Muscovites in recent weeks could hardly open a morning paper or click on the radio news without being told, in effect, that Washington might be on the way to invading El Salvador.
But they don't seem to be losing much sleep over the idea.
There are just more important things to think, and talk, about. Like Poland . . . Or like getting an apartment in this cramped capital . . . Or, in recent days, like spring.
I am told not to slow my heavy coat, my boots, and my scarf. Winter doesn't give up easily here. But for several days now the sun has broken from hibernation, the sky is blue, the snow is melting.
And maybe I'm imagining things, but there also seems a strange and sudden springiness in the gait of Moscow pedestrians, who only days ago still bore their customary winter resemblance to an army on forced march.
"I am an American correspondent," the streetside interviews began. My sample -- young and odl and men and women -- looked appropriately, unanimously, puzzled.
"What do you think about the situation in El Salvador?"
some chuckled, or giggled, or guffawed, and walked away. Good-naturedly. It is spring here, at least for a few days.
A few seemed to have given the issue some careful thought.
"The Americans are conducting themselves badly," said a gaunt, graying gentleman with a black briefcase.
"They are helping the regime, which is destroying its own people . . . History has shown this is not wise."
With shocking disregard for my Western preconceptions of Moscow, another man, younger, with a bushy moustache, replied:
"I don't know. I know only one side of the issue, the side they give us here. They are jamming the Voice of America . . . If I knew both sides, maybe I could comment."
A few other victims of my sidewalk interviewing, a practice not exactly common hereabouts, seemed just plain scared.
"I don't think that my opinion would differ from the official opinion," one said prudently.
A news vendor, erect in his kiosk with piles of official newspapers before him, snapped: "I will tell you nothing, Nothing."
But most seemed to think of El Salvador -- singled out by the Reagan administration as a potential test of East-West relations -- as a hazy problem in a tiny country very far away.
On Poland, they were glad to talk. Or on President Leonid Brezhnev's recent overture for fresh negotiations with the Americans. One man very nearly shouted on that subject. "There must be peace in the world. Peace in the world."
And what about El Salvador, I probed.
"I don't," he said, "concern myself with international politics."
A short, burly woman -- with a wide-eyed gaze that seemed to say, "El Salva-what?" -- bared her capped teeth in a warm and silvery smile and said:
"I haven't heard any news . . . El Salvador? You mean what is happening in El Salvador now, today?"
She hugged me close, now laughing outright and siad, "First you tell me what is going on there, and then I can tell you my opinion."
About a week ago, before winter ducked underground, a Soviet expert on Latin America was conducting one of the government's periodic policy lectures for party faithful and other interested onlookers.
There was an assorted crowd, much of it in greatcoats. It was warm inside, cold outside. The man talked at length, with assurance. Then, according to plan, came the questions.
Often there are many. Tonight th ere was only one:
"What is the weather like there?"