By the fourth trip, and especially after what happened in 1983, I did
not wonder whether getting to Moscow would involve a crisis but what it
would be. There was no disappointment in 1984.
The problem was simply that our visas were late.
First it was just a nuisance, then it became disquieting. I contacted
Moscow, but they were calm there. All the proper papers for our
invitation had been filed as usual in the right places.
The departure date approached. No visas, no worries in Moscow. When
leaving was even more imminent, I asked Vladimir Nikitin at the Soviet
Embassy to help. He was also unable to learn what, if anything, was
wrong, and he reminded me that one could not go to the Soviet Union
without a visa.
Finally, it was the eve of the flight. I was in
Paris, and there were no visas. A plan was worked out between Nikitin
and my friend Lynne in Detroit. She would fly to Washington and come to
the Soviet Embassy where Nikitin would make a final effort to procure
the visas. If successful, she would take them to New York where the
group was gathering from different cities for the Transatlantic flight.
Late that night in Paris, Lynne called from Kennedy
Airport. There were no visas. Nikitin had done his best and had even
asked the Soviet ambassador to intervene. The ambassador could, on his
own authority, issue visas, but he refused. The logic was, to us,
unusual. Two cables had been sent from the Embassy to the Foreign
Ministry in Moscow asking what was wrong. Neither had been answered.
The ambassador figured that if one cable were unanswered the
explanation could be incompetence; if a second cable were unanswered,
there must be a reason and he wasn’t going to chance contravening it.
This was extraordinary because the ambassador in
question was Anatoly Dobrynin, dean of the diplomatic corps stationed
in the United States and near the top of the Soviet political
hierarchy. Yet he was too cautious to take any initiative in as minor a
situation as this.
The group, bound and determined to go to Moscow, had
boarded the flight to Brussels and were on their way. I was not
surprised. This group included leaders in the United Automobile Workers
union with regional or national responsibilities, the director of labor
studies at San Jose City College in California and a number of his
students, and other such people not in the habit of caving in over the
presence or absence of a mere piece of paper.
The next morning I called Zayatsky in Moscow.
“Did you receive visas?”
“What are you going to do?”
There was a glass door in the passport control area
at Sheremetevo Airport that separated the Soviet Union from the rest of
the world. Marat Baglai was on the other side and an inch-wide vertical
gap at the hinge allowed us to talk.
“Do you have visas?”
“Wait here.” As if we had a choice.
Twenty-four people without papers did not simply
show up on the doorstep of that country and expect to be let in. It was
a Saturday night, so most of the Soviet bureaucracy would be shut down.
This was going to test the powers of the Soviet trade unions.
I had confidence in Baglai and also in the fact that
I had a visa. Mine had been made at the Soviet Consulate in Paris, and
since visas at that time were approved by Moscow, if I received one
there had to have been a legitimate dossier for our group.
We found a space out of the way to wait, but occasionally I wandered a
bit, out of boredom. My milling about was unusual behavior; people
normally walked straight from the plane to passport control hoping to
get through as quickly as possible. A young border guard noticed. “What
are you doing?”
“We are bez vizki [visaless].”
“Passport!” he demanded, shocked.
“Here’s the passport. No problem. But there are no
He went to get a superior officer. When I gave him
the same explanation, he mumbled something redundant, like: “Wait here.”
After two hours, Baglai reappeared with a
resolution. “Your group will collect its baggage and stay in the
airport hotel for the weekend. On Monday, we’ll make the visas.”
A platoon of border soldiers appeared. They formed a
double file and marched our group, three at a time, through the glass
door and the short distance to the baggage belts. Not the slightest
risk could be taken lest somebody bolt, run past the customs agents and
out the door of the international zone, slip through the crowd, leave
the air terminal, continue out of the airport and disappear into fields
north of Moscow.
I tried to join one of the trios, but Baglai stopped
me. It was my duty to stay with the group, I said. “No, you have a
visa. You must enter the Soviet Union.” The others would be taken to
the guarded transit section of the airport hotel and would be able to
go to their rooms, the restaurant and the bar. I would have a free
When I walked into the Sputnik Hotel I immediately
spotted Paul Bertelsen in the lobby. Bertelsen was Chief of Adult
Education at UNESCO in Paris and we had known each other for some
years, since before he led an international mission to evaluate our
university program in Detroit. Before coming to UNESCO, he was a
practitioner of adult education, working mainly in East Africa. His
responsibilities for UNESCO frequently took him to many countries
including, on a number of occasions, the Soviet Union. In short,
Bertelsen was a seasoned traveler, well-versed in international
politics and on a first-name basis with a number of national leaders
and government ministers. This did not immunize him from certain
stereotypic interpretations about the USSR.
I already knew Bertelsen would arrive in Moscow just
before we did to attend a conference and would stay at the same hotel.
It was a happy coincidence. During a chat in Paris before the trip, he
told me about his one preoccupation. He was very fond of Russia, but
complained he was always provided with an interpreter who was a KGB
agent and watched his every move, so it was impossible to explore on
Dinner was nearly ready when we met, so we had to
put off conversation for later. Bertelsen just had time to tell me of
his frustration. “Well, they’ve done it again. My interpreter is an
agent who sticks to me like glue. I can’t get a minute to myself.
You’ll see, I’ll introduce you.”
I ate with Baglai and our interpreter team, who
suddenly had nothing to do. Near the end of the meal, I heard my name
called out. I barely had a chance to turn around before Lena [see 1983]
ran up and wrapped me in a big welcome hug. She had left Bertelsen
behind, walking from the back of the dining hall with an absolutely
astonished look on his face. “Well, obviously you two already know each
other,” he managed. So Lena was his “KGB agent”!
After supper I took her aside to explain that Paul
was the sort who liked time to explore a city on his own and he seemed
to be having trouble doing that because of the attention she was giving
him. “Well, why didn’t he just say so?” she replied. “He doesn’t speak
Russian, so I’m his ears and voice, but whenever he wants to roam he
only has to tell me. I’ll be more than happy to go home and have some
time with [my daughter] Ana.”
With Lena’s credentials as an ordinary human being
established, the three of us could take advantage of Sunday and of
Paul’s free time. He liked to nose about in foreigners’ hotels to see
what went on in the bars and who hung out in them. From him I learned
how to get past the front door without explanations to doormen. Paul
would draw himself up and move with determined long strides, booming a
“Good evening” in English that was too polite to contest while only
nodding to acknowledge that the guards might exist and giving the
impression that he was doing them a favor by stopping by. We were too
far inside for anything to be done by the time the surprise wore off.
As a UNESCO official, Paul had special dispensation
from the baggage weight limits Aeroflot normally applied with draconian
enthusiasm, and he intended to take advantage of this by indulging his
taste for Gzhell, the blue on white ceramics made from a special white
By Metro or flagging down cars, he ran Lena and me
all over the city to every place that sold the stuff. And he bought:
cups and saucers, tea pots, pitchers, figurines. Box loads went back to
Monday, the group was released. Fortunately, we had used the layover in
the Brussels airport to take identification photos in the machines
there and those who had Polaroid cameras helped out. Each visa required
two pictures and doing those quickly in Moscow might have been the big
practical hurdle. Everybody was in good spirits, glad to get out but
with a weekend of card playing and getting acquainted behind them.
There was a refreshing addition to the lecture lineup, Yuri Popov.
Popov was short, solid and pugilistic. When he spoke he jabbed the air
with his hands and voice, bobbing and weaving to duck replies and
counter punch. He wrote on the political economy of Africa and had
spent time lecturing in Paris. He loved debate and later he and the
Swiss socialist professor, Jean Ziegler, would publish a book length
conversation arguing the communist and socialist approaches to
It was a little harder for Popov to distinguish
between monologue and dialogue when he was in front of a classroom. He
always pretended he would introduce a subject and then engage in
discussion, but he was the double product of Soviet long-windedness and
the French habit of setting any question or answer in its broadest
Popov was faced with American audience who not only
had a general preference for simple and direct answers but might have
been habituated to the then increasing use of the sound bite as a
substitute for news.
The sparring over his style
reached a climax one day after a question was posed and everybody
settled in for the inevitable soliloquy. Popov answered, “Yes!” and
fell silent. After a sufficiently dramatic pause, he feigned surprise.
“Well, isn’t that what you wanted? Now, if you want to know ‘why, yes’
or ‘why, no’ you will have to give me leave to speak.”
Popov presented himself as striving to be what the
typical Party member should be: somebody who did Party activities on
top of his ordinary work plus and was obliged to set an example of
right living. This was distinct from the professional Party apparatus
with its access to privileges. In 1984 he came across as a modernizer.
He knew from his travels that all was not perfect in the Soviet Union,
but he argued with passion that the solutions had to conform to the
legacy of Russian culture and to homegrown ideas of social justice and
not be an imitation of the West typified by the hunger for blue jeans
and rock music. He never managed to interpret these tastes as
manifestations of the desire and right of Soviet youth to reach out to
contemporaries they could not get to know directly.
Popov was willing to lecture on any topic, but he
was designated to deal with East-West relations. To prove the peaceful
intentions of the Soviet Union, he cited the official figures of a
defense budget that was minuscule compared to the American one. This
was a provocation. “Yury," I countered, "you know perfectly well that
the figure is phony, that the real number is secret and that expenses
are hidden in all sorts of civilian agencies. You can’t run a five
million man army on that kind of money.”
He would not be so impolite as to retort that major
American military spending was similarly hidden, but he did make his
comparisons. “Do you think our soldiers are paid the way yours are?
They don’t get enough pocket money to buy cigarettes.” He was right
there. “Now, do you know the price of a Kalashnikov rifle?” He was
about to reveal a state secret to make his point. “Thirty-five rubles.
So you can begin to see why our costs are lower.”
“Yury, come with me to a hunting store in Moscow. A
shotgun will cost a hundred rubles. Are you trying to tell me a
Kalashnikov cost three times less to make than a simple shotgun? In
this economy the prices of goods are artificial; they are whatever the
government decides they are.” That was usually time for a coffee break.
Victor Orlov was on the program again and with his
own form of provocation. At some point in his discussion of foreign
policy he would manage to get in that while the Soviet Union may have
had differences with its neighbors, “there was never a single occasion
on which the Soviet interfered in the internal affairs of another
country.” That meant he’d reached the part of his talk where he wanted
to deal with, say, Czechoslovakia, and no group ever failed to ask the
challenging question. The laborious reply always revolved around an
appeal for help from legitimate authorities to which the Soviets
finally had to accede.
Slava Semenkov returned to give us a lecture, and
this time I had details for him. The entire text of the secret report
on the need to reorganize the Soviet economy had been obtained and
translated into English. It was said to be the work of a woman named
Tatyana Zaslavskaya who worked at an institute in Novosibirsk. I handed
him a photocopy. Some days later, he said he had read it but he brushed
it aside. “There are some interesting things in it, but criticisms of
this kind are being published all the time. I think you should not
exaggerate its importance.” In other words, this was not the harbinger
of any great changes.
There was a bar on the ground level of the hotel that had been
renovated into a cozy place to talk. For some licensing reason contrary
to the propensity in Russia to drink, the fare was mainly fruit juices
or genuine Turkish coffee brewed in individual pots on hot coals. Some
in the group took to gathering there.
One evening I was invited in to meet their new
friend. Irina was one of the beautiful Russian women so numerous that
Russian men seemed no longer to notice, while Americans were stunned
that reality didn’t conform to a then popular television commercial
portraying the typical Russian woman as a kind of country cousin to a
Irina was going to be a dancer until her leg was too
severely cut in an accident. Now she operated a computer involved in
the distribution of petroleum products. She wanted to practice English
and talk to foreigners. The Sputnik bar was easier to get into than the
ones catering to tourists and it didn’t exclude Soviets by requiring
payment in foreign currency. It was also, according to Irina, a hangout
for Leonid Brezhnev’s grandson, whom she regarded as a do-nothing.
After the formalities of getting acquainted, we took
a walk another evening, first through nearby parts of nineteenth
century Moscow that I didn’t know existed, hidden behind the buildings
of Leninsky Prospect.
It was October, and chilly in late evening, but at
that time there was really no place to go to sit down for a cup of tea.
Down an embankment near the railway tracks, we found a concrete
cylinder about four feet high with steam vents at the top. It was a way
to keep warm, and for an hour we talked there. Irina’s vision of the
Soviet Union was straightforward. It was a great country with all the
material and human resources it needed to be a rich one, but these were
being squandered senselessly. She seemed then to want only the
opportunity for her and her generation to be allowed to do something
positive, but expressed no hope that this could be possible.
By the time the conversation finished the condensed
steam had thoroughly soaked my jacket, and within minutes of starting
to walk back, the night air made the cold penetrate. I shivered
uncontrollably there, in the taxi we hailed to the rescue and, it
seemed, during half the night. It made the conversation at the steam
vent an indelible memory of a turning point, the irretrievable internal
contradiction of the USSR.
Moscow’s Metro is famous, and even people who haven’t visited the city
have seen pictures of its more elaborate stations. We paid a visit to
the Metro museum and learned more of its positive attributes from a
pleasant elderly guide. However, one person in our group had a mild
mobility problem--polio left him with the need to wear a leg brace--and
one objective of his stay was to learn how the country dealt with
handicapped people. There was clearly no way people who could not walk
could possibly use public transit.
The global answer was in the fact that the question
itself had to be put several times and in different ways before the
guide even understood what he was talking about. The matter was not
whether provisions were inadequate or totally lacking; the idea seemed
never to have occurred to her that such people needed to move from
place to place or that they had any particular role in society. The
best she could manage was that people who had lost mobility were given
work they could do at home. A few received three-wheel motorized cars.
The fare on the Metro had been five kopecks
(officially seven US cents) since it opened. I wondered about how the
system was subsidized, and it didn’t seem like an unreasonable question
since most urban transit is unable to survive on fares alone.
Our hostess maintained that the Moscow Metro did
manage to exist on its revenues. That, anyway, was the official
position. I pushed further with quick calculations to relate the number
of riders and the wages of the employees. There would not be much left
to buy equipment and electricity. The woman held her ground.
Liuda was with us to translate and afterwards she
scolded me. It wasn’t fair to ask questions that went beyond the
guide’s responsibilities. My argument was that it was legitimate to
expect that somebody who daily gave visitors figures on the ridership,
the number of employees and their salaries and benefits should at least
once do the simple multiplication to see if things added up. The larger
question was whether people were participants in their society or
A similar confrontation occurred when
we made our now traditional visit to the Soviet Peace Committee. This
institution, appropriately located on Peace Avenue, billed itself as a
public organization that raised its operating funds from voluntary
donations by Soviet citizens. The total independence of any association
from the “leading role” of the Communist Party could rightfully be
doubted and it might be bad form to refuse one’s share when there was a
local campaign for funds to support the Committee, but it would be
wrong to question the average citizen’s concern, and sometimes
obsession, with the threat of war.
On this occasion we were received by a well-known
author named Ananiev, who was also an official in the Peace Committee.
Although he proposed discussion, he began with a long speech (his
novels, too, were typically Russian in that respect), the gist of which
was that he wanted us to know that he and the Soviet people were for
I was irritated that Ananiev didn’t make the least
effort to find out who his audience was or to give the benefit of the
doubt before lecturing us like schoolchildren. I tried to remain polite
while assuring him that if we had come to the Soviet Union and to the
Peace Committee he could assume we shared his goal, but that the
purpose of such face-to-face meetings was to talk about how practically
to implement the goal. My question had to do with the controversy then
raging over the propriety of installing intermediate nuclear forces
(INF)--the Soviet SS20s and American Pershing 2s--in Europe.
Ananiev exploded. If we wanted to discuss technical
matters we should have asked for somebody competent to do so [nobody at
the Committee ever invited visitors to specify topics or speakers and
he knew that]. That was not his area of expertise. He was there to
convince us that the Soviet Union wanted peace. If we needed proof, he
rolled up his pants to show the remnants of a war wound. The harangue
lasted nearly fifty minutes, and when he finished there was nothing to
do but go home. Once again, roles were circumscribed. In the Metro it
was between function and finance; here, between rhetoric and facts.
Valery was our interpreter who had done all the
translation. He was angry, but at me. On the way home on the bus, he
pretended I didn’t exist.
Liuda heard that something had gone wrong, and the
next day she asked me for details. She was outraged at Ananiev for the
way he treated guests and piqued at me for not reacting more strongly.
“You should have marched out of the auditorium and straight into the
Director’s office and said: ‘Punish that man!’”
There were a number of university professors with interests in labor
education among the group. The director of labor studies at San Jose
College has already been mentioned. The director of a program at Harbor
College near Los Angeles that had adopted the degree model for adults
established in Detroit was another The most prominent figure and the
one who seemed most inclined and able to conclude an accord was George
Boyle, a professor at the University of Missouri and Past President of
the national, University and College
Labor Education Association. Marat Baglai wanted to fertilize at
least the area of responsibility he covered in the country with new
ideas, and for that he needed exchanges. He took the unusual--in my
experience, unique--step of inviting us to his home for dinner.
Baglai was like a man in waiting for a time that
might never come. His field of interest was constitutional law,
particularly the American Constitution. Some years before he had come
to the United States as a member of a delegation of young Soviet
political figures, though he took “young” more as flattery . He
recalled a visit aboard a yacht in the San Francisco Bay which he
assumed was supposed to impress him with the successes of capitalism.
He was also introduced to a young American political commentator named
Pat Buchanan and recounted that with a certain amusement, as if to say
that the Americans had thrown their heaviest ideological weapon at him
but he had retained his ideals. Some time after the Soviet Union ceased
to exist, Baglai became a member and then the president of the
Constitutional Court of Russia (a position equivalent to Chief Justice
of the US Supreme Court).
The Soviet trade union hierarchy had something of a
reputation for being a dumping ground to where functionaries could be
banished. Of the three branches of power--Party, government, unions--it
was surely the lowest rung. People can, however, be dumped not for lack
of competence but for the opposite. They might be too clever or too
innovative for those in power. That could be why Baglai was passed over
whenever the rectorship of the School had to be decided. In any case,
people I met who were critics of the role of Soviet trade unions from
the left or right always spoke with respect of Baglai as an exception
who was intelligent and with whom one could talk straightly and not get
responses crafted with a “wooden tongue.”
Baglai’s wife was a biologist, and the presence of
two academics in the family probably explained the spaciousness of
their apartment. Soviet housing regulations specified the number of
rooms that corresponded to a family of given size (even if the housing
shortage meant the minimum wasn’t always achieved) and they provided
that professors receive extra space to use as a study.
Baglai’s outlook was most symbolized in his daughter Ana. She was
nineteen and already mastering three languages: English, French and
“Chinese.” The last was her main interest and most unexpected because
of the continued strain in Sino-Soviet relations. The mother in fact
expressed reticence about social contact with the Chinese on racial
grounds and acquiesced in the need for better relations more on the
basis of awe at their intelligence and ability to accomplish goals...
and fear. Ana’s attitude was of optimism and enthusiasm, and I believe
that came from her father.
Baglai also understood limits. The French Embassy
showed films a couple nights a week and the doors were open to anybody
who wanted to come. Foreigners showed their passports to get by the
Soviet guard post at the entrance. Soviet citizens had to show their
internal passport (ID) and an invitation from the Embassy.
I had already procured invitations for other Soviets
who knew French and told Baglai I would get one for Ana so she could
practice the language and see the films. He showed no enthusiasm and
she never came. The reason was obvious if one stood and watched the
process at the gate. The Soviet militia man examined the passport,
presumably for authenticity, and the guest could pass through.
Afterwards the guard went inside his booth to write something down, no
doubt the name and passport number he had memorized. There was nothing
forbidden about going to these films, but if one didn’t want a record
of too much curiosity about things foreign, because who knew if there
might be implications some day, it was prudent to stay away.
The lack of need for security precautions at that
time, at the French Embassy at least, was remarkable. This was not a
city of uncontrolled demonstrations, disorder or bomb-throwing. The
front gate was always wide open, so the French relied on the Soviet
militia to filter out the wrong people. Two officers stood at the
entrance, but the gap was so wide it would have been easy for anybody
going by on the sidewalk to make a quick move and be on Embassy grounds
out of reach. The building door was open as well, and one could wander
through the lobby, to the auditorium, to the café, to the
library and consular offices on the second floor at will. (It was a
good place to find a toilet in a city where public ones were rare and
overwhelming.) There was a back entrance to the building with a control
point for entrance, but it only came into use later. On nights there
were films, the French Ambassador, who later became France's Foreign
Minister, often enjoyed playing usher and getting people seated.
The British Embassy offered a less regular cultural
program, and the American Embassy none whatsoever. It was uninterested
in winning hearts and minds by that route, but did provide the unusual
diplomatic service of opening its snack shop to American or other
Moscow visitors in need of greasy hamburgers. None of the French
casualness either; there were locked doors and the Marine with the
ever-fresh haircut to convince before one could satisfy the craving.
Soviet citizens were hardly welcome, and there were rules on Embassy
staff fraternizing [read: sleeping with] with counterparts in the
diplomatic corps from countries anything politically left of Yugoslavia.
The long trip that year was to Baku Azerbaijan. The city on the tip of
a Caspian Sea peninsula had elements of past glory and present
exhaustion. Centuries’ old towers were better preserved than the oil
rigs that began at the seashore and could be visited by walking the
network of precarious wooden planks, being careful not to fall into the
water that was presumably beneath the permanent thick oil slick through
which bubbles of natural gas percolated like thick fizz.
The sidewalks of Baku held certain dangers because
there would frequently be holes without any protection or warning.
These had stairs that led to shops partially below ground level. The
remarkable thing was that, quite unlike Moscow, the shops were often
cafés. There were also bakeries where one could buy the
freshly-made regional version of lavash, the flat bread of the Caucasus.
Val had come along as interpreter and he enjoyed the
exploration. He and I and one other member of the group stopped into a
café for ice cream and coffee and sat at a round table already
occupied by a Soviet sailor. Val pretended not to know Russian and
encouraged us to converse. So it was through broken Russian that the
sailor learned we were Americans and a little about our visit. The
other American asked why he chose to be in the Navy, why a military
career. The sailor explained that he saw his role as preserving peace,
that this was the most important thing for him.
Val was satisfied. He had not spoken Russian because
he wanted the sailor to think he was talking to three foreigners and
for us to hear that Soviet people said spontaneously what we had heard
On our first day in Baku we naturally went for a
tour of the city. It ended with a ride up the steep hill bordering the
Caspian from which we could see a panorama of the town. We could also
see the large Soviet naval fleet docked there. After all, the border
between the Soviet Union and Iran lay in the Caspian. Aleksei Zhinkin
had also accompanied us, and he encouraged everybody to take photos of
the fleet. Nobody had even dared to ask. It was forbidden to take
pictures of any sort of military installation and even things that
might become military, such as civilian airports and planes, that could
be mobilized in a national emergency. How could this be? Zhinkin’s
explanation was simple. “No regulation about taking pictures of ships
from hills.” Accordingly, two dozen people thoroughly documented the
Soviet Caspian fleet.
The next day there was a surprise. The mayor of
Baku, we were told, would honor the "first American trade union
delegation" to come there by making a boat available to us for a cruise
on the Caspian. When we came to the docks it was waiting, with a
capacity of a couple hundred but just for us, complete with crew and
refreshments. Before casting off we were wished a good time and told we
could do anything we liked except one. “Please, no photos. It is
forbidden to take pictures while on the Caspian Sea.” That was what
made the Soviet Union such fun. We already had rolls of film of
military objectives because Zhinkin decided somebody had forgot to
regulate pictures of ships from hills, but when we were out of sight of
land we were not allowed to take pictures of water!
For the rest, anything really did go. The captain
even turned the wheel over to one of the women in the group who guided
us almost until we docked.
That evening I went with Val to a café on the
waterfront and we tried to sort out mutual perceptions. He wanted to
know why there was no strong Communist Party as part of the opposition
in the United States. He wanted me to know that the shared opinion
about foreign affairs issues among Soviet people was real. That
Americans put great store in conflict of opinions on such matters was a
mystery to him, but the Soviet Union needed unity when looking out at
the rest of the world, and we shouldn’t assume other countries had to
behave as we did for their political life to be legitimate. The
question at that time, however, was whether this unity really existed
in the fifth year of the war in Afghanistan or whether differing views
had no sources of information to nourish them and no organized outlets
for expression. It was therefore useful to discuss how the American
public responded to Vietnam.
The next day a visit to a farm was scheduled. We
knew nothing more than that. It turned out to be a long distance from
the city, but that is where we learned about power and privilege. Our
bus had an escort of two police cars that proceeded and followed our
bus with lights flashing. The whole trip was done down the center of
the highway at high speed and all we saw were cars on both sides pulled
over to the shoulders. It certainly was impressive, but disturbing, to
watch people submit out of unquestioned habit to the rights and
perquisites of authority.
At the farm itself, there was no tour or lectures.
It was a mechoui, the animals were already roasting on outside spits
and the feast lasted hours.
Yury Popov accompanied us to Baku. One response he had to complaints
that he engaged in long monologues was that Americans never had a
chance to hear Soviet positions because television access was either
denied, abbreviated or distorted. He was not wrong in saying that
appearances by Soviet spokesmen were rare (although even American
political figures seldom had the time to develop a position on
television outside the Sunday ghetto of interview programs), but when
Popov made the challenge that a longer, coherent presentation was even
impossible we decided the take up the gauntlet.
One group of radio stations, Pacifica, was likely to
agree to air a long interview. With coverage of the New York, San
Francisco and Los Angeles areas, Popov would have a potential audience
of many millions. We offered to interview Popov, let him speak as long
as he needed to make his points and guaranteed that his answers would
not be edited.
He was convinced it would just be a waste of time
and the program would never be aired or it would be truncated, but he
couldn’t refuse. We sat down in the hotel after supper with Val as
interpreter and the tape ran for two hours.
Pacifica did broadcast the interview and I told
Popov so the next year, but it took some persuasion to convince him.
Meanwhile, I never did find out whether and in what form the
traditional end-of-trip interviews we did for Radio Moscow were
After advancing from the timed encounter chaperoned by Zhinkin to the
small group discussion, the nature of our social gathering with the
School’s students back in Moscow moved another notch. Rod Oakes, of our
group, was a composer of what is generally called “modern music,” and
he proposed to give a recital of his works. This could have been a bit
daring a few years before in a country where abstract art had been
buried under Khrushchev’s bulldozer, but the School accepted.
Rod used a combination of prerecorded synthesizer
tapes and live saxophone. Some of the compositions were accompanied by
slides. He introduced each piece and what it was meant to convey. Each
time he received polite applause. Some people were uncomfortable, not
knowing how to react. Comments ranged from “interesting” to “we aren’t
used to this yet.” For many of the Americans it was also an
introduction, and for Rod the behavior was not unexpected. There was
one Russian student who verged on being angry, however. Her boyfriend
was a composer of the more traditional kind and she complained he could
get his work performed because the Soviet modern composer, Schnitke,
had cornered the market. To her, Rod’s music just seemed like another
invasion of this limited cultural space.
A number of things between the trips of 1984 and 1985 gave different
signals about impending change.
After four years during which we had been well
received, discussions were frank and friendly and many doors opened, I
wondered the limits might be. We already knew we could invite students
and staff from the School to America under conditions others had told
us were impossible; namely, living individually with American families.
Only the US Government stood in the way. Given that, might personal
invitations be honored on the Soviet side?
During our farewell dinner, I approached Ruben
Grigoryan since he was both in the trade union hierarchy and within the
Foreign Ministry by virtue of being the tandem “labor attaché”
at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. What would it take to invite a
friend to visit the United States? Just issue a formal invitation, was
all he could reply.
I suggested the trip to Lena, whose only
reaction was: “Impossible!” Ordinary people were not allowed out, and I
was over my head in fantasy. But she would consent to try.
The other event of the final day was that the
members of the United Automobile Workers staff were given a letter
addressed to their president, Owen Bieber, from the president of the
Soviet automobile trade union. It invited Bieber to come to Moscow, and
knowing what the political differences between Soviet and American
trade unions were, proposed that the agenda for talks be issues the
sides could agree were legitimate ones for unions: health and safety,
other working conditions, and so on. The staff members promised to hand
deliver the letter and to report their impressions of the visit in the
Shortly after I returned to the United States, I
traveled to San Francisco. The timing coincided with a seminar the San
Jose College labor studies program was organizing about the trip and
the director iinvited me to be part of the panel. Besides him and the
labor studies students who had gone, there was a professor of political
science whose specialty was the Soviet Union and who had also just
returned from a field study trip.
When it was this professor’s turn to speak, he
explained that foreigners were forbidden to ride the Metro in Moscow
and that police were placed at the entrance to each station to enforce
this rule. The rest of us who had just returned and who rode the Metro
at will were aghast. Yes, a policeman patrolled the Metro stations, and
I watched them filter out people who were overly drunk so they would
not abuse passengers (or fall on the tracks). It was also true that
Muscovites, including Intourist interpreters, often expressed surprise
when a foreigner announced having taken the Metro alone, but the
surprise was mixed with admiration because the Muscovites thought the
Metro must seem so daunting to outsiders.
The shock was that a professor with this specialty
did “research” in the company of an Intourist guide and was loose
spreading fables that fit every preconception about the USSR Americans
might have. What must his academic publications been like, and were
there other Sovietologues of this type, perhaps even in a position to
advise the American government?
I proceeded with the invitation. The easy part was
to get a form mailed from the Soviet Consulate. Its subject was the
invitation to bring family members to the United States temporarily or
permanently. No provision had been made for the category “friend,” but
there was no other form so it would have to do.
Step one was to fill it out and have it notarized.
Easy. Step two was to have the notary’s signature authenticated by the
signature and seal of county authorities. Step three I could skip. It
required that the county's signature and seal be authenticated by the
state, but was only necessary in the case one was inviting relatives to
come permanently. I then sent the invitation back to the Soviet
Consulate in Washington with payment of a modest fee. There, a number
of stamps and signatures were added to certify that the Consulate was
convinced that all the prior signatures and seals were valid. The now
elaborately decorated document had to be mailed to the lucky invitee.
The guarantee was that this would take time, the uncertainty was
whether it would be delivered.
The first approval necessary for a Soviet citizen to
travel abroad came from the employer or, in the jargon, the work
collective. The logic was that the first proof of one’s good
citizenship was in the work one gave to society.
I later learned that when Lena handed the invitation
to her superior, he took one look, saw what it was, asked her, “Are you
trying to cause trouble?” and put it in a drawer. That was the end of
The letter to Owen Bieber didn’t fare much better.
The matter of the invitation had been transmitted to him officially,
through the Executive Council of the union, so he had to give a
response. It took months, though. Bieber chose prudence and decided to
consult with the AFL-CIO since the UAW’s reaffiliation with that body
was imminent. The international department of the AFL-CIO appeared to
have drafted the reply for Bieber to sign. The invitation was welcome
and could be accepted, the letter benignly began. There were only a few
things to accomplish first. The Soviet Union must withdraw from
Afghanistan, release Andrei Sakharov and a long list of other people
presumed to be under detention and permit a certain number of Jews to
emigrate. That done, the USSR would have the privilege of a visit
from the UAW President.
This negative trend was countered by the first and
only letter by mail I received from the School. It was from Marat
Baglai. We were bringing a group in Spring 1985 and would be in Moscow
for the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War 2. Would I be
willing to hold a joint seminar in which members of my delegation and
students and staff of the School would present papers relevant to that
theme and discuss them? At last we had a chance for another level of
dialogue, and the initiative had come from the Soviet side!