Alma-Ata, USSR — ALEXEI PODBEREZKIN dragged me into the bath of the provincial Soviet hotel room and shut the door. In what I took to be a self-consciously dramatic gesture rather than a real attempt to deafen listening devices, he turned on the water in the sink. Then he looked me straight in the eye. ``We have an understanding, because we are friends,'' he said. ``If you get in trouble in my country, call me. I can be of help to you. I am closer to our military than you can imagine.''
I blinked and did my best to look like a callow youth on whom veiled threats were lost. I took his proffered hand. ``Of course we are friends, Alexei,'' I said. ``Come to Washington, and we will go to the Zebra Room on half-price pizza night.''
This is the story of a nice boy from the suburbs who went to the Soviet Union and met some very serious people. It is about bald requests for information, contraband gifts in the night, and places where they eat horse fat for lunch. It is about a country that every American should visit to see its beauty and shoddiness, its pride and belligerence. (Ranks of citizen-diplomats swelling. Story, Page 5.)
The real experience of having a new building's stair railing snap off in your hand has more impact than 100 American news stories about the creaking Soviet economy. At the same time, it is impossible not to be affected by the power of the Soviet symbols seen up close. One foggy midnight in Red Square, I saw the guards at Lenin's tomb wheel and goose-step forward with such precision that the watching crowd gasped and fell back, as one. Behind the guards on the Kremlin wall, a hammer-and-sickle flag snapped in the sudden silence.
In traveling to the Soviet Union I had not planned on becoming a minor superpower pawn. I was there not as a journalist but as a yuppie, part of an exchange group of young professionals organized by the Indiana-based American Center for International Leadership.
We were treated as a semiofficial delegation by our Soviet hosts, and thus our visit began as official ones do, with a series of scripted Moscow meetings. Typically, these would consist of a Soviet bureaucrat attempting to discuss Collectivism vs. Individualism, while Americans interrupted and asked if the speaker really thought Nicholas Daniloff, former U.S. News & World Report bureau chief in Moscow, was a spy.
One morning, however, for reasons none of us could fathom, we were escorted to an audience with a high official of the Russian Orthodox Church who spoke movingly of the difficulties of being a believer in an officially atheistic state. ``It is our hope,'' he said, ``that grace is manifested through weakness.''
But the ostensible point of our visit was to meet not with the Kremlin but with our counterparts, or, as we dubbed them, the ruppies (rising urban proletariat).
For this we took the Soviet airline Aeroflot's all-night flight from Moscow to Alma-Ata, capital of the republic of Kazakhstan and a place as far from Washington as you can get while remaining within Earth's atmosphere.
Alma-Ata is a city erected for the most part since World War II. Though ethnic Russians are numerous in the area, the flavor of the old Central Asian Kazakh culture is still strong. Our local Young Communist League hosts treated us to innumerable banquets featuring their traditional foods: horse fat, horse meat, flat noodles, and kebab. This was washed down with fermented mare's milk, a drink of such pungency that the few Americans who could stand it (not including me) were held in awe by all nationalities.
There, for five days, we engaged in ritualized dialogues with young Soviet leaders, some local but most imported for the occasion from Moscow. Many of our group wanted to find out the texture of Soviet lives: how people paid rent, how they got their jobs, what they thought of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
They, on the other hand, seemed to view our group as a fountain of specific political information to be pumped.
As the Monitor's Pentagon correspondent, I knew I had a reasonable assurance of some sort of special attention, which in a way was why I went on the trip: to get some idea of what it is like to deal with the Soviets during arms negotiations. I was not disappointed. There in the Soviet delegation was Alexei Podberezkin, nominally a nuclear arms analyst at a government think tank.
One of his real purposes apparently was handling me. He was not subtle, which in a curious way made him easier to get along with. When I first met him, we had just completed a short sight-seeing hike in the Alma-Ata countryside, and he complained of being hot. I suggested he take off his jacket; he shook his head and patted his side. ``I cannot,'' he said facetiously, ``because of the gun.''
Alexei would knock on my hotel door in the morning if I did not appear for breakfast. He would stick by my side at nighttime parties. The one afternoon I skipped out for a walk in the park our paths just happened to cross. And our nine-member discussion commission (whose subject was of course nuclear arms) quickly became a two-man show, with Alexei directing his statements to me.
He would accept all concessions, such as the fact that not all our group supported President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), as natural, while never swerving from his own government's line.
He spoke of the technological arms race as something composed entirely of American weapons such as the MX missile, ignoring the SS-25 and other new Soviet missiles.
He insisted that the real aim of the US was to gain military superiority over the Soviet Union, quoting several Reagan administration advisors in support of his argument.
He also maintained that the Soviet Union has no advantage in conventional weapons in Europe, and that his country does not profit from political pressure on Poland or military occupation of Afghanistan and was selflessly aiding those countries.
Then there was his private probing for information, which could have been the natural curiosity of the researcher, or what United States intelligence calls the cold pitch.
After our mysterious bathroom encounter, he began asking if we could exchange material in the future.
For the most part, his requests stayed vague. The only specific thing he asked for was an unclassified internal Pentagon newsletter in which my articles sometimes appear.
Occasionally his young sidekick, Sergei Kirillin (quickly dubbed ``the junior varsity'' by us), would attempt to ask me detailed questions about SDI, though Sergei's field was supposed to be civilian space research. The one time I was really taken aback was the final night in Alma-Ata, when Alexei invited me to his room and presented me with a Soviet Army commander's tunic as a gift. Smiling, he pointed to a small pocket on the sleeve. ``For knives,'' he said.
Under Soviet law this shirt was contraband and only somewhat less sensitive than the material planted on Mr. Daniloff. Because of a typically American desire to appear gracious at all times, I accepted the present and then spent several days worrying whether I should ditch it. Eventually I decided that if they really wanted to set me up, there was nothing I could do, so I might as well relax.
It is important to point out that my experience was not necessarily typical of our group. Other commissions had neither Alexei nor the contentious topic of nuclear weapons to deal with. Those who talked about Soviet domestic problems came away with a feeling that genuine change is sweeping the country because of its dynamic new Communist Party chief.
We were in the country during an extraordinary period of ferment in US-Soviet relations. Daniloff was released on the day we left for Moscow. A Soviet nuclear submarine sank off Bermuda while we were in Kazakhstan; we broke this news to our hosts, thanks to a shortwave radio.
Everywhere we went we were asked about the prospects for Iceland. We heard about the mini-summit collapse from Gorbachev's address on Soviet domestic TV, and the next day had a Central Committee staffer explain to us what Gorbachev really meant.
But after several weeks of pushing for information and having sudden schedule changes and being followed whenever we went off on our own, many of us developed an attitude that I think was typical of the few everyday Russians I managed to meet: that is, a desire to withdraw into your own room with your own friends and leave the state outside, like the night.
At the end of our trip, we took the famous Red Arrow sleeper train from Leningrad to Moscow. A number of our group crowded into one two-bench compartment, shut the door and turned off the light, and passed around our hoarded Western chocolate. Occasionally a small village or single farm would flash in the window. They looked much like the isolated settlements you could see from the great Santa Fe cross-country express, crossing the dark Great Plains. We began singing quiet songs.
A good way to understand your homeland is to leave it and travel to a place where different things are valued. Perhaps that's what all of us were thinking. Like I said earlier, the Soviet Union is a place every American should visit.