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Meetings with ordinary Russians

By Robert Marquand Jr.Special to The Christian Science Monitor / October 9, 1980

The Soviet Union is an easy country to see but not to know. A country, after all, is its people, and few tourists talk to the ordinary people. Fewer still get to share moments of friendship with the Soviet in the streets the way I was able to do in Moscow recently.

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My first conversation is at a Friendship Society meeting with Sergei, who has just returned from his compulsory two years in te military and says, with a grin , that he is glad the service is behind him. A graduate student of journalism, he lives in a Moscow apartment with his wife, their small child, and his wife's parents.Both he and his wife were born in Moscow, and met at the university there.

Sergei is fortunate. His father-in-law owns a car and shares a small cabin near the Black Sea with a couple of other families -- luxury items in the Soviet Union. And Sergei, who enjoys these benefits, is always ready to pile his family into the car at vacation time, he says.

I wonder about his journalism. What is that like? Sergei says that it is a loose system. He gets a story assignment or two every Monday and Turns in the finished copy on Friday.He supplements this work by going to evening classes. He says that he is trained to write the news as objectively as possible.

Does he ever run into a situation in which he is asked not to report a certain event? No, he says, everything is reported.

Sergei's answer to a question about the reporting of the Soviet space program gives one a fairly clear idea of the Soviet method of dealing with issues and events. The space program, he says, is not reported until something actually happens. We only report events, he continues. A rocket launch is only a hypothesis until it happens (successfully). And, Sergei concludes, we don't report hypotheses.

Sergei says he will have no problem finding a job in journalism after he graduates -- it is virtually guaranteed.

Sergei mentions that he is half-Jewish, and, asked if this has ever presented a problem, says no, he does not pay too much attention to religion.

What about other Jews? Are they free to leave the country if the wish? Sergei believes so.In fact, he seems to think that the problem is not with those Jews wanting to leave, but with those wanting to return once they've left.

As the meeting comes to a close, I ask him if there is anything in the West that he wants but is unable to get in the Soviet Union. There is nothing, he says.We have everything you have.

Sergei is not an unusual Russian. He wants to live a decent and productive family life within his country and is quite happy with the way things are. But not everyone I met feels as content as he seems to be. Tanya, an engineering student I meet during an intermission at Moscow's famed Bolshoi Theater, is a good example.

Tanya recognizes me as a foreigner right away by my clothing and mannerisms, and when she hears me speaking English, one of several languages she understands , she starts a conversation.

Like all young Russians, it seems, Tanya is interested in Western music, and quickly names several popular artists, admitting that Linda Ronstadt is her favorite.

Later -- after the final curtain -- we go to a nearby cafe for chai (Russian tea) and news from the West, and to talk.

Tanya marks it as a significant achievement in her life that she is an engineering student. Getting into college is not easy in the Soviet Union, she says. She and her parents walked a tightrope of youth organizations, tests, meetings, and saying-the-right-things for several years before her acceptance. But she says the real work began when she arrived. (I later learn from a professor in another city that students work six to eight hours a day with only two 15- minute breaks.)