Muscovites Have a Warm Spot for Nixon

A cold warrior and Soviet protesters find common ground - a letter from Moscow

THE sun was shining last Saturday with the promise that Moscow's long winter was finally coming to an end. I donned my parka, put on my black fedora, and headed around the corner to the Central Market. I went in search of tangerines and Richard Nixon. I found both. The front doors of the most famous of Moscow's farmers' markets were closed for repairs. Shoppers now enter around the side, where the flower sellers were lined up with buckets of roses and huge white Easter lilies. A small knot of newsmen waited there for the arrival of the former president, returning to a site he had visited as vice president in 1959.

Soon that familiar visage appeared, a small entourage around him. I felt as if the plates of the universe had slipped somewhat, mixing people, places, and eras to produce a strange juxtaposition. I walked that morning through a market in Moscow with the man who was once the target of protests during my college days. Here the demonstrators take to the streets with Mr. Nixon's old cause in their hearts - anticommunism.

But my confusion was quickly supplanted by the curiosity of watching Nixon, ever the politician, at work.

An Azerbaijani flower seller rushed to offer a bouquet of roses. "Druzhba," or friendship, he cried as he pushed them forward. "I understand," Nixon replied with a ready smile and a handshake.

"I always go to market," Nixon recalled as he walked with a slightly unsteady gait. "I grew up in one," the son of a Whittier, California, grocer said with not a small touch of pride.

"When I visit countries, usually they have you see the top people," Nixon remarked, reminding us gently of his curious status as a once-disgraced, now rehabilitated statesman. "But I want to see the people. There's nothing like personal contact, to look into the eyes of the people."

He strode into the butcher's building where chickens and piglets lie across the stone counters, awaiting a rich Muscovite able to pay their outrageous price tags.

How's business, Nixon asks a pretty red-haired lady butcher in her apron. Bad, bad, comes the quick reply, followed by a stream of complaints about the attempts of the city government to put a lid on meat prices. The politician listens with a practiced ear.

MUSCOVITES have a warm spot for their old adversary. My driver Sasha never fails to point out spots where Nixon visited in 1972, the first visit by a United States president.

There is the grassy plot between the Kremlin wall and the Lenin Library still known informally as Nixon Square, where an unsightly collection of old buildings was pulled down to beautify his route.

In today's Moscow, Nixon can hear the feelings he could have only guessed existed before. In pre-glasnost days, visitors such as this saw only stores whose shelves had been stocked and people whose words were chosen with equal care.

Here at the market, an old man comes up to let loose at Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. "I can't afford this meat. Look at what Gorbachev has done. It's robbery."

Amidst the stalls of tomatoes and cucumbers, the old cold warrior reflected on his famous Kitchen Debate with Nikita Khrushchev about 32 years ago, when the Russian leader vowed to leave capitalism in the dust.

"I thought the Soviet Union would do better than it has done," he said, without a note of triumph.

More words of wisdom are dispensed, ignoring the importuning aides glancing at their watches, but finally Nixon steps into his Zil limousine. I return to the market for my tangerines. At 30 rubles ($18) a kilo, outrageously expensive, but worth the trip.

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