Coming home: for a former communist, glasnost passes its first test. Return to Moscow gives East-bloc defector hopes for Gorbachev's reforms

For the first two days he didn't dare go out of the hotel alone. But by the third day he felt relaxed enough to take strolls without escort. For Yale professor of Soviet politics, Wolfgang Leonhard, it was the first time back since he left Moscow in 1945 to go build a communist government in what would become East Germany.

He returned as a member of the entourage of West German President Richard von Weizs"acker on a state visit last month. Mr. Leonhard, who knows Dr. von Weizs"acker personally, figured that this company would assure his safety.

In a way, Leonhard's visit was also a personal vote of confidence in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts at reform. Even in the innovative time of Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s, Leonhard feared that his West German passport might be confiscated if he ever traveled here, and he might be told he was still a Soviet citizen and not free to leave.

His Soviet saga began in June 1935, when he was 14 years old. His mother, who had been working clandestinely as a communist in Hitler's Germany, decided it was getting too dangerous and took Wolfgang to live in the Soviet Union. He, too, was a convinced communist, as were the other boys and girls in the school he attended for the children of political emigr'es in Moscow.

His schoolmates included Mischa Wolf, later to be the legendary spy chief of East Germany, and Peter Florin, today vice foreign minister in East Germany

In summer of 1936, Leonhard's mother placed him in the prestigious Children's Home No. 6 for children of German and Austrian communist 'emigr'es. Nine months later, when he went home to visit his mother he found the door sealed. She had been arrested in Joseph Stalin's great purge of communists.

He asked no questions, and at first he said nothing to his friends. But gradually he found out that a dozen others had had the same experience. Then his teachers were arrested, one after the other.

``Arrests at that time became so familiar that no one used the word `arrested,''' he commented as he sat in the Intourist Hotel just off Red Square. The verb was ``taken.'' And when in English class (from an earlier text) ``take'' was conjugated: ``I am taken, you will be taken, will he be taken?'' The whole class thought that what the teacher was doing was counterrevolutionary. The sample verb was quickly changed.

``We were still believing in the system, but we were trying to understand why it was necessary. We still tried to defend things in principle.''

With the teachers gone, the pupils shifted to a Russian school. They were still treated well as ``sons and daughters of the glorious fighters of the fascist political system,'' and in the summer of 1939 they were sent for a holiday on the Azov Sea. Suddenly the Stalin-Hitler pact was signed, and ``to be the son or daughter of an antifascist did not mean very much any more since [after that] fascism did not exist any more.''

When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June of 1941, Leonhard and other members of the League of Communist Youth were immediately enlisted in civil aviation defense. In September the Germans were forcibly resettled in central Asia. They were transported there in a cattle train of 80 cars that took 18 days to get to Karaganda.

In the summer of 1942 he was suddenly told he would get a special assignment, one that carried a ration of food that would get him off the starvation diet of 400 grams (14 ounces) of bread a day. He was instructed to travel to the city of Ufa and report to Lenin Street 7, go to the second floor on the right, and knock.

``I did not ask any questions. I did it. The secretary said `very good. You are comrade Leonhard. You want to eat.' I was brought to a beautiful restaurant. It was incredible. I hadn't eaten [decently] for a year.''

His next order was to go ``next door,'' where he was informed that he was enrolled in the Comintern school. ``I was shivering, because this was the highest school, something like a combined Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the National Defense College. They said, `everything is secret. You are now in Agricultural Technical School 101, and you have a different name.'''

He chose ``Linden.'' Once a month he was allowed to write an unsealed letter to his mother or whomever he wanted. Among the 100-odd other students were the daughter of the Spanish communist La Passionaria and Mischa Wolf, who, on seeing Leonhard, introduced himself as ``F"orster.''

After a year at the Comintern School, Leonhard returned to Moscow to broadcast propaganda in German, and on April 30, 1945, he left Moscow to fly to Berlin with nine others - including Walter Ulbricht, who would be the East German leader in the 1960s.

Six days before the end of World War II, he was at work organizing the local government in the 20 districts of Berlin. ``For each district, we had to set up a little government of 12 different officials, only a very few of whom should be communists: the vice mayor of the district, the head of personnel, and the head of police. Everyone else was non-party - Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, Liberals, whatever. Ulbricht gave his famous statement that it should look democratic, but we have to have everything in our hands.''

Leonhard worked in the Central Committee staff in the Soviet zone in Germany from 1945 to 1947, then became a lecturer at the high party school.

``I grew more oppositional. My final break came with the Soviet-Yugoslav break. ... on 12 March, 1949, I escaped from the Soviet zone of Germany to Yugoslavia and stayed there 1 years working day and night for Yugoslav propaganda. I was the only foreigner [doing so]... .''

Next came two years at Oxford, a year at Columbia, and, since 1966, Yale.

Leonhard describes his political evolution as going from Communist to Social Democrat to a convinced liberal (in the European sense of opposing excessive government intervention) who sees liberalism ``not as a means but as an end.''

And now Moscow again.

Leonhard was still nervous on the airplane flying in, and a bit of hesitation remained when border officials took his passport to check it. He got his confidence back right away. ``When we got onto the bus and Tanya [the guide] began to speak in a much more leisurely way, I thought, `things did change,' and gradually I began to relax.''

He has now visited the site of his old school here, currently the Japanese embassy, and also the Hotel Lux that he later lived in (and that so many of his comrades were arrested from). He has noticed that the floor ladies in the hotel no longer keep a beady eye on the guests and write lists of all comings and goings. He has seen that Russians are much less ideological and more ``tired.'' The one place that seems to him to have become more ``pompous'' is the Lenin mausoleum on Red Square.

Leonhard approves of what Gorbachev is trying to do in opening up the society. He thinks it is a huge challenge to do so. But he at least has sufficient faith in it to walk alone along Gorky Street.

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