When a spy plane couldn't shoot down 'My Fair Lady'

On the day that Gary Powers in the U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia I, along with other members of the national company of "My Fair Lady," observed the annual May Day parade from a grandstand seat in Moscow's Red Square as a guest of the Soviet government. Even now, 20 years later, the event of those days seem so fantastically improbable that I find it occasionally necessary to confirm my memories by re-reading the journal I kept at the time.

The company of "My Fair Lady" had arrived in Moscow on April 10 as one of the earliest cultural exchange projects sponsored jointly by the Soviet government and the US State Department. The thaw in the cold war of the 1950s was then only in its early stages; and as the chartered KLM flight carrying our company neared the Moscow airport there was an uncanny feeling in the air that we were landing in enemy territory.

But the knowledge that two governments had arranged this tour for artistic reasons only gave us the necessary confidence to help overcome the initial tremors of uncertainty. Our mission was simply to conquer the country with our fine show and professional expertise. Within a few days it had become evident that out Russian co-workers, the Bolshoi orchestra, the stagehands, the interpreters, were not only top notch technicians but were also wishing as fervently as we ourselves were for the success of the show. They desperately wanted us to like Russia and themselves, and they wanted even more to like us.

Well, conquer Russia in that fashion we certainly did, and once the pressures of opening night were out of the way our company began to relax and enjoy the Russian experience. Even drab old Moscow has its charms in the early spring, and we were feted royally by our hosts. Many of us were surprised by the reservoir of goodwill that emanated from the average Russian toward Americans despite the years of international tension. They seemed terribly eager for first hand knowledge about the US, though I must admit to being taken aback the first couple of times I heard them begin a question with "our propaganda says. . . ."

Conversations, particulary with some of the young interpreters, which during the first week had been tentative and relatively impersonal, began to broaden into rather free- wheeling discussions that often veered into dangerous political waters. But on those occasions when the US, for one reason or another , came under verbal attack the pervasive physcial evidence of bleakness in the daily life of a Muscovite gave our rebuttals an added zest and fervor. Even I, who previously had seldom felt great founts of patriotism within, found unsuspected depths of pride in my country and its spirit when defense was called for.

So things blossomed until that first day of festivities at Red Square and heard the initial rumors about an international incident. The first whiff of scandal came from a dining room waitresses, "a spy plane" they said. But who of us could possibly believe that our beloved US engaged in such unsportsmanlike dirty tricks? "Wait," we scoffed, "until tomorrow when we get the facts minus propaganda from our own government."

By breakfast time the next morning we had the State Department report from our Moscow embassy in hand. The airplane shot down was on a commericial flight which strayed by accident over Soviet territory. How superior and smug we felt with this confirmation of America's inherent purity of motive.The Russian's taunted our righteousness as naivete and the arguments flew with increased heat for three days as the daily bulletins from our State Department continued to insist on the accidental nature of the incident.

Finally, came the denouncement with the first admissions of spying from our own government. The company's embarrssment, acute enough during the day in personal relationships with the Russians, was especially keen at night in front of the theater audiences. But, to our amazement, the applause for the show became even greater and more rapturous in the face of the international tensions. In a subtle but unmistakable fashion the Russians were letting us know that it was people. not governments, who were ultimately important.

For us there was a distinct feeling of shock and betrayal at the insensitivity with which our own government had handled our delicate situation as guests in Russia. But as things turned out we had no need for concern over the future of the tour in the Soviet Union. Once it had become apparent that we all knew the actual truth of the affair we never heard another word about it from any russian, official or unofficial, until the June day we returned to our own country.

Although our official guides had made certain that we saw all the existent glories of the country from Moscow to Leningrad to Kiev, the most impressive aspect of Russia that many of us brought back was the simple tact and good taste that was exhibited by all the Russians once it became obvious that governments had failed to do their job properly.

Perhaps this one positive experience of a difficult past offers some glimmer of hope for the future.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.