Moscow — ALL right, answer this one, Joe Adamov. How is the Soviet Union doing with banana production? Not so well, he concedes.
``We import them when we can,'' he says with a shrug.
A quick glance at the map might have shown that bananas are not exactly a bumper crop in the Soviet Union. But clearing up misconceptions about his country is, according to Joe Adamov, a task that's kept him busy for the past 29 years.
Mr. Adamov is the host of ``Moscow Mailbag,'' a program in English on Radio Moscow's North American service. The banana question is one he answered on the air during a recent program, along with about 15 others.
Four times a month, ``Moscow Mailbag'' has provided a forum for Adamov to wax eloquent about life in the Soviet Union, occasionally to concede some of its shortcomings, and routinely to toss out verbal darts at the United States. Audience figures are unknown, but they probably number in the thousands across the US and Canada.
In recent years his round, genial face has popped up on television screens in both North America and Australia. He gets thousands of letters yearly, and occasionally tourists come by Radio Moscow's studios on Pyatnitskaya Street hoping to meet him. He has become, along with such ubiquitous presences as fellow Radio Moscow commentator Vladimir Posner, one of the men charged with presenting Moscow's best face and case to the outside world.
Soviet spokesmen -- and Soviet leaders, for that matter -- have come and gone, but over the decades Joe Adamov has been a durable personification of this country. In the West, he is probably better known than most members of the ruling Communist Party Politburo.
Yet Adamov insists he is no politician, just a simple radio announcer.
``I don't know anybody in the Kremlin,'' he said in a recent interview, ``and nobody there knows me.''
In some respects, Adamov looks and acts like a Soviet everyman. He's portly, says he drives a rusty, black 16-year-old Volga sedan, and can, with minimal prompting, hold forth on a wide range of topics. He smiles with delight at some of his own turns of phrase, and when he does his gold-capped teeth glisten.
When he's challenged on a point, his brow furrows, and behind thick spectacles his eyes seem to betray a hint of pain that anyone could doubt his veracity or goodwill.
He speaks flawless, idiomatic English with no trace of an accent -- the product, he says, of his education. At the age of seven, his father, an official at the Soviet Trade Ministry in London, enrolled him in a British school. Later, when the family returned to Moscow, he was a student at a special American school in the Soviet capital during the 1930s, when American engineers and skilled laborers flooded in to help with Joseph Stalin's massive industrialization program.
The school exposed him to a wide cross section of the American people.
``Even kids from Toity-Toid Street,'' he says with a smile, mimicking a Brooklyn accent. Adamov himself is ``100 percent Armenian on both sides,'' he says, and has traveled to the US three times. The experience, he says, has been helpful in allowing him to point out both differences and similarities between the two cultures.
At times, Adamov seems genuinely fond of the Soviet Union's ideological and military nemesis. He reminisces about World War II, when the Soviet Union and the US were working together.
``We were allies, mind you,'' he says, ``and I wish we could be again.''
Yet he can just as easily lapse into the sort of overreaching recriminations of America that are the staple of Soviet propaganda.
``There are so many facts,'' Adamov says, matter-of-factly, that prove that Korean Air Lines Flight 7 -- the civilian airliner shot down by Soviet jets in 1983 -- was a ``spy plane.'' It was impossible for the plane to have strayed over Soviet airspace accidentally, he says.
That, he says, is what he told Steven Barber, a listener in Virginia, on a recent broadcast. KAL Flight 7's mission was to ``gather intelligence,'' he explained, and -- when ``the mission failed'' -- the US quickly sought to blame ``bloodthirsty Reds.''
The KAL flight, along with the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, is among the most common questions that turn up in the ``Moscow Mailbag,'' Adamov says. And, he adds, he does not shrink from either of them.
``I say, `Let's see who the real invaders are' '' in Afghanistan. ``If a man breaks into your house, and you call your neighbor to come in and help, then your neighbor is not the invader.''
He bemoans the ``misconceptions'' that his listeners in the West have about the Soviet Union. Among the most persistent, he says, are that ``there's somebody up above who tells you what you're going to be, that chooses your profession for you.''
Another, he adds, ``is that you cannot travel around freely in the Soviet Union . . . that you have to have a visa or a pass or something.'' He does not mention that Soviet citizens are required to carry internal passports, or the fact that residence permits are required to live in most Soviet cities.
Adamov says he is given a fairly free hand in determining what questions to answer and how to answer them.
``I have had no problems with the powers that be,'' he says. ``Of course,'' he adds, ``my editor in chief listens to my program before it goes on the air.''
And, he concedes, there is a special department at Radio Moscow that reviews programs to ensure that no classified or sensitive data on military, industrial, or economic matters are aired.
But he waves that restraint away with a brisk hand motion. His listeners, he says, aren't really interested in those kinds of things anyway.
``They're more interested in life in small towns, the price of food, transport.''
``My aim is to explain the Soviet Union, its home and foreign policy. To explain our country in all its colors, to listeners all over the world.''
He admits that more often than not, his explanations include criticism of the US. ``We're not trying to belittle your country,'' he says, cordially. ``We just beg to differ on your foreign policy.''
One frustrated listener, he says, once asked him if he could find something positive to say about the US. ``I said, I like your cars. That I like your supermarkets. That I admire Americans' efficiency, their businesslike approach to things.''
Then, he said, there was a long pause.
``I said, `If you don't hear from me again, you'll know I'm in Siberia.' ''
Adamov chuckles, pauses a moment, and chuckles at his own chuckle.