"But I don't understand," said the Moscow woman. "What does Afghanistan have to do with the Olympics?" "Why aren't you coming to Moscow for the games?" demanded a Soviet traveler who found himself talking with an American diplomat on a long ride through the Ukraine by train recently. "Why?"
"We can do without you," a Moscow games official said. "We don't need you. . . . Anyway, there's still time for you to change your mind."
The Olympic Games and the US boycott are a lively subject for discussion in many parts of the Soviet Union these days, even as officials concentrate on what could be a crucial meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne, Switzerland, April 21 to 23. The United States Olympic Committee has officially voted to boycott the games.
To many people here, foreign policy is abstract, impersonal. But the Olympics is a topic they can grasp. They are patriotically proud their country is to play host, and they are disappointed the Americans won't be coming.
Besides, many in Moscow, Tallinn, Leningrad, Minsk, and Kiev (the cities where Olympic events are to be held) are directly involved. On Sunday April 20, hundreds of men and women were shoveling old snow and raking dead grass around Soviet Olympic headquarters in Lushniki, a section of Moscow.
All but final-year university students in Moscow have had to take final examinations in April rather than June. Orders are, according to student sources, that all must be out of their dormitories and lodgings by May 1. The premises must be painted and repaired in readiness for thousands of foreigners who will be assigned to stay in them during the games.
The word is that there's a drive against criminal elements to remove as many as possible before the games. Factories are being told to identify and weedout drunks. About 40 dissidents have been arrested, sent into internal exile, or tried in recent months.
Prominent authors Vladimir Voinovich and Vasily Aksyonov are being forced to emigrate, though Mr. Voinovich is not leaving until after the games.
Soviet people in general seem disappointed that Americans apparently won't come the games. Since most of them know only what they read in the controlled Soviet press, they tend to blame the US for trying to spoil the games as part of a new cold war.
The Carter administration is right to assume a US boycott upsets Soviet officials. For all their "we don't care" attitude, officials are wounded; they fill the press with condemnations of President Carter and praise for almost anyone supporting the games.
Whether the Soviet people will criticize their own government is more doubtful. The news media here seldom link the boycott to Afghanistan. Although the more sophisticated Moscow intellectual knows the linkage exists, most people apparently do not.
The line they hear is similar to the one presented on national TV April 19 on the "Studio 9" program (a Soviet "Meet the Press" without controversy or disagreement). Speakers referred only to a "political campaign" launched by international reaction headed by the US. They condemned Carter moves around the world but did not mention Afghanistan.
The popular newspaper Sovietsky Sport publishes readers' letters, all of which condemn Mr. Carter.
Meanwhile Soviet officials insist that everything is ready for the games now, three months ahead of time, and they insist the point at issue with the US is the future of the Olympic movement itself.
Games official Vitaly smirnov said recently the US could even be expelled from the movement for its boycott. Thus Los Angeles would lose the Olympic Games in 1984.
The Tass news agency asked: "Moscow can do without American jeans [which were to have been supplied by a US company] but can Los Angeles do without its games in 1984?"
And Soviet officials may ask the IOC in Lausanne to allow athletes to compete as individuals if they wish, without endorsement by their countries.
If the boycott movement spreads, as signs indicate it may, the IOC might be tempeted to change its own rules.