Moscow — * A senior Soviet political analyst in a splendid blue double-breasted sports coat with gold buttons and a digital wristwatch, both bought in London. * A Moscow clerk, mother of a small son, a fervent patriot and supporter of the Communist Party.
Both have above-average Soviet educations and privileges. Both, in separate conversations with this correspondent, were unyielding, even emotional, about the state of detente these days. Following Leonid Brezhnev's lead, both unhesitatingly blamed the United States for deteriorating relations.
Their tone more than their words mirrors much Soviet thinking these troubled days. It underscores how different, how separate, are Russian moods, historical background, daily perceptions, and political climate from those of the Western industrial world.
Like Russians before them for centuries, they are cut off by geography and ideology from the main flows of world thought. Told only in their controlled press that the US was using Iran and Afghanistan as a pretext for wrecking detente, they spilled over with indignation, suspicion, defensiveness.
They are positive the US refuses to accept the Soviets as an equal. They insist that it must do so, even while they insist their system is better.They compare themselves to America all the time, and are angry that Americans aren't similarly preoccupied with Soviet social achievements.
Their attitudes bring to mind the words of the Frenchman, the Marquis de Custine, after spending five months in 1839 searching Russia for arguments he could take back to France and use against the French revolution of 1792 and in favor of a restoration of the monarchy. "I do not blame the Russians for being what they are," he wrote later. "I blame them for pretending to be what we are."
The two Russians' comments also prompt questions about the other side of the coin: How much do Americans really know about the history and geography and ideologies that shape Russian thought? Clearly, each side has a lot to learn about the other, a fact often appreciated only when detente falls into crisis.
I asked the commentator if he really believed what the news agency Tass had just reported, that the US had decided to seek "world hegemony," world domination.
The tone of Soviet press, TV, and radio just now is shrill, emotional, hectoring, reacting to every bit of Western criticism (Moscow must be the reaction capital of the world), repeating every day (and on Tass every hour) that the United States is to blame, the US is threatening, the US doesn't want peace, the US has torpedoed the Salt II treaty. There is no mention of the US hostages in Tehran; hardly any of the Soviet SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe and their improved, three- pronged warheads; no analysis of why 104 nations voted against the Soviet thrust into Afghanistan -- indeed, no reporting of the size of the United Nations vote at all.
Surely this reasonable-looking, gray- haired, soft-spoken Russian would be more balanced. I searched his face, gestures, words . . . but in vain.
The United States, he declared, had told NATO allies to boost defense spending back in May, 1978. President Carter couldn't solve domestic problems such as inflation, so he was diverting US attention to foreign policy. He was running for office. America wanted to dominate the Persian Gulf for its oil. America had lost Vietnam and the Shah.
Washington, he went on, was racing to make friends with China. Look at it: normalization in November, 1978; Harold Brown there in Peking in November, 1979. What next in November, 1980?
What about Afghanistan, he was asked. We were invited in, he said. (This is the standard line, but he didn't explain by whom the Soviet forces were invited in.)
What about the US hostages in Tehran? Well, many people suffered for political reasons -- the Palestinians, and so on -- it happened all the time. But look at all those US ships off Iran. He spoke without the hint of a smile, eyes on the floor, not discussing but lecturing.
"Why do you keep so many troops abroad?" asked the Moscow mother. "We don't have any bases at all. Why do you need them if you don't mean to go to war?"
All her life she has been told Americans have "bases" while Russians have "friends." Like many Russians, she thinks literally. A word is a word, no more, no less. A "base" is American and bad. A "friend" is Russian and good.
She listened unbelievingly as I explained the US had no cumpulsory military service. Why did the Soviets have one -- and then condemn the US, which didn't?
"Russia has always been attacked," she said at once. "There are enemies everywhere. We must defend our country, the world's first socialist state. It is our duty."
Indeed, Russia has immensely long borders, no oceans or friends alongside it. The Soviets are the buffer between Asia and Europe, and the Near East and Europe. Apart from the Urals and ranges in Central Asia, Russia is flat: no natural barriers to invasion.
No barriers to expansion, either.
The mother could hardly believe the US lacked a draft: "Who is on your ships near Iran?" she asked. "Volunteers," I answered.
The gulf between us was wide (though as an individual she is warm and pleasant).Education, background, history, outlook, personal freedoms, all so different. Perhaps that is one advantage of detente: to hold in check those forces that, without it, react emotionally, unthinkingly, with prejudice.