Meetings with ordinary Russians

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.)

I ask if the Soviet college work ethic carries over into other parts of the society. Tanya's answer is an emphatic no.m People here get away with all kinds of laziness. She thinks, from what she has heard, that one has to work harder in the West.

It doesn't take long for me to realize that Tanya is more than just curious about life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I do not realize the intensity of her feelings, however, until I start talking about the life styles and habits of Americans. Much to my surprise, the young woman bursts into tears. I am stunned. . . and I learn a lesson about the value of freedom.

How many people here want to leave? I ask. There aren't that many, she replies, estimating that in the city of Moscow the figure is probably about 10 percent of the population.

But what about the other 90 percent? I ask. Many were peasants until recently, she explains, or were poverty- stricken from the war. Most have never had it as good as they do now.

We talk until she doesn't feel comfortable speaking in English anymore. It is near closing time, so we say goodbye. I thank her and say that I hope we might some day meet in America. Tanya smiles and shakes her head. It is not possible, she says.

(Moscow was the first city we visited, and when I compared notes with several others in our small Western tour group I found that they had had similar experiences. After a while, one realizes that occurrences such as the one with Tanya -- while perhaps not as openly emotional -- are not as rare as a tourist who is unfamiliar with the Soviet life style might imagine. They happened to me in every city we visited.)

Dmitri is a translator for a fairly nonpolitical Soviet institution that works with foreign countries. Since he deals extensively with the West, he has a more developed, sophisticated view than the average Russian might have. In his small apartment one night, I ask Dmitri if Soviet propaganda is designed to tell the people what they want to hear -- and if hearing it satisfies them. He leans back and starts talking freely. The people here are not innocent, he says. They have been through the worst kinds of war and internal horrors that you can imagine. They are not naive. When I was going to school, he reflects, yes, we did have the believers -- those who spoke the party line and got involved and were good communists. But most of us couldn't take these people seriously. We could seem that they were just repeating what they had been told.

Dmitri shifts. The sad thing, he admits, is that those same people whose ideological pose we saw through years back are now the ones who are well-positioned in government. They are the ones who will later on gain much power and control.

Dmitri starts talking about the government here: In the Kremlin, he says, there is an inner circle made up of Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, and 10 or 20 others. This is where the power lies. And then there is a second circle of maybe 30 to 50 people. These are the people who feed information and advice to the inner circle. This, really, is the propaganda structure you were asking about in your question, he explains. The second circle only feeds the "proper" information to the inner circle -- what the inner circle wants to hear. Because that is the only way those in the second circle will ever make it into the inner group.

Dmitri gets excited here. So the inner circle is manipulated by the second circle; they see only what they are guided to see. Should they visit a supermarket or a school or a factory, it will be the best around. Plans will have been made weeks in advance. Yes, he says, the inner circle is enclosed within the second. And the second moves within a larger third circle. And so forth.

So the government feeds on itself, I reason. Dmitri smiles. We have a class system, too, he says. Many of the VIPs around right now are what I call "facial communists." They go along with the party line because they want to have nice things. Because their children can get a good education this way. They realize , as I do, he says, that it is impossible to change the system. So they live with it. No, they don't believe the slogans, but they follow them.

Dmitri keeps talking. The people, especially the younger ones behind the Iron Curtain today, are very bourgeois, he says. Everyone wants a car, nice clothes to wear, and a family. We like your Western music, he says. And some of us will pay the equivalent of $70 for a single album. More if it is really popular.

Dmitri points to a bookshelf. We also like your literature, he says. On the shelf I see a large number of recognizable authors, including several not allowed in the Soviet Union. I have just finished "The Great Gatsby," he says. I lovem fitzgerald. And Vonnegut, too. You used to be able to find Vonnegut and John Updike on the library shelves. But since they've come out in support of Sakharov, their books have disappeared. This is what happened to Steinbeck years ago.

At this point I can't keep myself from asking him how he developed such a liberal perspective within this system. I'm a nonconformist, he answers quickly. And knowing other languages helps, too. In school I never wanted to wear or do the things that they wanted us to. I had to question. Another thing is the travel with my work. In Europe it didn't take long -- just one day -- to realize that contrary to what we had been told, things were different there. It was like being on a different planet.

What is the situation regarding travel outside the Soviet Union? I ask. Well, he responds, they only allow the strict party-liners out. The head of a collective will get to go, or maybe the manager of a factory. Unfortunately, when these people return from abroad, all they will say is how bad everything is the West is. This assures them of going back again. Travel also costs more than most of us can afford, Dmitri adds.

He wants to leave the Soviet Union, and calls it a giant lie. He spends a great deal of time reading about the West. And someday he wants to live in New York.

It is getting late -- past midnight -- and I can feen an intense loneliness building within him. He continues: I would leave if I could, but they would take my father's job away from him. Dmitri stares out the window. "I can't imagine myself growing old in the Soviet Union."

He gives me some small gifts, and we talk some more. But now it is time to leave. I look at this sensitive young man and suddenly feel quite quilty about having to leave him behind.

Dmitri feels a deep division between his conscience and the system within which he must live. His way of coping with this situation lies in the hope that he will someday be able to leave.

This particular hope sets him apart from Yuri, a young Russian who shares many of Dmitri's feelings but chooses to deal with them quite differently.

Yuri is a college English language instructor in a small town that boasts several colleges. We meet at a students' disco -- a room with plenty of dancing space, fluorescent popart murals, and giant speakers that blast hard Western rock- and-roll at top volume.

One again, the common denominator is music, although the disco music is so loud that we have to lean together to speak to each other. He confides that this modern rock is too noisy for him, that he prefers quieter folk music.

I ask him if he is familiar with any American folk music, and he nods vigorously. He plays folk guitar in a local group that does Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs, he says.

So, in between strong tea, brittle bread sticks, and raucous "Deep Purple," we continue. Has he ever heard of modern folk artist Bob Dylan? ah -- yes! "How many roads must a man walk down. . . ." Yuri quotes from a Dylan lyric, "before you call him a man?" Very many roads I think, yes, very many, Yuri says carefully.

I ask him how he became interested in folk music. He replies by saying that it is the feeling in the music that hooked him. Your own "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" or "SWing Low, Sweet Chariot," for example, he says. There is such feeling in those songs, such feeling.m

We agree to talk the next day.

In many ways, I was to find, folk music is a perfect metaphor for Yuri. His thinking gravitates around the issues raised in folk: injustice, the fruitlessness of war, and love of the land.

At lunch the next day, Yuri points to the aged and crude construction of the cafe's ceiling. They will spend millions on bombs, he says, yet we have to eat in a place like this. That is not right.

Yuri admits that the Soviet system is basically a lie. But he goes further to say that there is something evil about most human systems. And he tells me that the only way he has found to deal with government, and life, is to find humor in it.

I say that many Americans don't find the Soviet military budget too humorous. Yuri responds: You Westerners only look at percentages. You don't look at this cafe. Our giant percentage is what we must maintain in order to keep up with you. Our economy is not a strong one. We have problems.

Yuri continues: I manage to find humor in things. But when the man who has worked hard in the factory all week goes to the store, and all he wants is a nice piece of sausage for the weekend, that man doesn't find it funny when there is no sausage. We have problems, Yuri repeats. Many problems.

We finish lunch and Yuri pays the 7-ruble tab. (I later find out that this money came out of a paycheck of only 105 rubles per month. Yuri admits that he will spend 15 of these rubles several times a year just to telephone an American friend for news from the West.

Outside the cate we walk in the cold afternoon air. Yuri picks up our topical thread again. He says that the problems in the Soviet Union are not to be dealt with by leaving. He hates, in fact, to see good, honest people go, because he feels they are a needed asset.

He thinks the answer to many of the problems in his country lies in better communications among Russians. We need to talk with one another, he says. And Yuri has even done something about this. He has obtained permission to open a small club where students may meet, talk, and listen to music. So far the students still want the loud music, he says. But he and his friends do hold well-attended folk concerts there. He would also like to show some Western-made films.

As we walk along the road, an occasional horse-drawn cart passes us. Stout old women with weather-beaten faces are chipping ice farther along. Yuri says these are common sights throughout Russia -- reminders of the simpler peasant era.

He was right about his sense of humor. It is excellent. If he can survive on this part of himself, as he says, he will live a long life. My watch reports that we have been together for several hours. It only seems like half of that.

The sun was still high in the sky, though, reflecting brilliantly off the snow and causing melted drops to drip off the trees and buildings and onto the cracked and crooked narrow sidewalks in quiet, musical tones.

Yuri invites me to hear him play folk music later that week. I thank him, but say that I will be leaving town the next day. I invite him to visit America , and say, "Well, I hope to see you again." He replies, "Yes, in Indiana somewhere, not in Iran."

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