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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.