LAST month I joined a 26-member delegation that spent two weeks touring the Soviet Union. Convened by the Council on Foundations (an umbrella group for some of America's 22,000 philanthropic organizations), the group set out to study the sudden outburst of charitable giving in the USSR. What they learned about Soviet foundations needs more space than a column provides. What they learned about the Soviet people, however, can be said more simply. Since the trip was organized by the San Francisco-based Center for US-USSR Initiatives - a citizen-diplomacy group that brings together Soviets and Americans in informal ways - members of the delegation spent numerous evenings in homes in Moscow; Leningrad; Kiev; and Vilnius, Lithuania.
Not surprisingly, those evenings produced a kaleidoscope of impressions. On one point, however, the delegation was unanimous: Soviet citizens are among the warmest, most affectionate, and most engaging people in the world. They are especially so toward Americans.
That's not a new insight: Travelers to the Soviet Union have been saying so for years. Still, it needs explaining. This, after all, is the land described in the early 1980s as the Evil Empire. Soviets were said to spy, cheat, lie, and spread disinformation. Even their friendliness was seen as a ploy on the superpower chessboard.
Was this delegation deceived? That's doubtful. Many of its members have years of experience assessing the motivations of those who come asking for money. They're accustomed to looking beneath the surface. They're pretty good judges of character. What they saw in the USSR convinced them that the friendship was genuine and the desire for peace strong.
It's a matter of record, of course, that US forces came to the aid of the Soviets in World War II - and that Soviet families, almost all of whom had lost relatives in the fighting, remain especially grateful to Americans. Less widely recognized is the fact that, in ways Americans can only dimly understand, Soviet citizens routinely distinguish between their government (which they seem largely either to ignore or despise) and their people (for whom they feel deep-rooted bonds of familial affection).
And therein, I suspect, lies the secret of their affection for Americans. It comes so naturally to them to distinguish a populace from a government that they find it easy to love Americans - even when the US government takes stands that ought to frighten or offend them. Add to that a peculiarly Russian characteristic for abstract and idealistic thinking - which at times seemed almost hilariously at odds with the nuts-and-bolts Yankee pragmatism pouring forth during our late-night conversations - and it's obvious how the Soviet citizenry could conceive of and cling to an ideal of American goodness in spite of propaganda to the contrary.
That may account for the Soviet side. But why, then, are Americans - even those who have not visited the USSR - suddenly so ebullient in their praise for the Soviets? What happened to the Evil Empire?
The answer is in three words: Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. For if Americans are pragmatic, they're also fascinated by personalities. Before they had an enlightened, engaging Soviet face to fasten on, it was easy for them to dislike the Soviet-in-the-abstract. Enter Mr. Gorbachev, and opinions undergo a sea change.
Public opinion, of course, is fickle. Gorbachev could be replaced. The boom in Soviet-American citizen-diplomat exchanges could fade. But friendship has a peculiar way of lasting. A lot of thoughtful Americans now know too much about their Soviet counterparts ever to slip back into believing in their old stereotypes. In an age that desperately needs peace, that has to be a blessing.