US debaters go to USSR -- and learn what a communications gap is

How would you like to defend the United States against charges of McCarthyism , 10 percent unemployment, a high illiteracy rate, racial discrimination, warlike statements by Reagan advisers, miserable conditions in the South Bronx, or interference in Vietnam?

That's what three young American debaters were up against in a two-week, six-city debating tour of the Soviet Union cosponsored by the US Speech Communication Association and the Student Council of the USSR.

The intellectually frustrating experience is brilliantly, yet disturbingly, documented in another of the superbly varied ''Frontline'' series of current-affairs documentaries: A Journey to Russia (PBS, Monday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings).mThe Jessica Savitch introduction had not yet been taped at press time.

Producer-director Wayne Ewing, clearly functioning under Soviet-controlled limitations on freedom, managed to emerge from the experience with a film that pinpoints the communications problems separating the US and the USSR better than anything on film previously available to the American public.

It was not enough for the three admirable Russian-speaking Americans to retort by citing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the suppression of Solidarity in Poland, repression of dissidents, human rights violations, controlled communications media, Stalin-era executions, etc. The Soviet students in such places as Moscow, Volgograd (Stalingrad), Baku, Kiev, and Leningrad simply laughed at what they considered outrageous accusations. (But they did not laugh in Estonia, one of the subjugated Soviet satellites; they applauded.)

It is especially upsetting for American viewers, however, to see bright young Russian students listen, then smile incredulously, finally breaking into laughter at what they consider the naivete and misinformation on the American side. They seem to be totally convinced that the problems exist because they have a government that is working for peace, a government they can trust, while the US does not.

''Do you really believe what you said?'' asks one young Russian woman of a debater. ''It sounded wild, crazy, strange . . . .''

''Yes,'' the American responds. It is apparent that the problem is not that both sides really believe what they say - it is mainly that both sides totally disbelieve what the other side says. Both have seemingly narrowed - or, in the case of the Russians, closed - their perspectives.

''A Journey'' does an admirable job of pinpointing the problems faced by American society in the decades ahead - the difficulty of convincing a new generation of officially indoctrinated Soviets that coexistence is possible, that correcting acknowledged evils in US society is a healthy part of the democratic process. And then there is the complexity of helping America's new generations to acknowledge the weaknesses in American society and at the same time resist the temptation to discard the democratic framework, to recognize that there is another point of view with which American must contend, whether or not they accept the partly false premises on which it is based.

So what does all the intercontinental debating accomplish? ''We're not trying to change the minds of the Russians,'' says one American debater. ''Just open the minds of the people a little bit.''

''In some way we had some effect,'' another American debater muses wistfully. ''That's all we can hope for.''

This extraordinary work is not merely an educational entertainment film - it is a masterly statement about the complexitiy of the US relationship with the USSR, an unanswerable plea for cross-fertilization of ideas. On the philosophical level, it is a fascinating exercise in the relativity of human truth. One hopes its airing in the US will be the beginning of a new era in attempts at mutual understanding.

But wouldn't it be an even better beginning if this film could also be shown in Russia?

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