THE idea of Americans building a peace park in the Soviet Union may sound improbable. But this summer, more than 150 people from all over the United States will travel to Tashkent, capital of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, for just such a purpose - to construct a park dedicated to friendship between the two countries. The project originated with members of Ploughshares, a Seattle-based organization of former Peace Corps volunteers. They were looking for a way to symbolize their desire to change the relationship between the Soviet and American people. A park seemed like an apt symbol of peace, and building one was in the hands-on tradition of the Peace Corps. ``The best way to suppress fear is to express love,'' says Fred Noland, a Ploughshares founder who has taken a leave of absence from a leading Seattle law firm to be project director of the park. One goal was to prove that the Russians were open to such gestures. The group was almost proved wrong.
Some Soviet officials suspected a plot to embarrass them. The bureaucracy nearly buried the project several times. ``The exploration of how to solve the practical problems became a learning tool for understanding the Soviet system,'' Mr. Noland says. In April 1985, Noland and Dr. Rosh Doan, who speaks Russian, traveled to Moscow, hoping that direct contact would facilitate the process. The Russians they talked to, from the various Peace and Friendship Committees, weren't of much help. Henry Trofimenko, chief of the US policy section of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, said, ``I don't know how you can do it.''
Back home, they sought the help of Seattle's mayor, Charles Royer. He wrote other mayors asking them to write letters to Moscow supporting the park. One who did was Mayor Edward Koch of New York, but not until he had called in his own park commissioner and arranged to have the small park across from the United Nations Building dedicated as a Peace Park.
In January 1986 a delegation from Ploughshares returned to Moscow to lobby for the park, even though their latest letter to the mayor had not been answered. When they checked into their hotel, an Intourist guide showed up and announced: ``Tomorrow, we'll tell you your itinerary.''
``Wait a minute,'' Noland told him, explaining that they weren't there to see the sights.
The guide explained that the itinerary included a meeting with the mayor, who welcomed them the next day and introduced them to an architect who would show them a proposed site for the park.
The Ploughshares people enlisted help from members of Washington Architects for Social Responsibility to prepare a design and co-sponsor the project. Fund-raising events were planned, but in Moscow nothing seemed to be happening. Noland learned that the project was entangled in the ambition of Moscow's mayor to forge a sister-city relationship with either New York or Washington. The letter from Mayor Koch gave him some hope that the park would lead to that. When it didn't, he lost interest. The peace park project turned to Tashkent, which had already established a sister-city relationship with Seattle. Tashkent, with 4.5 million people, is the fourth-largest city in the Soviet Union. It is in a hot, arid region about 200 miles north of Afghanistan and 100 miles west of China. In October 1986 a peace park delegation flew to Tashkent to talk to the city's mayor, Shukrulla Mirsayidov. By the following January, a 1-acre site was designated in a redevelopment area near the center of the city.
With the size and configuration of the park site known, a new design was sought. Ideas were submitted by students at the University of Washington's department of agriculture and from practicing landscape architects, and these were gone over by a committee of the Washington chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, which became a co-sponsor along with Ploughshares; the Seattle chapter of Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility; and the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Committee.
To raise funds, the sponsors have been selling Peace Bonds (an investment in the future) and tiles that people decorate for installation in the park. Tashkent will do the basic grading of the site according to the Peace Park design and provide utilities, concrete, rocks, and large plants. The rest of the labor will be contributed by American volunteers paying about $2,500 each for the opportunity. Supplies, including smaller plants, wood for a trellis, and paving stones have been donated by American companies, and Richard Beyer, a noted Seattle artist, has contributed a sculpture. Work will begin June 1. There is a waiting list of people wanting to work on the project. The volunteers come from all over the US and range in age from 11 to 93 years.
A nurse from New York State wrote on her application that she had been to Tashkent once and ``was overwhelmed with how concerned they were with the ramifications of misunderstanding between our two countries.'' A student said, ``I've always wanted to go abroad, but not just as a tourist. I wanted to have a purpose.'' And Mayor Mirsayidov, commenting on the park in Soviet Life (September '87), wrote: ``As we say in the Orient, people who plant trees together will never be enemies. But we want more than that: We want to be friends forever.''
There is already a Caf'e Seattle in Tashkent near the park. By the end of the summer, it is likely that American and Soviet citizens will be sitting at the outdoor tables, sipping drinks, and looking out over the new trees. It will be a peaceful scene.