friendships.
    In 1982 we had our first experience with Anatoly Yatsenko--little Anatoly, or Tolya, to distinguish him from Zayatsky. Tolya must have spoken incredible Portugese because that was his first foreign language and his English was perfect. He was a thespian who could translate the most boring bureaucratic droning into high drama, and while he rendered what was said with pinpoint accuracy the fluorishes and stresses he gave to other people’s words enveloped them in satire or irony that made for political commentary of the highest order... and safe. He could lay the same accent on “the” or “and” at times, as decoys. Tolya wasn’t subtle, but he was elusive. His sin was chain-smoking and he was, or claimed to be, cursed by a jealous second wife who had their apartment (the most precious Soviet posession) in her name and thus stood between him and the street. When not with us, he worked on the editorial board of a social sciences journal.
    Liudmila had no idea what “half-way” meant.She was twice a patriot--of Ossetia, her homeland in the Caucasus, and of her country--and she proudly showed us everything she could fit into the time we had. “Well, comrades!” That was the way every meal with Liuda ended, and it meant it was time to move on and see more, learn more. Liuda’s priority was people. She came to know each person in the group and was most upset if somebody who had a need wasn’t forthright about seeking assistance to find a solution. In the debates we had about the responsibility for the loss of the Korean airliner, she was ready to accept the Soviet version of a provocatory incursion as a point of departure, but she sought supporting evidence and she knew how to listen. Liuda was a student in the Institute for International Relations, the prestigious school across the street from us where future Soviet diplomats were trained.

Money and shopping were simple affairs. The Soviet side maintained the conditions of our exchange: that the visiting group would have no expenses, so each person received sixty rubles ($100 at the official exchange rate) as spending money. It was difficult to spend, except on postcards and stamps, but for those in need we made an occasional visit to the currency exchange counters located in some hotels.
    Visiting a Soviet department store was a recommended excursion, but more to learn than to buy. The Beriozka hard currency stores were where the folk art and other souvenirs were to be found, and we were occasionally taken by bus to one of these for an hour of shopping. They varied little. One might have a better collection of fur hats, another had a greater choice of finely painted papier maché boxes.
    The most exotic objects were certain books. Authors and works thought to be out of favor or banned were sitting on the shelves in Soviet editions and giveaway prices. The reason nobody could find them was the deliberately small press runs. (The number of copies printed was on the copyright page of every Soviet publication.) The country recognized its literary talent too much to suppress it completely, but put it where theoretically only foreigners could buy it. Or people with access to foreigners.
We were visiting the book room of a Beriozka shop one day when I saw a copy Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, a writer beloved in part for her ability to convey the suffering--her own included--of the Stalin period. “That would be an excellent gift for a woman,” an interpreter said, looking over my shoulder. I waited until he was out of sight--the guilt of having access not just to things out of reach to Soviets, but to their own culture--before I bought it to store in my room until I knew which woman.
    Only a day later, during a conversation with Liuda, she began to tell me about Akhmatova. She had read many of her poems in the ways literature changed hands in Moscow, but her great dream--in life, it seemed--was to someday own her personal copy of Akhmatova’s works. I didn’t say anything then, but handed it to her when we boarded the bus the next morning. It is the only time I remember her speechless.

In mid-1983, Dusko Doder of the Washington Post reported the leak of a document that existed in only seventy numbered copies for the eyes of members of the Communist Party Central Committee. It was an analysis that put into question the very foundations of the Soviet economy. The basic conclusion was that there was a contradiction between having an educated workforce appropriate to modern production methods yet continuing to treat workers as cogs in a wheel. The system had become dysfunctional and had to have a major overhaul, but the necessary changes would threaten powerful bureaucratic interests who would strenuously resist any challenge to their power.
    One challenge we had was to meet “real” people. The nearest source were the hundreds of Soviet students we saw in the School every day. The first year no meeting was set up. The second year there was a social evening in a lounge of the School with singing and dancing (and Zhinkin making sure it ended on time), but it was near the end of our stay so we all had the regret that initial acquaintances could not develop into anything more.
    The third time we spent an evening in the students’ lounge next door in the dormitory building, and this time all our interpreters came so that we could break down into small discussion groups.
    I couldn’t resist. “What would you say if I told you the the Central Committee is discussing a secret report that claims the present economic system here has reached contradictions that make major changes in it inevitable?” People looked at each other. The idea was outlandish, but why would I make such a thing up?
    Finally one person hazarded a response. “Impossible!” It couldn’t happen, things weren’t that bad, and if it had they would have known... something.
    Tolya was translating for our small group, and he made no comments, but he knew what I was talking about because it was the first thing I mentioned on our ride in from the airport. Afterwards, he was critical. “You hit them below the belt. They couldn’t have known about the report.”
    “Then they should know that something is being kept from them. The report may mean big changes are coming to the country, but if they are done again without people being involved they won’t work.”
    For the first time we had a lecture from Vladislav Semenkov, an economist who knew the outside world from his work in Soviet institutions dealing with international affairs, from his travels and from living in Paris as a member of the staff at UNESCO. He wasn’t well enough placed to know about the report though and wrote it off as somebody’s imagination or Western wishful thinking.
    This was not long after the American CIA had issued a report on the poor performance of the Soviet economy and its likely consequences. This had an effect on at least one reporter during our traditional end of trip press and radio interviews. The journalist from Radio Moscow took me aside and asked the most unusual opening question I ever experienced. “The CIA is coming up with all sorts of figures and analyses to try to prove the Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse. What do you have to say about this big lie?”
    We left, non-stop to Brussels, on Aeroflot.