Sunday May 19
Trip through the Hermitage Museum complex. Actually the Winter Palace makes up the largest part of the museum. Hermitage seems to be the place that houses the phenomenal art collection. Much discussion of the history, the rules, descriptions of the great amounts of wealth expended by them on their luxurious lifestyles. More gilt, chandeliers, columns. Recollection of interesting facts: (Peter the Great was over 7’ tall; the Battleship Aurora fired a blank shot from the Neva River beside the palace to signal the beginning of the Revolution). Our guide, Victoria, displays an incredible knowledge of everything from history (pre- and post-revolution) through design and architecture, to personalities and quirks of historical figures. When we move into the Hermitage art collection she shows the same depth of knowledge about the artists, their personal stories and how they are reflected in their work. Shelley is breathless at being here, then transfixed when we get to the French Impressionists and her favorite, Claude Monet. (Dennis has a great time repeating something we heard about a woman from somewhere in the South (U.S.) having taken this tour, saying “I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be runnin’ past the Rembrandts!”) (Story refers to the fact that thousands of people go through the museum every day and there isn’t much time given to an individual section.)
After leaving the museum, Shel and I, Dennis and Gerrie, join Richard, a bright, warm (very tall) guy who is an economist, author and investment counselor; Millie, his friend, a yoga teacher and one of the staff; Jack, father of Lori of the staff and owner of 3 sort-of-health-food restaurants; and Sheila, a bright woman who is warm and seems very decent and is a business/communications consultant, for a walk to Nevski Prospect and some lunch at a Caucasian restaurant. On the way we are stopped a number of times by kids asking for gum (a practice that the Soviets are said to frown on and ask that we not encourage) or buttons – there seems to be quite a brisk trade going on here in buttons – I’m not sure if it’s black market or not, but it’s big. Another regular thing is to have someone come up and want to know if you’ll sell jeans or anything else, and probably most common of all are the black marketeers who want American dollars and will give you three or sometimes four rubles to one dollar. (That tempts some because the normal exchange rate is less than one ruble per dollar.)
Food at the restaurant is sort of OK, nothing special. About average per our experience so far. Jack shows us some pictures of the food at his restaurant and makes me very hungry. The waiter here is a very nice guy who speaks some English. We again get the good ice cream for dessert. Waiter then brings a complementary liqueur after everything (which is really strong!).
We walk for a while. Since it’s Sunday, most stores are closed, but there are tons of people on the street. Gerrie wants a ride on a trolley car, so I break out my trusty map and try to find our way back to Moskovski Prospect and we wend our way through some back alleyways which are kind of interesting to see. Demolished buildings and piles of rubble in one area. Lots of run-down looking buildings everywhere. Finally, because of time concerns (we don’t want to miss the church service) we grab a Metro back. On the way to the Metro station we see a large group of people milling around and find that it’s a black market operation where people trade housing situations outside the usual channels (e.g. People whose kids have moved out and want a smaller place can swap with someone on this black market set-up and get a good-sized cash premium in the package which wouldn’t be available to them through the regular housing authority.) Metro back to hotel.
After dinner we take off by bus to St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. We’re ushered in past quite a number of “Babushkas”, probably widows of the Siege, who constitute the mainstay of the body of the faithful. They are dressed the way we usually see them as they shuffle along, thick bodied, bent over, clad in worn, shapeless clothing and rough clumsy-looking shoes, except this time there is a difference.
The church, light-colored and impressive outside, with steeples and large, fenced-off grounds, is, once inside, dark and closed-in-feeling. Very medieval. Wooden floor – no seats, pews or places to kneel (Russian orthodox tradition is to stand through the service). Room is broken up by columns, each covered with icons, paintings, sculptures and candelabra. Candles are lit and offerings are made, complete with kisses on the picture frames or faces, to any or all of the revered figures.
Our group is taken to an area on the side of the altar where we are welcomed by the priests. Given our experience last night at the opera and add to that the information that the service will last two hours or more, it is arranged that the buses will leave to take people back to the hotel at 6:30, 7 & 7:30 (service starts at 6 PM). Feeling slightly uncomfortable with being up front, Shel and I move to the rear of the church so that we can still see the altar and the service, yet not block the view or interrupt the worship of the faithful. Standing at the rear, we watch the preparations for the service continue.
The interesting difference about the “Babushkas” is that while they wear essentially the same clothing that you see on the street, here in the church their scarves (the babushkas themselves), which outside would likely be dark and of one color, are mostly bright and multi-colored, many with designs and floral patterns. Except for the candlelight and the gold plating, which is everywhere, they provide the only sense of color and light in an otherwise dark and mysterious place.
And as the service begins, a kind of magical thing takes place. It is a chanted service, with one or two and sometimes three priests leading the responses – and it is in the responses that the magic occurs. These old crones with their bent backs, wizened faces and arthritic joints sing out these responses in voices that are positively angelic! Their sweet, melodic chorus fills the church with a sense of devotion that is at once utterly simple and profoundly powerful. As they continue the responses, as the service goes on, there seems to be a litany of motion which accompanies it – a kind of dovening, or bowing from the waist along with a periodic crossing of themselves (in the Greek manner – right shoulder before left, opposite from the Roman). A combination of feelings arises as I am caught up in the whirl of energy. The ritual and the mystery, the element of superstitious idolatry, the sadness of these people nearing the end of life beseeching this mysterious God in their primitive way collides for me with the beauty of their voices and the clear sense of solace and comfort available to them here. One wonders, given the relatively small number of young and middle-aged people here, what the future holds for this church. (Stories abound of KGB agents standing in churches, taking names of those who attend, making one wonder about the motives of the younger ones here.)
Eventually, feeling an intruder, I move outside to be alone with my thoughts. One bus has gone, with how many I don’t know. Shel comes out for a bit, then goes back in, then comes out again. It’s cold, so we decide to leave as the second bus goes, then change our minds, get out and walk back. Re-entering the church, we are ushered upstairs, not knowing why, and find most of our group there in a dialogue with a man in a suit who seems to speak for the church. There is a very warm exchange of sentiments; Michael explains that an ecumenical prayer service was/is taking place at this same time in churches and meeting places of all faiths all over the U.S. to coincide with this evening. Swami Sach exchanges warm words of blessing with one of the Russian Orthodox priests who has come up. We sing our song (with Peter leading, of course) and pictures are taken and we are given a tour of this area. (Services are also held up here, but it is only for special occasions, evidently.) We are given a chance to step into the Sanctum Sanctorum, where the holy of holies is maintained, but since, by tradition, this offer is made to the men in the group only, I decide to stay out. When I find out that Dennis independently made the same decision it feels good. We leave and go down to the bus where we are given a warm and emotional send-off by a group of Babushkas.
A pell-mell ride to the hotel with a driver who is either angry or late for dinner (or both). And to bed.
Monday May 20
Trip to Pushkintown to see the country palace of the royal family. We hear lots of reference to Pushkin as the greatest Russian poet. Interesting note is that he was black, or at least partly so. Ethiopian ancestry, per Mary, the one black woman on the trip. (She’s a personnel director for some government agency, I think. Been on the job for a short time. Said first thing people [on the job] had to deal with was that she was black – second that she was a woman. She’s very bright, nice, careful – separates herself a lot.)
Palace was renovated by Catherine the Great (Our Catherine, a politically savvy psychologist, is very interested in finding out if it’s true that she was killed trying to have sex with a horse – asks guide if it’s true that she died in the stable – guide says she died in the bathroom and that it’s an ugly story that she doesn’t want to go into.) It’s another astounding display of wealthy excess. Engraved, mosaiced, parqueted, gold this-and-that in room after room. Absolutely dumbfounding.
An interesting aspect to it all is the duality in the Soviet attitude toward all this. In most of the rooms in this palace are pictures portraying the room as it was in all its splendor before the occupation by the Nazis during the Siege. Comparison photos by their side show the havoc wreaked by the Nazis during their time here (indicating perhaps a gigantic temper tantrum in which they set out to systematically destroy every vestige of Russian treasure out of pique when they couldn’t take Leningrad.) (The guides make this carnage very clear, which must make it interesting for German visitors here.) Anyway, the dilemma this represents for the Russians as I see it has to do with 1) committing the time, energy and money necessary for all this to be restored when those resources are needed elsewhere in their society, and 2) having and demonstrating such pride in their history and culture when 3) this is all so symbolic of the very set of values that drove them to the Revolution (which they are now trying so hard to maintain). Interesting emotional and logical gymnastics. The pride with which the painstaking work being done to restore these rooms to their original splendor is pointed out is kind of touching. Sort of a “See what we once were and see that we still have the ability to recreate what we once were even though what we once were is now hated and representative of all that is decadent – but don’t miss an inch of it!” kind of position.
We stroll through the magnificent grounds and head back for the hotel for lunch. Interesting to note that the feudal system was abolished here in 1860, just about the time of our civil war.
Lunch at the hotel, then Gerrie, Shel and I get ready to take off for some quick shopping with Patricia (the healer-with-the-sounds whom we have grown to like) and her friend Gary (who we also like and is very straight in his dislike of all the “space”, “sharing” and “heart connection” jargon). Dennis is staying at the hotel to meditate. He does so daily and won’t be able to tonight as we’re sharing a compartment on the overnight train to Moscow.
We Metro to a stop near the department store and check it out. Four levels that we can see, with all kinds of merchandise, none of which knocks us out. The three-step buying system seems to apply here as well – I guess everywhere. Shelley picks out a hat she likes, Gary some socks for a relative and I pick up a tie for a friend of mine. Most of the merchandise we see is of a quality that we would associate with one of the cheaper discount stores in the States. Prices seem to be fairly reasonable, except for the clothes, which are out of sight (and not particularly fashionable).
We decide to grab a cab over to Nevski Prospect and the big bookstore there, but have to walk to a cab stand as they don’t stop for you just anywhere. Cab ride is an experience in itself. The road is pitted with potholes and the cabbie drives like a Kamikaze pilot, pedestrians be damned. Not a lot of traffic to contend with in this city, at least. I realize as we drive (or race) through the streets that as I have come to know the city a bit more and have become more comfortable here, I find it more attractive.
Pick up some books in the English language section of the big store here and then head for a cab stand near the Metro station. This cab won’t take the five of us so Shel and I send Gerrie, Patricia and Gary ahead with our packages and we take the Metro back. More fun anyway. And it gives us a chance to take a picture of the great statue of Lenin that I’ve been wanting to get. (Unlike most statues in public places that tend to be still-life poses, this one has a great sense of motion and energy about it that I find very attractive.)
After dinner at the hotel, another meeting (my God, another meeting). Rama has asked me to speak for a while on my experiences in Central America – says there has been some interest expressed. I’m trying to figure out how to tie it into this experience so it’s not totally inappropriate. Not easy.
Meeting is a general wrap-up of the Leningrad experience. Some scheduling stuff, then a lot of “sharing”, most of which is very positive, about the experience here with the city, its people and each other. Just before I’m due up to do my rap, Boyd stands up and tells of a harrowing time he had. Seems a man stopped him in the subway and made it clear that he wanted to talk to him, but didn’t speak English. The guy was clearly so upset that Boyd was impressed and followed him all the way across town, down streets and through alleys so that he (Boyd) was totally lost and scared, from the sound of it. (I think it took a hell of a lot of courage for him to have gone with the guy.) Finally, they got to his guy’s place, where Boyd met his sister, who he described as a beautiful girl about 19 or 20, who spoke English and could translate. Seems the fellow is a Jewish dissident who has been having a great deal of trouble with the laws here – can’t get into school – can’t get the job he wants, etc. – wants to leave the country and can’t do that. Boyd was very shaken by the whole experience and felt it deeply. (At one point in this tale, he started to say the man’s name, which was what I feared he might do. Before he could finish it, I made a loud throat-clearing sound, got his attention, and gestured for him to leave out the name – it all happened in a split second and he understood me right away.)
Well, immediately after Boyd had finished by expressing his concern about just what kind of country this was, Rama was on her feet taking issue with him. Saying we must not be “judgmental” about this and must understand that there was more than one side to these problems, etc.
I was really stewing by this time and of course that was when Ron let me know that it was time for me to do my number. Well, I tried to keep the lid on it and gave a broad over-view of the situation in Central-America, then pointed out that what our country was doing there was wrong and should be stopped and would only be stopped if citizens were willing to inform themselves and take the responsibility of citizenship to speak out and criticize wrong-headed policies and force the institution of correct ones that were more consistent with our stated ideals. I segued from there into my view that the primary value of this group was going to be in its effect back home, not here, and if we were going to be truly effective back home we couldn’t allow ourselves to be dopes here who sashay in, get the Party Line handed them and sashay home and say that the only thing wrong is the U.S. policies. Talked a bit about the philosophy of the group, with which I had a few differences, and suggested that there was nothing wrong with coming here with an open heart, but that it needed to be aided by an open mind and open eyes. I talked about the need to recognize evil wherever it was and not to be naïve about the ability to simply embrace it out of existence – gave some specifics about what I thought was wrong here and how important it is for us to know that and for them to know we know it – and then dealt head on with all the non-judgmental crap that had been galling me all along by suggesting that judgment in the service of putting oneself above others should certainly be avoided, but that the portion of judgment that gives one the ability to discern the difference between good from evil ought never be let go of. Ended with the notion that we ought to be sure to avoid being self-righteous and pointed out that to talk of “bringing a higher consciousness” to these people was certainly a judgment in itself.
Felt good to be able to blow off some steam and it seemed to go over OK. No coronaries, anyway. Later a number of people came up and were very complimentary, suggesting that they had been hoping someone would say some of those things. Nina came up and was very sweet, saying she had been to a Disarmament Conference at The Hague a couple of years ago and had come home all enthused and gone out to speak about it and had been called all sorts of names, labeled naïve, told she had been brain-washed, etc. Exactly the kind of thing I fear with this group. Anyway, she and many others were great. Later we talked about that being the beginnings of an “insurgent group” within the delegation.
An interesting wrap-up to the evening. A plain-clothed cop of some sort appeared as we were wrapping up and collared a young kid named Yuri who was there as a guest of Tom. He shouldn’t have been there at all, but he was and this cop wanted him (it’s evidently against the law for a Soviet to be inside the Intourist Hotel). Jim (the Unconditional Love troubadour) faced the cop down long enough for some of us to reinforce him and it was going to get sticky until Rama came up and laid down the law. She was really good, saying that the kid was there as a guest of the group and we wanted him to be allowed to leave unmolested. She was calm, but forceful and deliberate. Another cop came up and Rama laid the same rap on him and he (evidently being the superior) said it was OK and the kid could go. Not altogether too trusting of their sincerity (but non-judgmentally) Rama personally saw to it that the kid got put into a cab.
It was a fairly scary, very dramatic example of the fact that we’re not at home. The question that these folks need to ask themselves, besides the obvious one of are we playing in a game wherein we don’t know all the rules, is how did those guys (KGB or whatever) know that Yuri was there? The waiters, our guide (who had come into the room once) or hidden microphones?
On the bus I told Jim that I thought he had been very courageous. Boyd too.
Bus to the train station for our 11:33 PM departure to Moscow, where we will arrive at 7:50 AM. Some foul-up with the reservations means that instead of First-Class, two to a small cabin situation we had coming here from Helsinki, we now travel Second-Class which means four to a not-much-larger compartment. We have paired off with the Weavers again, which has become a regular thing for us and is great by me. Everyone seems to have taken this change in travel status fairly well, which is good because it is simply an inconvenience, but if someone wanted to be a pain in the ass about it, it could become very unpleasant.
Zoya, our guide, is a kind of “coldly efficient” type who assures us that the trains arrive and leave on the dot so that when it gets in we must all waste no time getting aboard and settled. At the station our bags are trundled out to our gate (more like a pier in a sea of trains). Our train arrives – late – as the 80 of us are sorting and scrambling over bags. We are standing where told – “Car 14 will stop right here.” – It doesn’t, so I tell Shel to wait with the rest of the bags while I take the two big ones and follow Dennis in a dash down the pier to our car and in to our compartment, which is so small that Dennis and I can hardly go into it at the same time. The two of us do a Laurel and Hardy routine that eventually has Dennis, Gerrie and me laughing so hard we are all sprawled over the bags and the bottom bunks, holding our sides. (Gerrie kept saying, “I’m going to pee in my pants!”)
Stagger back to get Shel (sweet thing had waited right where I told her, unsure of what to do) and we get the rest of the stuff in. What follows is one of the great nights in history – tea and talk – jokes and pranks and more laughter than I can remember squeezing into a short period for a long time. (Gerrie keeps swearing she’s going to pee her pants – but isn’t thrilled with the toilet on the train when she discovers it flushes out onto the tracks) (Gerrie, “Dennis, did you see where it goes when you flush it?” Dennis, in his slow drawl, “No, I decided not to watch.”)
Finally, we’re all sort of in our bunks and Dennis says, “Where’s Patricia? I need some sounds”, and before we can decide whether or not to laugh, Gerrie is gone to get her. Patricia comes in and is a good sport about it and we all laugh and then she in fact does some of her sounds, and it’s very calming.
Noisy, jerky, fitful, uncomfortable (can’t get my legs all the way straight) night. When the porter gets us up, we all grouse a bit about lack of sleep. Gerrie says to Dennis, “You slept. I could hear you breathing!” Dennis, “I breathe when I’m awake too, you know.” As we’re pilling out of the car in Moscow, Gary (who, with Patricia and another couple had the last compartment in the car and were right next to the toilet which was both smelly and noisy) said, “It was like sleeping all night in a clothes dryer!”
Moscow – Tuesday May 21
Most noteworthy sight as we pull into Moscow is an incredibly tall, thin spire that shoots up out of the horizon to tower over everything. Someone identifies it as the “second tallest structure in the world.” It’s evidently a radio (tv?) transmitter/antenna and it has lobes and layers reminiscent of a mosque or minaret. It’s a strange exotic (and somehow intimidating) sight that underscores the Asian character of the country not so evident in Leningrad (which was more European).
Zoya comes by the compartments warning us to be ready when the train stops. It’s all knees and elbows again as bags materialize from slots, racks and out from under beds and we’re off.
Bus through the city to the hotel Cosmos (Kocmoc) where it’s hurry up and wait. The hotel, while new, is not impressive. Like so much here, the façade is crumbling (literally) and a lot of the seams show. Our rooms are not ready (this hotel holds twice as many as the one in Leningrad and the grand lobby [marble with an overhanging mezzanine and some kind of chrome hanging sculpture] is full of tourists in clumps), so they set up hospitality rooms that, it turns out, are also not ready. So a hurried breakfast and away on a city bus tour while the room business gets squared away (none of us have yet had a chance to shower or shave, of course).
High point of the tour is Red Square. Red Square!! Place of troops and tanks, missiles and armed might on display. How many times have I seen footage of the display of Soviet Forces (the Red Menace) in Red Square? The very name conjures up a kind of sinister image (kind of like the tower we saw).
In fact, it is a very powerful experience, but in a different, non-threatening way. There is a sense of firmness, of purpose, of history, and a great, surprising beauty. The Square itself, a brick or cobbled surface, is bounded by the Kremlin (a word which simply means wall, or fortress) Wall, the Russian historical museum, the GUM department store (an imposing, block long, almost Gothic-style building which is like an open arcade inside, with shops and an atrium and birds – and if memory serves me is only open to a certain level of Soviet citizen plus foreigners) and St. Basil’s (a bright, colorful mosque that used to be a Russian Orthodox monastery and is now a museum). The onion-shaped towers and domes of St. Basil’s, brightly colored and well-maintained, give a kind of Disneyesque quality to the scene while blending surprisingly easily into the surrounding area. The square is vibrant, bright with earth tones (the Kremlin Wall is actually a deep rust color and yellow domes of buildings peek over it) and not at all drab and forbidding as was expected. (The GUM store is the least colorful sight around).
The area is loaded with tourists – buses abound – and many different languages strike the ear. Most impressive are the large numbers of “heroes of the Patriotic War” who stand, smiling, in groups or with families. Some in uniforms, most in civilian clothes, their chests bedecked with battle ribbons and medals. They are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII, sharing their memories with families and comrades – the whole square seems to pulse with a sense of history.
Through more of the city tour you get a sense of the great size of Moscow (Moskva or Mockba) – 8 to 9 million people living here and up to 2 million more commuting or traveling through per day. There is much more greenery visible here – perhaps partly because we’re further south – but mostly there seems to have been a conscious attempt made to include/plan for it in laying out the city. Another obvious difference here is the traffic jam. Much more traffic here than in Leningrad and much more of a cosmopolitan sense. Many of our crowd express a feeling of being more at home here than in Leningrad. Sense of a much newer city, whether it in fact is or not.
We pass the impressive Moscow State University and stop to see people practicing ski jumping (!) on two jumps situated on the edge of a hill a short distance from the University. (Looks to be a strange thing to do as there is no snow.) Cold and drizzly here today.
Back to the hotel for room assignments and lunch. Rooms still not ready and the baggage is screwed up. Hotel is twice as large as the one in Leningrad and twice as dirty with twice as many problems.
Off to meet with the Soviet Peace Committee, still without a chance to shave and shower. Ugh. The Moscow Peace Committee is larger and more organized than the one in Leningrad. We all sit at large tables and are provided with headsets for simultaneous translation of the speeches (big time!). We are welcomed, much support for peace and a lowering of tensions between the super-powers is voiced. Our group offers another of the flags and the modernistic painting we saw in Finland. Barbara, Rama and Ron speak and then we break up into groups. There is no theater group this time so again I go into a group discussing Soviet/American Relations. Shel goes too. Dennis goes into a room with some religious folks.
Couple of hours spent in discussions, most of which seem to me to be “making nice”. Clearly these folks are very experienced in these kinds of sessions and just as clearly most of our people are not. Ours come at it with an open heart and a “high consciousness” and the best of intentions (for the most part) and expect that to serve them. In an interesting way, I think it does. The innocence probably creates openings in some ways simply because the dynamic is different and/or because unexpected things are done or said. On the other hand, clever people can manipulate these folks without much difficulty, so we have to keep our eyes open.
Ron indicates a desire for further meetings of this kind in both countries or in “neutral” countries with the intention of including “important” people and eventually political leaders. His feeling is that if meetings can be set up which include everyone living together and spending non-negotiating time together as well for a few days it can facilitate some human relationships. I think he’s right. I also think that that isn’t likely to be the result of these kinds of contacts, but then, what’s the harm in trying?
Essentially, in my view, we have been treated to another rendition of the Party Line. The problem, apparently, is essentially U.S. aggression and as soon as we clean up our act these folks will come along on the cakewalk to a peaceful planet. Because most U.S. negotiators who come here aren’t willing to accept that premise, things don’t usually proceed very far. These folks, myself included, are more of a mind to agree that the U.S. policies need some serious re-thinking and that has produced a general tone of agreement. What is missing is any discussion of Soviet culpability on any level or any serious attempt to reach some sort of quid pro quo.
Ron suggests further talks over the next days between representatives of this group and ours. From ours, he indicates, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Dennis and Ron himself will be the delegates. That seems to rather pointedly exclude me, but I’ll try not to be paranoid. I have the feeling that my tendency to ask the pointed question has not endeared me to all those in our group.
At one point in the discussion, to illustrate, I felt the opportunity to move away from all the lofty generalities and suggest that there are practical steps that can be taken on both sides that would demonstrate sincerity of purpose and help create a better political climate. I offered the idea that they think of three things they would like to see the U.S. do and we’ll suggest three things the USSR could do. Dennis opened with the notion that a mutual effort could be an attempt to re-establish air links (the Aeroflot to JFK / Pan Am to Moscow exchange was cancelled by Carter over the Afghanistan invasion of ’79). Some short discussion ensues. Since no ideas seem to come from either corner I then suggest that this organization might consider bringing pressure on the government here for an easing of the emigration restrictions for “certain groups” – an act which would constitute a giant step toward better relations in one short stroke. – Well, to use a New Age expression, you could “feel the change in the energy” in the room. All the happy smiles and the head nodding are gone in a flash. And in the next breath a woman who chaired the opening back-patting session was suggesting icily that we ought to learn to speak Russian and not “expect” them to speak English all the time. Really interesting. Another lead balloon for old Mike. (Maybe that’s why Ron included me out.)
Back at the hotel (after finally getting a shower and shave) I suggest to Shel that maybe I oughta keep my mouth shut and let these folks do it their way. My sense is that I’m resented as much by some of our people as by theirs. She is great and wonderful and supportive and says nothing doing. “Somebody’s got to ask the tough questions.” (At dinner a couple of nice people echo that sentiment which is nice to hear, as it is starting to trouble me.)
Shel and I take a walk and end up going from phone booth to phone booth trying to make contact with David’s friend and a couple of other folks Shel was asked to get messages to. “Do not call them from the hotel” was the word, consistently. One success, which results in a nice conversation and many warm greetings to send back. (He asked my name and the room number at the hotel, but we never heard from him again.) The number of David’s friend seems to be wrong. Someone suggests a possible re-shuffling of the numbers, which seems a long shot, but why not try? Line says busy, but busy is better than I have been getting. (Pleasant experience department – went into a shop to get change for the booth, and once I finally make myself understood, which takes a while, I’m directed to an office in the back. Again with the pantomime. Finally, the guy gets in, turns to his change drawer, fishes out some one-kopek pieces and gives them to me and won’t take my coin in exchange – a gift).
Phone calls themselves are an experience. 2 Kopeks per call, anywhere in the city. Since there are no pictures and I can’t read the signs I have to figure out the procedure, which works out to be that you put the 2 kopeks in the slot at the top and they sit there as you dial. If it connects, they fall in and you talk. If it doesn’t connect, you fish them out again. Kind of fun. We have a nice walk in the cold evening.
Wednesday May 22
At breakfast Dennis is all dressed up – he and Ron and Barbara are headed for the second meeting with the SPC. The tour is going to the Kremlin, which sounds kind of interesting to me anyway. Then Rama comes up and says she’s got a meeting set up with Vladimir Posner, whom she calls the Ted Koppel of the Soviet Union, and do Dennis and Gerrie and Shel and I want to go? Dennis is committed and is torn about it, but we tell each other to take notes.
Quite a long drive through town in a taxi (actually three taxis for all of us) and we are taken to what looks like an industrial area. Big, crumbly, plain walls with an occasional door in them. Doesn’t look like the neighborhood for Ted Koppel. A bit of searching around and in fact we’re in the right place. Go through a passageway into a kind of courtyard (which is strewn with rubble and puddles of water) and into the entrance of an unimposing building to his door. The flat is nice, rather European, not at all lavish (what we see, anyway). The state of the building is pretty much representative of the state of most buildings in Moscow, it seems.
Posner’s father was a Russian, involved in the film business in some way (with MGM, I think). His mother was French, and he in fact was born in France. Moved to the U.S. when he was seven years old and went all through school in New York. Came to USSR when he was 20 and finished school at Moscow State University – didn’t even speak Russian when he came here. Has ties to and affection for both countries but has chosen this country and this system and is a very effective representative for it. He joined the Communist Party when he was thirty-three years old. Posner speaks English like an American and had become fairly well known in the U.S. as a spokesperson – does the Ray Briehm Show on KABC Radio fairly regularly and has often been on Nightline with (the real) Ted Koppel.
When someone said he was thought of as the Walter Cronkite of the Soviet Union (a new one on me) he demurred, politely, and displayed his disarming sense of humor by saying that some have been less flattering, calling him “Ivan the Telegenic” and the “Mouthpiece of the Kremlin”. He said a State Department report listing the most “dangerous” spokespeople for the Soviet cause listed him as #1. After a while it’s easy to understand why.
He is quite intelligent and articulate, full of good arguments and explanations and apparently (unlike anyone we’ve run across so far) doesn’t mind talking about anything. Disagrees with (or so he said) current policies re: Jewish emigration, but explains them in political/historical terms (Jews are a very small, insignificant minority that gets a disproportionate amount of press; the Revolutionary experiment is a difficult one to maintain and has faced many attempts at subversion, both from the inside and the outside – experience indicates that those leaving tend to be unfairly critical and such statements are used politically against the USSR; Soviets tend to be paranoid [although he didn’t use that word] and get more and more recalcitrant when pushed to the wall). He agreed with the statement that it would be in the best interests of the USSR (on a public relations basis if nothing else) to ease the restrictions and says he is hopeful that that will happen (soon?).
Says the system is based upon the Socialist ideal of providing the basic necessities (which are seen as rights) to all, including a job, housing, an education and health care, and that the rights to individual freedoms (such as those we enjoy in the West) have to be subordinated to that of the group (or collective) in order to achieve, through the state, this ideal for all individuals. Says criticism is allowed, but only “constructive” criticism. Says that the ability to tear apart leaders in the press in the West is essentially showboating and letting off steam, but in fact changes nothing. Says the exploitation of sensationalism and violence through the media is unknown here.
Interesting guy. It would have been fun to talk to him at some length, but there are many of us and the time is limited.
Off to lunch at the Metropolis, a beautiful restaurant with a translucent ceiling that provides all the necessary light. (Fun when clouds go over to watch their progress across the room.)
Next to the Pioneer School, which looks to be their version of Cub, Boy and Girl Scouts, Brownies, Campfire Girls and Woodcraft Rangers all rolled into one. It’s a formal school, but evidently for after-school hours, with classes in dance, music and various crafts. There is one in each of 32 districts in Moscow and I’m not clear on what basis eligibility is determined (we find, for example, that while Communist Party members are in a distinct minority – 18 million Party members in a population of 275 million – there are distinct advantages to being a member, which makes – we are told – for more applicants for membership then they are willing to accept, so membership is put at something of a premium) but one can speculate that this sort of establishment is for the children of people with some “special” status.
We are treated, after a tour around, to a show of some of their folk dancing, which is wonderful, and then hear some music from a group the kids organized. It’s all great and, as Dennis says, it’s very much like a PTA evening at home. (If only some of the noisy people in Washington could spend an afternoon here.) An interesting sidelight that Shel and I discuss is the beauty of some of these young girls. Where does it go? Most of the women we see are thick-set and dowdy by our standards and some of these kids are great-looking. Shel speculates that the very talented and beautiful ones are siphoned off to the ballet and/or the theater and that the diet and customs and fashion take care of the rest. They really may not care about decadent Western standards of beauty (but I wonder, especially when you see the attention paid to Raisa Gorbachev in the Western press). As we had been told to expect, we were then given a little thing by the kids, a post-card actually, and our group began to respond with the gifts they had brought (all of which was nice, but there seems to be an over-generous aspect to some of the giving on the part of some of our people which makes me uncomfortable. Shel too.) So we go outside and David (the young teacher/Peace Pilgrim) and I start to kick the hacky-sack around. Pretty soon we’ve got a whole group doing it, including some of the kids, so it turns into a lot of fun.
(Forgot to mention that David and Richard (Economist) and I did the same thing in the parking lot of the hotel in Leningrad and got some young guys going by to play with us. None of them had ever done if before, but as they were all athletes and three of them played soccer (the other was a “decathlete”) in short order they were kicking the crap out of us. I think of this as Hacky-Sack diplomacy, my answer to Patch’s “Nasal Diplomacy”.)
We finally reached David R’s friend (the juggled numbers worked) who was very pleasant on the phone and agreed to meet us for dinner. Plan was for the group to go to a concert of folk music and some songs at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, so Dennis, Gerrie, Shel and I decided to go for the first half and then meet B. after.
The concert was quite wonderful, with a lot of balalaikas and percussion instruments being played by a large orchestra and a man and a woman from the Bolshoi (which means large) Company who did a couple of numbers each.
Then, per our arrangement, we waited for B. by the front door. She had said to me on the phone, by way of description, “I am little, roundish, and will be wearing a raincoat to hide the roundish.” Sure enough, up she came, and after quick introductions we walked around the corner to a restaurant she knew.
B. is wonderful. She is cute, pert, perky, tiny, probably somewhere in her sixties, and has a wonderful sense of wisdom and wit about her. Her size, her hooded eyes, droll sense of humor and deep voice make me think of “Yoda”, the character in “The Empire Strikes Back” (I think it is). She speaks with great love of David R. and V. and for one brief moment as she does so a wave of intense sorrow crosses her face. It is very moving, almost startling in that it is so profound, yet comes and goes in the wink of an eye. She was an interpreter for many years, speaks seven languages, and uses words wonderfully and very economically.
She says she finds the new times and new leadership “interesting”. For the first time in many years (ever?) she finds herself interested in watching a leader on television and listening to him carefully. She used the word “interesting” many times and I felt she had a sense of hope and at the same time a fear of being too hopeful because of bitter experience. She has traveled widely (U.S. a few times). A warm, wonderful, totally charming woman.
The meal is excellent and varied, including many different tastes we haven’t experienced so far in the bland, mass-produced tour diet. B. says that when people come and get the official tour (Intourist) treatment, which she refers to as “In-tour-ist-ing” she likes to offer alternatives.
As we eat, conversation drifts to many areas – David feels his having written the play about “X” (translation available – may be silly, but you never know where this’ll end up) means he won’t be allowed back in the country. Does she think this is a correct assessment? “Probably.” (Later, on the same subject, she elaborates – of course, hasn’t read it, but knowing David she knows he would have written from the heart – “what is true for him” – and that being so he will certainly be “non grata.”) – We were told to make calls to locals from phone booths and not the hotel room – implication being the hotel room phones were bugged and it could cause trouble – is that paranoia or a good idea? “It is a good idea.” – She says that despite having traveled extensively during her working years, a recent request for a visa to visit another country (one in the Western sphere) was denied. Does that bother her a lot? She shrugs her shoulders and says, “What choice is there?” I suggest that some seem to be very vocal in protest of official suppression of their rights – to emigrate, for example. She responds, “And how successful is that?” Since she is very aware of people walking by and of those at other tables, I ask if it is a source of discomfort for her or a problem for her to talk about these things. “These things are not talked about.” Gerrie, for clarification asks, “Are any allowed to leave?” She simply replies, “None.” When asked about the whereabouts of “X” (the subject of David’s play) she says “No one knows.” Gerrie asks if he’s in jail. “Not exactly,” referring to a house arrest kind of situation. When I ask if it looks as though things in that area will get better under the new leadership, she simply says, “We will see.”
Of Vladimir Posner, she says his father was a highly intelligent man and that he himself is “clever, bright.” (Shel said later that she thought B. was making light of him in the comparison – I think she later said of him that he “has a good heart”, so we’re in some small disagreement as to the meaning of her words.)
An extraordinary woman. Powerful evening. (Gerrie compared her to Golda Meier). She then takes us to the Metro and on a ride to the hotel stop. The Moscow Metro is beautiful, but not (to me) markedly different from the one in Leningrad (we had heard that this one put that one to shame – not so). Some beautiful marble stations – all different – quite impressive, with chandeliers, very clean floors and walls (absolutely no graffiti anywhere that we could see) – even the tracks and track beds are clean (none of the usual wrappers, paper cups or cigarette butts). You see a lot of people smoking here, on the street. We asked about smoking in the Metro; “It is forbidden.” An interesting word – much used here and indicative of the social control. For example, alcohol is a big problem nationally (has been throughout Russian history, per Nina) so they have recently made it illegal to be drunk. (I assume that means in public – the new laws regarding drinking ages, times that it will be available, liquors that will be produced, etc. are causing a lot of talk). A typically socialistic top-down approach to a perceived social problem. (Dino – Boyd’s Asst. – related a story of having met a man who described himself as a “loader”. They talked in a bar, wherein this guy was putting away the vodka at a good rate, and he said he loaded trucks, etc. Asked what he would become in the future, he said “a loader.” Asked why he drank so much vodka, he said, “What else is there to do? Drink and load. Drink and load.”)
B. goes past her stop on the Metro to make sure we get off at the right one and then goes on back. We make plans to see her in a couple of days. And to bed.
Thursday May 23
Morning meeting at the US/Canada Institute, a Soviet organization that studies all aspects of the socio-political systems in the US and Canada. Three men make up the panel that addresses us. Later another man (who I recognize as having been in the discussion at the SPC yesterday) joins us and sits in the audience with us. These guys are the best yet. Very bright, very articulate, and, as the discussion goes on, warm and humorous. On our side, on the other hand, it was one of the worst demonstrations of naiveté yet. (Some of our folks just don’t get that these guys are professionals.) Some of the discussion is fine, naturally, as we have some very sharp people with us as well, but as an example, at one point in the discussion one of our members asked these guys to tell her what she should be doing to make things better back home. (!) Michael, who should know better, asks what could be a tough question about an acceptance of a belief in the ability to survive a nuclear war and then answers the question for them so as not to make anyone uncomfortable (except me). Another guy (who wrote the religious tracts) goes on for a while about how great it is here without all the billboards and advertising and how ugly it is back home. They’re like lap dogs saying. “Scratch me and I’m yours,” as they seem to want to underscore the notion that the only problems are with U.S. policy and if only they’d go away there would be peace. Again there seems to be no willingness to challenge these guys as to what they see in their own attitudes/positions/system that contributes to the tension and what, if anything, they can do about it.
A quite wonderful thing happens toward the end of this discussion. The fellow who had been part of the dialogue yesterday makes a statement about his hopes for peace between our nations, and as a kind of climactic gesture, pulls out a sheet of paper upon which he had drawn 2 stars, one representing the U.S. and the other the USSR, showing how they can and should be side by side, mutually respectful and on equal footing. He is clearly quite heartfelt in his statement, and I take a moment to thank him and shake his hand afterward. He indicated that this group has made him feel that certain openings might be possible and the sincerity of his feelings is both evident and quite moving. Maybe I’ll have to reassess my position.
Lunch, then back to the hotel for a meeting with a psychic healer named Barbara Ivanov. She’s a little, grey-haired, shy, self-effacing woman who seems very sweet. Getting there late I miss the first meditation but hear a lot of the discussion and am there for a second meditation where she does what she calls “mediumship” and channels some information. It’s kind of restful, but I’m not particularly impressed. The stuff she “channels in” is the same as what she has been saying before, complete to the use of some of the same descriptive terms (candles; bearers of light; give everything, no matter what the cost to you personally). It all sounds fine and I have no particular problem with what is said, I just question the manner of the presentation. (And I must say I bridle at what seems to me the self-indulgent priesthood that develops around her. People adopt these hushed, reverent, simpering tones and talk about how “deep” and “meaningful” it all was. Maybe it really was terrific for them and I just missed it, but I have difficulty shaking the feeling that there is some sort of silly game going on here wherein people do a lot of reassuring and solidifying of themselves and each other in a very self-righteous way).
Shel and I take a walk to talk it all over and clear our heads a bit. Feels good to be able to talk to her. She’s so straight and caring and sensible.
We miss dinner and get right on the bus for the Baptist Church. We are ushered up into what looks like an old office building, to a kind of reception room where we’re addressed by the various leaders of the church. The main guy says this church has a congregation of about 5,000 and has services about five times per week. They do much ecumenical work and have a heavy emphasis on peace work. Our group presents some dolls and some more artwork, then after a question and answer session with no political content we go into the church proper.
It is indeed, once you get there, a real church and it is jammed. Well over a thousand people here. Many babushkas, but also many younger and middle-aged folks as well. We are offered seats on one side of the two-sided balcony – the choir loft forms the bottom of a U-shaped balcony. Again it feels funny to me to be sitting when some are standing and to be doing so in front of people who are taking part in the service seems inappropriate, so I stand. (Such a nice boy.)
The service begins, there is preaching, Bible reading and the choir sings. If it weren’t in Russian it could be anywhere in the USA. Concerning the large numbers of older people (especially the babushkas) attending these church services, we heard an interesting thesis – that older retired people having no job to lose are less susceptible to the pressures most often used to make people toe the line and are therefore freer to do some of the things that are officially frowned upon, like going to religious services. (However, I think church attendance by seniors is a fairly universal phenomenon) – (In a different context, that thesis is borne out by something B. said last night when asked if writing her or calling her would cause her problems. She essentially said that now that she was retired it was no problem, as “what could they do?”)
After we’re well into the services, Swami Sachidananda is introduced and brought to the podium. He gives a sermon to the congregation that is interpreted for them by one of their ministers with great vigor and style. It’s clear he’s giving it everything he’s got and the audience responds warmly. After the sermon, the minister/interpreter tells of us and our mission and says that we want to offer a song. We do the “One World” song in both languages again and the response is amazing. The audience (some of whom had been regarding us somewhat suspiciously) opens up to us with a palpable warmth that is overwhelming, holding out their hands to us and crying and calling out “Mir” (Peace). As we file out of the church they are reaching out to touch us and hugs and kisses are exchanged in an orgy of warmth and joy. It’s an unbelievably powerful exchange and many of the faces of our people getting back onto the buses are covered with tears (Shelley included).
Our next stop is the Moscow Circus (from the sublime to the ridiculous?). We have to walk for a few minutes through Gorky Park in a light rain to get to the big top. Very nice. The circus is fun, like circus’ everywhere. (Interesting how some things transcend language.) It’s in a tent and is not large (one ring). Typical variety of acts (I always try to imagine the scene when someone says to his father, after being asked what he wants to do in life, “Well dad, I’ve decided I want to twirl plates on the end of a long pole,” or “I want to hold a seven-man pyramid up with my teeth as we fly through the air on a rope. OK dad?”) but it ends with an impressive display of Cossack horsemanship (tough stuff in a small ring). Then home for a late dinner and some gossip with some of the gang.
In the lobby on the way to the elevator we are introduced to an American tour guide who says that there are a couple of people whom he would like us to meet. They are peace activists who are not associated with the Soviet Peace Council. Jim, one of our people, is going to go out and meet them and will leave word for me where they can be found. Sounds interesting.
Friday May 24
What a day! Mary spoke to me at breakfast. She went with Jim to the home of Alex and Olga Lusnikov, two of the peace activists who were mentioned. She found it very interesting – these people claim to have been harassed by the KGB – he has been removed from his job as a physicist and is now officially a street cleaner – they claim that the Soviet Peace Committee, being officially sanctioned, is actually simply a mouth-peace/organ for the government (!!). Jim (non-Catholic teacher at a Catholic school – [he points out] – and one of the charter members of the “unconditional-love-New-Age-jargon-school here) says he left these people’s name and address at the desk for me. “At the desk?” (Not a particularly good idea, methinks) We go to the desk to retrieve it and no one seems to be able to find it. What a surprise! So Jim gives me the address of the people and also one of another couple who are involved in the same organization to check out later. (It seems to me to be important that they know that their name and number is probably in the hands of unfriendly folks at this point.)
First official item on the agenda today is a “round-table discussion” which is supposed to include journalists and businesspeople for us to talk to. Through some screw-up we get to one that has one MD, one psychiatrist, a first-year English teacher (young woman who speaks English with an English accent) and the moderator, a big, pompous guy who claims to have been an English teacher for twenty years. This discussion was already going on when we got there, as (for the first time) we were sharing the space with a group of college honor students from the U.S. who were spending a week here as part of some sort of honors program.
Moderator opens with a short statement and then opens the floor to questions. Kids go on the attack right away with questions about Sakharov and repressive behavior on the part of the government and immediately this moderator becomes the most insufferable sneering, officious asshole imaginable. Says Sahkarov is doing fine, is well paid and is living comfortably. (We’re doing fine thank you and the only problem is anti-Soviet Western journalists and the imperialist propaganda machine.) Just an awful jerk. Jews are an insignificant minority who get an unfair amount of attention. 95% of all requests to leave are granted and the few who are turned down are because they have been in “sensitive” positions and they need a cooling down period of a few years before it is safe to let them leave. (He said that Sakharov, for example, had openly called for a nuclear strike by Western powers on the Soviet Union.) He then launched into a clarification for those of us who have been polluted by Western propaganda and said that an amazing number of those who want to leave are in fact not mentally well or operating under some sort of delusion and when they get out they often want to come back – but then, of course, it’s too late. At one point he said, speaking of people (even Jews) who have left and regretted it, “You should see some of the letters I have read…” and everyone broke up, imagining this smarmy bastard sitting in some KGB office going over all the mail that comes in from any Western country. He quickly got the point of the laughter and added, “… from friends of mine, shown to me by friends of mine who are Jews…” It was a true comic delight.
The subject of the reported abuse of psychiatric treatment was brought up (not by me!) and the moderator and the psychiatrist got into a hair splitting contest about the “difficulties and vagaries” of diagnoses in “forensic psychiatry.” In a silly, self-justifying discussion of the legal/psychiatric tangle they brought up the Hinckley case and the contradictory testimony there (sane/insane) and just tried to double-talk the subject to death. When the same questioner tried to put them back on line, they simply denied that any psychiatric abuse happened at all, and certainly not for political purposes. Given the ripe opening, I brought up Anatoly Koryagin and they denied knowing the name. I thought that was interesting since he had founded a psychiatric organization here in Moscow dealing with this very subject – and was now confined under the same circumstances as were being discussed (denied). They simply stonewalled it.
When they called time we went back in the bus and collapsed. I said it was enough to turn me into a right- winger. Such absolutely insufferable assholes!
Then three of the New Agers got into a discussion about the fact that “we had blown it”, had bought into his stuff, “fell in his trap,” and had to take the responsibility for it. I asked Jim to clarify what was being said for me and he said, “Can I give it to you straight?”, a question I found more than mildly infuriating. He said I should have come on with “water instead of fire.” (Huh?) It seems I had pushed the moderator on the subject of Koryagin (I had said the name and the guy ignored it and talked some more stuff for a while. When he paused, I said it again he did the same thing. I waited until they finished and then asked the question again and that’s when they stonewalled me) Jim felt I had contributed to the tension and that I should have “said it once and let go of it.” Unfortunately we arrived at the place we were having lunch at that point and had to curtail the discussion (so I had to let go of it – for a while).
Waiting in front of the restaurant, Dennis and I are engaged in conversation with Hubie (black artist and leader of seminars in which he “helps women find the way to their true selves”) who is going on about the feminine energy in men and the need to have access to it. He goes off in the stratosphere for a while and then comes back to talk about a confrontation he had had yesterday with one of the women (psychologist) on the trip. It seems he was going on about something and she had cut him off (“She cut me!) and he had “eaten” the bad feelings and hadn’t come back at her, but the next day (today) he had talked to her (“but not from a hostile place”) and tried to explain to her how that was not OK and “she cut me again!! Well, this had made all this masculine energy come up and he wanted to knock her head off. (This guy is decided whacko) And he knew we understood all this, especially Dennis, because he had played a wife-beater in a movie once and “you’ve got to have it in you to play it.” Dennis looks at him and says, “You mean I’ve got to have been dead to play someone who dies?” Hubie doesn’t know quite how to field this one and Dennis starts to talk a bit about the use of imagination as I give him a smile and slide away.
Vladimir Posner spoke to the assembled group at lunch. Again he was very good, very articulate and very committed. By the time he’s finished I figure about 30% of our gang is ready to turn in their passports and join the Revolution. At the lunch we meet a young woman, Paula Garb, who is a journalist and has lived here for ten years. She’s another interesting, bright person, also very committed. I raise a question for Posner, saying that we have heard time and again about all the bad things that the U.S. is doing and in many cases we are aware of those things and would agree that they need to be stopped or fixed. But are there, in his opinion, things that the Soviets are doing that exacerbate tensions, either through policies or attitudes, and if so, what is being done about them? And are the people here free to do anything about them if they choose? Posner says that as much as he knows that it would be the politic thing to do to say that there are things that are wrong on this end, there are not. They are not doing anything. I ask Paula privately if she agrees with this position. She does. I then ask about reports of human rights violations in Afghanistan and Posner says he knows nothing about any such thing and feels sure that he would hear if they in fact were happening. Interestingly he does happen to know of a couple of cases of terrible things having been done to Russian soldiers by the Mujahedeen (the Afghan Islamic warriors).
Paula, who is a big fan of MASH and of Shelley from Donna Reed, invites us to her home that evening. We say we’d like to, but don’t know and then have to be off for a quick change at the hotel before meeting the folks at the U.S. Embassy.
We meet two Embassy representatives at the offices of the U.S. Commerce Department because the Embassy is in an “old building” which doesn’t have space for “a group this large”. These guys are really a study in contrasts. First guy is tweedy, shaggy hair, intellectual – has family here and has visited and/or lived here regularly over the past 20 years. Though some were put off by his manner, I kind of liked him. Very off-hand manner, dry wit, and I got a sense of affection for the country and the people, though none for the system. His name is Greg Guroff. The second guy, Mark McCarthy, was a different story. Navy blue coat, rep tie, gray slacks, close-cropped hair, George-Bush-style delivery – chock full of cynical and pessimistic over-and-under-tones.
The presentation really pissed off the delegation (The New Age gets a dose of political reality) and there is a fair amount of hostile questioning and reaction from the crowd. (My bet is that the first guy is a Foreign Service professional and the second is a Reagan appointee.) The overall impression we’re left with is that if it’s up to these guys, things are not going to get better fast.
Next stop is the Galladeena (this term has stuck from a cute story Rama told early on. People were talking about setting up a festive meal for the last night of our trip in Moscow and she kept hearing them refer to it as the “Galladeena” and assumed that was the Russian word for it. Turns out they were speaking English and saying “Gala Dinner.”) Dinner is fairly nice (food a little better – I’m even learning to like caviar or at least eat it) but there is much ado about what to do after. Joseph Goldin (Russian version of a Hollywood hustler/producer with visions of a “Space Bridge” satellite hook-up with giant screens in six or seven different countries simultaneously observing 40th anniversary of Hiroshima, Aug. 6) has set up an evening of theater, including the renowed Soviet comic/satirist Arkady Raikin (75 yr. old known as the only one who can get away with ribbing government leaders – said to be close to people near the top). After the show Joseph wants all of us (particularly the celebrities) to take part in a filmed discussion, on stage along with the cast, Raikin and other Soviet celebs, of possibilities for world peace, his Space Bridge idea, etc. (It sounds like a commercial to sell his idea) That is one choice. Next, Rama informs me that Paula Garb had asked her to “twist our arms” about going to her apartment this evening. And third, given what Mary and Jim described I wanted someone to know the note with the names and address of those activists had been “lost” from the hotel desk, so felt impelled to at least try to find them. And we were scheduled to leave tomorrow.
So Shel, the Weavers and I decided to skip the theater and go to Paula’s, but first try to contact the peace people. Joseph Goldin, when he finds out Dennis isn’t going to the theater, puts on a full-court press trying to convince him to come (which makes me more sure than ever that it’s a hustle). Dennis stands firm while I rush around with maps and addresses and find that the second of the two couples (not the ones visited by Mary and Jim) live in the same area as Paula Garb, so we grab a cab for Prospekt Vernadskago (wherever the hell that is).
Another mad Russian cab ride. The driver, Valery, starts off with a very businesslike attitude toward us, but between Gerrie’s good natured groping to communicate in his language and our craziness in trying to find the address (I had mistakenly given him the second address [Paula’s] first, and corrected it on the way. He had confused the two – in part at least because I was so reluctant to let him see the whole address [which was written on my notebook] because there were other names and addresses I wasn’t sure he should see [paranoia comes easily in the USSR]. It made for an interesting time – transferring names I couldn’t spell [or read] onto another piece of paper, then, when that didn’t work, holding my hand over one part of the notebook while showing him the other part [and being soooo casual about it] and all this while we are careening past pedestrians and around [and through] potholes) he warmed up to us. Believe it or not, we finally got there, amid much laughter, and by the time we had gone around the same track for the second or third time Valery was laughing with us.
He took us to a group of crumbling, lower-class looking apartment buildings and, leaving everyone in the cab, I searched up a foul-smelling stairway and through dirty halls for the right apartment. Can’t find it so knock on doors – nobody knows this guy, Yurii Medvedkov. Finally we find the right building and I knock on the right door and am invited in. I run back and get Shel, Dennis and Gerrie and make a deal with Valery to come back and get us (if he understands this) at 9 PM. And up we go.
Yurii Medvedkov, along with his wife Olga and the Lusnikovs, seems to be one of the prime movers in The Group for Establishing Trust Between the USSR and the USA, called simply the Trust Building Group. He is a most impressive, soft-spoken, gray haired man with a very gentle demeanor. He invited us all in as though we were long lost friends and made us comfortable in his three-room apartment (living area, bedroom and kitchen, with a small bathroom off the kitchen and a hall connecting it all). He indicated that because they have no base, they consider the homes of each of the core members to be open to anyone who would like to come in and find out about them (this as a casual deflection of an expression of appreciation of his hospitality).
The Group is a movement, he says, not an “organization”, because when they first got started the KGB said there were certain legal procedures that had to be met before they could be an organization. Attempting to comply, they found themselves frustrated at every turn and finally realized it was all for naught, but that the law could only affect them if they were an organization. Hence the use of the term “group” or “movement”. He says they are not dissidents and are not out to change things in Soviet society – except, he says, to the effect that there will be natural changes which will take place when more positive priorities are set up. They have consciously distanced themselves from dissidents or anti-government groups because they feel that their single purpose of lowering the level of tensions on the international front and bringing about a reordering of national priorities is of the utmost importance and must not be undermined by anyone with another political agenda. He said they love their country and have no desire to leave it – simply feel that all people must do all they can to avert the rush toward a “nuclear holocaust”, and that they, as Soviets, want to do their part. The group believes in and operates on Gandhian principles.
Yurii’s wife, Olga, comes in then and sweeps us all up in her energy. Where he is quiet, simple and professorial, she is light, full of energy and fun. She’s a vivacious brunette with a nine-month-old child in her arms and a big smile for all of us. He tells her that there was a policeman there today with news of her court date (she had been arrested – when pregnant, I think – and charged [he called them “framed up charges’] with “hooliganism”, a favorite Soviet all-encompassing charge, stemming from a demonstration she had taken part in. She had been given a three year sentence which was suspended because of the baby and she’d been waiting to hear what her future held) and that it had been determined that she was covered in the April 16th Amnesty (granted in celebration of the anniversary of the end of the war) so she won’t have to go to jail. She hears this bit of news with the utmost grace and tosses her head and shrugs her shoulders as if to say “I knew they couldn’t handle putting me in jail”. It’s really very impressive. She then regales us with a story about being followed by three cars full of KGB men when she was about 8.5 months pregnant with Maria and on her way to a peace demonstration – “I guess they wanted to see if it was a girl or a boy!”
Yurii and Olga are both geographers. She is now on maternal leave and he has been demoted to the bottom of the heap in his ministry because of their activism, which is frowned upon. When I commiserated, he shrugged it off and told of his friend Alex Lusnikov (about whom I had heard) and how he had been removed from his job and sent out to clean the streets. These people, in their simple, selfless dedication, remind me of Quakers I have known.
Olga fixes tea and gets out candles and cakes as they tell of having been constantly “pressurized” by the KGB. They are watched, their phone rarely works, they get no mail at all “except for bills and subpoenas.” When we ask if we are likely to cause them trouble by having come here, they indicate that in their opinion the best thing that can happen is for them to be known about and talked about, both here and in the West. They feel that there is a certain protection for them in being known, and because they abide by the laws they will insist upon their right to continue to do what they think is right and necessary. Yurii speculates that since there are both Hawks and Doves in the Soviet hierarchy, their being in existence give the Doves some room to maneuver. He believes that international attention to an occurrence a while back got one of their number out of jail and tells of two young women, Olga Kabanova and Natasha Akulenok, members of their movement, who where put into psychiatric detention last May 16th and have been kept incognito since that time. I suggest that I would like to give their names to Amnesty International and he urges me to do so, saying that there are two psychiatric hospitals in this area that are solely used for dealing with political dissidents, and that perhaps international pressure will help. (Fond thought of that fat creep this morning)
Yurii tells us of having had an attempt on their lives by the KGB – their car was blocked in by KGB cars overnight and when they came out the next day to go somewhere they were allowed to drive away (with KGB following). Shortly thereafter, in the middle of heavy traffic with Olga driving, one of the wheels came off. He said it was only through great good fortune that they were not injured and he was sure that it was the act of one of the KGB agents. He went on to say that he didn’t think it was done on orders from higher up, and that he had taken advantage of the connections available to him at the ministry where he works and had sent a cable to Breshnev (then head of govt.) protesting this treatment at the hands of the security forces. He says after that things cooled down for a while.
Their son Mishka, who looks to be about nine, comes in then and is introduced around. He has a peace button collection and we give him some to add to it. They then respond by giving us each one of their own group’s buttons. After an hour or so of exhausting and inspiring conversation, we take our leave, hoping that Valery will be waiting for us.
Bless him, he’s there. I give him the address of Paula’s place (the first address) and off we go. It’s not more than a mile away, as it turns out, and from a distance looks a bit like Century City. As we get closer, however, the crumbling facades, unfinished streets and piles of rubble renew our acquaintance with that unique aspect of Soviet architecture, the new/old. Buildings which are obviously nearly new begin to look shabby and run-down even before they’re completed – and the sense we have from looking at them is that they may never be completed. (I guess the obvious conclusion one can draw is that in having eliminated the risk of unemployment they have at the same time eliminated much of the creative initiative of the workers. Whether or not that is a fair assessment is open to discussion.) Valery asks around, finds the correct building, leaves us to it and drives off smiling and waving, a new friend.
We enter another slummy looking entrance to a cold, dirty concrete foyer and get into what looks like a freight elevator to feel our way up to the correct floor. Paula’s apartment, like so many others, is nice enough when you get inside, but the getting there takes you through a most unattractive, run-down, un-cared-for building. Nobody seems to care enough to clean it, much less dress it up, put on a coat of paint or put some flowers down somewhere. Curious. Paula welcomes us, introduces us around to a few friends and neighbors and her two sons. Andre is 18, a student at Moscow State University and very bright and out-going. Having lived here for ten years, he has had the opportunity to go back and forth between the two countries on a fairly regular basis and is at home in both societies but seems to have more allegiance to the USSR. Gregory, about 14, is quiet, seems shy. We’re told he would prefer to live in the U.S. and, someone said, wants to do diplomatic work (what an incredible background for that!)
Paula married a Soviet, came here and had Andre when very young. After a while she split from husband but evidently got back with him, at least for a while, as Gregory is by same man. They divorced and she went back to the U.S., lived in San Francisco (her home) and “couldn’t cope”. Lived in a tough part of San Francisco, had no money, two kids (starting to get into trouble), wanted to go to school and had “no hope”. So she came back here where she had a guarantee of a home, job, school, medical care, etc. and she stayed. Evidently she’s happy with the choice she made. Still is U.S. citizen (so can’t become Party member), does translating and is a free-lance journalist.
Conversations (Andre took part much of the time, Gregory almost none) were with two neighbors, one English woman and one American woman, both of whom are married to Soviets (and evidently both of whom are translators who work with Paula), and an American businessman who spends half the year here and half in the U.S. (and has gotten heat from our government for dealing with the Soviets). Others from our delegation here were Gary and Patricia, and the cook-book couple, Diana and Paul. Most of the talk had to do with the ease of living in the USSR and about American misperceptions of same. Much was made of the threat to peace presented by Reagan, the possibility of war, the possibilities for change. (Clearly a pro-Soviet position and interesting that the most vehemently anti-American sentiments came from the transplanted Americans in the group) (The most strongly voiced of which had to do with the shooting down of the KAL 007 flight, which was seen as a clear provocation on our part) There is clearly great anger about the way Soviets and the Soviet way of life is portrayed in America (One girl is from Louisiana and, though her family is OK about it, is offended with the way they are treated when they visit home).
It provides a flash of irony to be sitting around a comfortable room in a nice home while having the same kind of conversations that are had every day back home, but from the exact opposite point of view – complete with the same kinds of feelings and rife with the same kinds of unreasoning hostilities. It would seem that there is a lot of work to be done.
As they have no phone yet, Andre is dispatched to walk to the cab-stand, which he does. Again, after being over-indulged by Russian hospitality, we make our exit. As Paula is escorting us to the elevator, we talk a bit. She had said to me at one point, when I asked her about how much leeway she had in terms of “investigative reporting”, that she “didn’t want to get into any ticklish areas”. This is more evidence to me of the willingness on the part of too many people here to indulge in what we would think of as self-censorship – not even waiting to find out if the authorities would frown on it, just assuming it to be the case and not bringing it up. I press her a bit and ask if she would be at all willing to talk to Yurii Medvedkov. She says OK, she’ll talk to him. No promises. I have to get her his address – it’ll be interesting to see the results (if any).
The cab ride back is another adventure in Soviet auto lunacy. This guy is big, unsmiling, remote, robotic – Valery, where are you? To top off the usual lunging, lurching, careening ride, the sun has gone down (finally) for its short rest and this guy is evidently into saving his battery, as he turns off the lights at every opportunity. So we go dashing off through the Russian night, as though shot out of a gun, with only the stars to guide us!
On this ride we see the results of two accidents and think of the implications of the big Soviet drinking problem and Gorbachev’s program and just hope he’s not too late.
Saturday May 25
Last day. There is another “plenary session” scheduled at the Gorky Street Intourist Hotel (where we had the Galladeena) after breakfast. For “sharing” and “completion”. We also want to get in some shopping and see B. again, and I want to go back to see the Medvedkovs and take some things to them. The loneliness their situation and the courage they show has touched me considerably. “Vishnu” (the sweet, quiet Yoga instructor from Denver) tells us of a meeting he has set up with a Jewish dissident and wants to know if we’d like to take part. We decide to pass on the “sharing” session and do the other things. Dennis and Gerrie will go to the session. Ron then tells us of a meeting with Raikin that has been set up for 2 PM (leave from the hotel) so if we want to be in on that, be sure to be there.
Off on the Metro to meet the dissident. Group includes Vishnu, Judy (his lady friend, sweet, pretty, so quiet that I know little about her), David (the Peace Pilgrim, who is very impressive in his grasp of the language in so short a time), Judy W. (the savvy psychologist I talked to in Finland – is a Jew – I think of her as one of the “insurgent group” on this trip), and Myrna (wife and mother from Denver, another of the “insurgents”). A provocative beginning – our instructions are to ride the Metro down three stops from the hotel (in the last car) and get off and wait. We do so and cool our heels for a while, assuming the KGB is watching our every move. Guy comes and sits down on a bench near us and reads a paper as he and we watch a number of trains go by (making us all the more sure he’s after us). David goes over and sits down by him and makes conversation, comes back and says “He’s fine”. David is great. The most innocent creature imaginable. (Then a train comes up and the guy waves to someone and gets on – evidently David was right) (Shelley is sure there has to be someone from the KGB watching us – she simply won’t have it any other way – says that’s the way it is in all the spy novels she’s read). We laugh and joke and fool around until Walter comes waltzing up, late.
He’s in his early 20’s, has a big Afro and a big smile. Smart kid with a wonderful sense of humor. Leads us to his apartment. We have to pass the big stadium built for the ’80 Olympics and see that it’s in the same shape most of the “new” apartments are: façade crumbling, sidewalk unfinished, general disrepair – a sad sight and eloquent testimony to poor workmanship, lousy materials, lack of concern or all three.
Walter’s apartment is pre-Revolutionary and is an earlier version of all the others – run down, slummy building, stinking stairway (no elevator at all in this one) and a warm cheery apartment. (There is constant evidence of a kind of national inferiority complex with regard to the living standard here – either a reluctance to have people – Americans – see their homes, or a tendency to apologize for them)
Walter introduces us to his father who is a great looking man (it is his 50th birthday today) with a wonderful physique that gives evidence of his military career, a handsome Russian/European face, a wonderful, strong smile and almost no English.
Walter speaks openly with the evident agreement and support of his father (who later says he would have advanced further in the military had he not been a Jew – tells at one point of having a superior say to him that he would have been better off if he hadn’t written a particular letter to someone in Israel – only he had never told anyone about the letter). He detests the system and wants out. Wants to go to either the U.S. or Israel. His cousin had a great deal of trouble getting out (his cousin is in Denver and is known by the folks we came with) and as a result he knows what to do and not do. Says that as a result of his distaste for the system he’s sure he’s more critical and more aware of the “oppressive” atmosphere, but he feels very much oppressed. Says it’s mostly a feeling, a reaction to the style of life here, where people watch you and criticize, “shake their fingers” at you if you behave in a manner thought to be inappropriate. Says if you sit in the subway with your legs crossed a certain way there is criticism, if you have too open a manner, or are acting in a way thought to be not consistent with the ideal, there is criticism. (What’s not clear to me is whether this is a Russian trait or this pertains to the Socialist or Communist ideal)
Walter says, among other things, that there is a quota of 4% on Jewish enrollment in the medical school, so he had to choose something else, but “it’s difficult to learn what you don’t want to learn.” He is now an engineer and works in a rubber plant. Says choosing a college is a serious question because you want to find one that has a military program (evidently like ROTC) which precludes military service, otherwise service is compulsory and it is something that, he says, includes all the worst aspects of the society he hates. (evidently most kids smart enough to go to college strive to avoid the military, which sounds familiar) He says he couldn’t apply for a visa to emigrate while in school because the minute you do that they throw you out of school and you’re drafted. Since he hates his job and can, by law, only change jobs once a year, he doesn’t want to apply now for fear that it will affect the possibility of his getting a better job. A real Catch-22.
Walter says Stalin killed 30 million people, not 10 million as the books say or “a few thousand” as one of our Intourist guides said. Says emigration (Jewish) reached its height during the Breshnev years of Détente, but has changed. Andropov closed the borders, he says, and Chernyenko said the “Process of reunion is over” and claims that no one now wants to emigrate.
He says, “Jews are bargaining chips”.
He hopes Gorbachev means an easing of restrictions. Says the 27th Party Congress in February of 1986 may mean a lot about how effective Gorbachev can be. Says to watch for the replacement of Gromyko – indicates if that happens it will mean Gorbachev is really holding all the cards.
Says his mother and father live in the Crimea and would love to emigrate as well, but says his father fears that, at fifty, he wouldn’t be able to find work. Says, of leaving his family, that should he be successful, they’ll miss him and he them, but they want him to be happy.
After a while we thank them and head out. Leaving Vishnu and the two Judys, Shelley and I and David and Myrna retrace our steps to the Metro and head down for the Medvedkov’s.
Yurii is home and welcomes us as before. We talk some more and he gives me pictures of the two girls for the Amnesty International report. He discusses his group with Myrna and David and we give him some of the things (like Boyd’s appointment book) that we had intended to give to our “counterparts”. (Dennis had sent along a copy of a book by an Eastern author because he had seen a copy of “Autobiography of a Yogi” in the apartment yesterday.
Then it’s off on the Metro to see if we can catch up with the group going to meet Raikin (although we’re already late). We get to the Gorky St. Hotel just in time – call B. and she’s not available until dinnertime so we tag along.
Raikin is in a home for retired motion picture and theater people which is very impressive – the best building we’ve seen so far – well-constructed and decorated with care. Raikin is quite old and rather enfeebled (Gerrie said she kept expecting him to keel over). He’s really very sweet, but it quickly becomes clear that it’s all a hustle – Joseph Goldin is doing his pitch for the Space Bridge, using us to impress Raikin and using Raikin to impress us, while he’s trying to get Raikin to get to Gorbachev for him. It’s like being back in Hollywood. Bugs the shit out of me to be wasting my time here. Swami Sach, Barbara Hubbard, Ron and Patricia are all called upon to say their particular pieces about how important this thing is. Michael, too. Most are fairly circumspect about it, but Michael and Barbara seem to have bought the whole package. As a matter of fact, Michael seems to get more Russian every day. Finally we leave the poor old man to his rest, but by now there is only time to race back to the hotel and pack before dinner. (Have to vacate the rooms by 7 PM and head for the train station by 8:30)
B. does agree to come to the hotel for dinner as we have to pack and pick up some last minute things at the Berioshke (the hotel’s foreign-currency-only-shop). B. shows up and it’s wonderful to see her but it’s a bittersweet exercise. She has a picture and a letter for D. (with specific instructions to keep them in separate places so that if one is discovered at the border they won’t be connected). She and Shel, who have made an intense connection in this short time, have a hard time keeping the tears away. B. is clearly very lonely and though she won’t say so directly, clearly longs to be in the U.S. At one point she admits, “I may have missed my chance”. She maintains the droll wit, however, which seems to protect her, and soon has a large contingent of the delegation totally charmed. She seems to be, with her years, her charm, wit, class, her bittersweet view of things, her love of country and yet the inability to express her deepest yearnings, a perfect analogy for this place and its people.
The dinner is chaotic, with toasts, hugs and various expressions of feelings by, about and for each other on the part of the group, some of which is splitting off to go south to Tblisi and the Caucasus for another week.
Withal, we’re able to give B. a sense of our appreciation and leave her with a few gifts, both for herself and “her children”. An incredible discovery was made which gives a sense of true magic to the connection Shel and B. have experienced. It turns out that a long-time friend of B.’s in NY is a long-time friend of Shel’s aunt Nanette. Nan and B. had met and had taken an instant liking to one another, and here were Shel and B., years later, experiencing the same thing. It was quite something to watch. B. was dumbfounded as Shel explained her connection to Nan (Shel was just as staggered). B. looked at Shel, her eyes full of tears, pulled at the sleeve of her dress and said, “She gave me this dress!” A very emotional time.
Then bags and pictures and time to get on the bus. Shelley was a wreck, as was B. The horror of having to get in that bus and drive away, leaving her there, was/is difficult to express. No system has the right to arbitrarily visit that kind of grief on a human being.
To the train. Shel makes two more calls trying to reach people she was asked to say hello to. Reaches one.
It’s the same circus with the bags, and once in the compartment it’s all elbows and knees again, but this time there’s a difference, a slightly gleeful undertone. We’re going home. We again share the compartment and a lot of laughs with our traveling buddies the Weavers.
Much alcohol and hi-jinx are evident as the train pulls us through the long day/night toward Finland. Up late in Patricia and Gary’s compartment (which they again share with Diana and Pail Cookbook) telling jokes and stories and being goofy.
Sunday May 26
Again, not much sleep. The beds haven’t gotten any longer in the ensuing time. Morning comes and with it the border. With that come the border guards and the searches and the fear of confiscation – will they find the pictures, the names, the numbers? How closely will they check dollar amounts on the two declarations? (You fill out one going in and one going out) How do I now explain the missing $250 I gave to B? I shouldn’t have declared it on the way in, right? But who knew? (What if I hadn’t and they had counted my money?)
Then comes the last stop on the Soviet side and the requirements that we change rubles back into dollars – (the big black-market sub-economy is a great concern, causing them to be very careful about amounts of cash coming and going) – it’s a mad dash and a nervous-making wait in line with constant looks over the shoulder to see if the train has left yet.
Back in time and off we go to the border. And in they come. It’s amazing how powerless you feel when these stern-faced guys in uniform take your passport away and begin asking questions. But, again, we get off without a second look (must be our honest faces).
As before, some have a fair amount of trouble, are checked thoroughly. One person had notebooks and address books gone through – I’d have sweat bullets if that had happened to me. But it didn’t and we’re through! With pictures for Amnesty International and letters and everything!
We stop on the Finnish side for passport check and although no one lets out a whoop of joy (or at least no one that I heard), I’m sure a number of people feel like doing so. (Presumably they refrain at least in part because the train crew is Russian and they don’t want to offend.)
Get off for a stretch and get a game of hacky-sack going. Great fun. No doubt about the fact that it is clearly a lighter, less oppressive feeling over here.
Dennis said it perfectly. As the train pulled away from that brief stop on the Finnish side, Gerrie (the mother hen) expressed a concern about whether everyone got back on OK. Dennis said it was clear to him that if in fact anyone did get left behind at that stop they would be OK and we’d see them in Helsinki. If it happened on the other side, he said, you just don’t know if you’d ever see them again.
Arrive in Helsinki and get another bus to the hotel (the Presedenti this time). Eat, shower and talk to a reporter (same one I had seen at Haiko). Then Shel and I take a walk and try to see if we can do any shopping even though it is Sunday. Only things available are some snacks for the plane, but as we walk around we remark at how bright and cheery this place looks as compared to the last time we were here (when we thought it somber).
Because of a quick plane connection we had had to say a fast goodbye to some of the group (the East coast contingent) at the railroad station. Patch was one, and his lady Linda. They became friends we trusted and cared about. His “nasal diplomacy” was bizarre and outrageous and it was always done with a lightness of heart and a clear intention to be positive and joyous. Taught me a lot. (At the last dinner at the hotel a round of toasts were offered. At the end, Barbara M. Hubbard got up and said all sorts of glowing New Agey kinds of things and asked for a minute of silence for a prayer for our successful continuation/completion, or something like that. Made me uncomfortable as hell, but it’s hardly the kind of thing I know how to stand up and object to, nor would I see much point in doing so – so, in Hubie’s words, I had to “eat them feelings” – until, that is, Patch stood up, on the heels of “moment of silence” and said, in a loud voice “Now lemme hear a big-ass belly laugh!” and everything was fine.) Quite the diplomat.
Finnair to Seattle. Back in the US of A. Shelley had to have a cheeseburger, so we found a restaurant. Waiter came by and smiled and said hello to her. She said, “Do you know how good that feels? That just doesn’t happen in the Soviet Union.” How sad.
Western to LA, Whew!