Wistful Memories of the Elbe, 1945

OUTSIDE Boston's Wang Center for the Performing Arts it was 1989. Armenian-Americans carrying large placards denouncing Azerbaijani violence against their countrymen in the Soviet Union were shouting, ``Red Army, go home!'' Inside the cavernous concert hall, it was 1945. At the emotional climax of the opening performance of the Red Army Chorus - on its first American tour in the 60 years of its existence - 32 vigorous young dancers dressed as Soviet soldiers and American GIs reenacted the meeting on the German River Elbe at the triumphant conclusion of World War II. After starting with a Russian folk motif they switched to a spirited rendition of a square dance set to the music of ``Turkey in the Straw.''

The entire evening was designed to evoke memories of the time when the two countries were allies and to erase the ill will of the intervening cold war years. Against a backdrop consisting of two immense flags - the hammer and sickle on a red field, and the stars and stripes - the 100-man uniformed chorus and a band heavy on accordions and balalaikas began with the ``Star Spangled Banner,'' followed by the Soviet national anthem, and ended with ``God Bless America'' in heavily-accented English.

In addition to the traditional Russian folk songs and sabre dances, they belted out a number with lyrics by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, ``Do the Russians Want War?'' (The answer was a resounding no.) By the end of the evening the good will was almost palpable. Greeted by a standing ovation from a cheering audience, Mikhail Gorbachev's military ambassadors were obviously moved by their reception.

The nostalgic ``Dance of the Elbe Meeting'' was scheduled long before the Berlin Wall collapsed, but it seemed to foreshadow Moscow's reaction to that unexpected development. The Soviet government officially welcomed the opening of the wall as a positive step. But, in its capacity as a victorious power responsible for the eastern sector of Berlin, Moscow delivered a sharp protest to the East German government because it had not been informed of the decision in a timely fashion. Soviet scholars visiting Harvard's Kennedy School a week later drove this point home by arguing that the way to brake the momentum toward German reunification was to revive the wartime Big Four alliance and exert diplomatic pressure on both states.

For these scholars, who reflect Mr. Gorbachev's ``new thinking'' in foreign policy, the ideological struggle that dominated the world scene for decades has been swept away, replaced in their minds by old-fashioned realpolitik. Said one, ``In the past the Soviet Union identified its security with one system, whether you call it communist, Stalinist, or totalitarian. Now our security interests are seen in terms of basic geopolitical realities.'' In this context, he added, ``the German question is an important factor. Look at the map, and it's easy to understand why the Hungarians talk about withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact more than the Poles do.''

In this new non-ideological world, it is easier for the Russians to envisage a partnership with the United States; after all, there has been no history of territorial conflict between the two countries.

West Germany is a far more complicated matter. It is not only a potential geopolitical threat; as Moscow's chief Western trading partner, it is also a potential benefactor. West Germany is already beginning to play a dynamic role in reviving the economies of Eastern Europe and may do the same for the Soviet Union.

As for East Germany, if the ideological rationalization for a separate socialist state is discarded, and the people choose political pluralism and a free market economy, why should they not join West Germany?

In the old days the Russians would have said: Because we don't want them to and we have 370,000 troops there to prevent it. But today they've got themselves into a box with their policy of ``freedom of choice'' for their neighbors. As events spiral out of control in Eastern Europe, the Russians, preoccupied with the economic crisis and the nationalist ferment within their borders, send the Red Army to America to recall a time of greater certainty, a time when the United States and the Soviet Union together controlled the destiny of Europe.

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