How we warmed to cold-war Russia

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When my employer transferred me from Hong Kong to Moscow at the height of the cold war, I made the move with great trepidation. From my base in Hong Kong, I had covered much of East and Southeast Asia during the preceding seven years, including riots in Seoul, demonstrations in Japan, civil war in Laos, and the early stages of the American involvement in Vietnam. In most of these assignments, communism was the enemy.

Now, I was about to take my family into the heartland of a social and political system that most Westerners, including myself, regarded as cruel, oppressive, and evil. When the pilot announced that we had just crossed into the Soviet Union, I smiled at my wife and two small daughters, but could not repress a sense of panic welling up within me.

The plane landed. Inside a dingy concrete hall smelling of disinfectant, a succession of unsmiling border guards in khaki stamped our passports, inspected our baggage, and allowed us to exit into the arrivals hall, where a waiting colleague greeted us and loaded us into his sleek green Ford.

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He had booked us into the Ukraina, a Stalin-era tower-shaped hotel, and managed to wangle us a special treat on our first day in Moscow: breakfast brought up to our room, with caviar on buttered toast. Our daughters loved the caviar, and had to be quickly disillusioned when they expected it for every subsequent breakfast.

We settled down fairly quickly into the routine of being American journalists in a communist society. The only Russians we could contact, however humble, had all been vetted by the powers that be.

Once, I visited a "typical" family: the husband a violinist, the wife a worker in a watch factory. They were warm and friendly, with children a few years older than ours. We met several times for lunch in a restaurant, and the husband expansively invited us to go mushroom-hunting in the fall. But when I explained that, as foreigners, we could not travel outside Moscow without police permits, they turned thoughtful. That was, in fact, the end of our relationship.

As foreigners from a capitalist country, we were carefully cocooned from Russian society. Throughout our two-year stay, it was difficult not to feel that the whole country was one huge concentration camp.

And yet, our experience in Russia gave us a totally unexpected bonus. It introduced us to Europe.

I mean, of course, the cultural dimension, not the political one. Quite frankly, in the 1960s Hong Kong was a wonderful place to shop, but it was a cultural desert. Money brought Americans, Europeans, and Chinese to Hong Kong, and money kept them there. There was no public money or philanthropy to nurture cultural institutions. When Margot Fonteyn came to Hong Kong, she had to dance in a cinema. Even Tokyo was still building its way out of wartime destruction, with little money to spare and only occasional visits by the great orchestras or museums of Europe.

But in Moscow, whenever we wanted to see some of the top French impressionists, we had only to go to the Pushkin Museum. For Rembrandt, we took the overnight train to St. Petersburg - even then the most Western of Russia's great cities. The first live performance of Mendelssohn's violin concerto I attended was in Moscow, with Leonid Kogan as the soloist. Pianist Emil Gilels and violinist David Oistrakh were in their prime.

At the Bolshoi Theater, the legendary ballerina Maya Plisetskaya was still the star. More than 30 theaters offered a rich selection of drama - from Gogol and Chekhov to Brecht and more contemporary offerings. Our children, who had never seen snow in Hong Kong, loved dressing up as ice maidens, or going to the puppet theater or the Bolshoi Moscow Circus.

It is true that, even when attending as joyous an occasion as Dmitri Shostakovich's 60th birthday concert, we could not help being reminded how Stalin's iron hand had so cruelly constricted the creative processes of so many composers, painters, and poets. Still, sitting in Tchaikovsky Hall, with the busts of Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other greats looking down on us, we noticed two teenage girls sharing a chair between them. How they'd managed to get in, we will never know. One was busy with needle and thread, putting the final touches to a little rag doll on her lap.

The concert over, she rushed to the front, shoving her way through the crowd while stretching out her hands to the composer. Then she reached up to hand him her tribute, the rag doll.

A Western European - a German or a Briton - might object and say that Russia is not Europe. In fact, Leo Tolstoy, in one of his plays, has his hero say, "How far we are from Europe!"

To one like myself, who came originally from outside the European tradition, I feel there is a kinship between Russia and Japan.

Nineteenth-century Russia was a contest between the Westernizers, who wanted to liberalize society and anchor it firmly within the great stream of Western civilization, and the Slavophiles, who insisted on the superiority of their own mystical religious and cultural traditions.

Something similar was going on in Japan during the second half of the same century. The people had wakened from their long seclusion. Western ideas - as well as Western science - were flooding in. Not only Western European novelists like Dickens and Balzac, but also the great Russian writers - Dostoevski, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and the others - enjoyed extraordinary popularity. It must have been because the Japanese public, struggling out of the mental straitjacket imposed by centuries of feudal rule, intuitively grasped a similar struggle in the Russian novels they read. That popularity continues today.

I have not visited Russia since it began its tumultuous transition to capitalism and democracy. But I have enormous sympathy for the struggle the Russian people are waging, along with gratitude for the living introduction to European culture my family received so many years ago.

In their different ways, Russia and Japan are signposts that what we used to call Western civilization is in the process of transitioning into universal civilization, melding elements drawn from outside the original stream, even as it influences and changes societies outside its own traditional realm. It's a rough, rambunctious, and far from pretty process, but it shows us how alive our human race continues to be.

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