On April 16, three American students and their coach began a two-week tour in the Soviet Union, debating in Russian with students in Moscow, Kharkov, Leningrad and Baku. The participants, chosen by the Speech Communication Association, headquartered in Annandale, were Bill Bobbitt, 23, of Monterey Institute; Tim Frye, 22, Middlebury College; and Nina Klose, 18, Harvard University. Don Boileau, director of SCA's Committee on International Discussion and Debate, served as coach. The Soviet-American exchanges date from 1972. By Nina Klose Special to The Washington Post
As we stepped off the plane in Moscow, I knew I was back. With the unmistakable smell -- newsprint, cigarette smoke, cleaning compound -- came the memories: the grit in the seam of my uniform's black apron pocket, the yells of the other second-graders playing tag that first day of school when I understood nothing. I was returning after five years. What would I find?
"Welcome to Moscow!" said a television reporter, thrusting a microphone at us as we left customs. The Soviet TV crew would accompany us during our two-week tour. "What are the first three words you think of when you remember the Soviet Union?"
My mind raced back to the four years I had lived in Russia when my father was Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post from 1977-81. I remembered the farmers' market where I bought fat salt pickles, dripping brine, from a wrinkle-faced peasant woman. I remembered the Metro: young mothers rushing toddlers to school on their way to work, men with thick-rimmed glasses holding newspapers at arm's length to see better, grandmothers with bulging bags of vegetables.
"Solyonie ogurtsi, Kievsky rynok, Metro," I said. ("Salt pickles, Kievsky Farmers Market, the subway.")
April 17: We had our first debate at Moscow State Pedagogical Institute, a pink-and-white building on a quiet street corner. People stared as we trooped into the auditorium. "American team first, then Soviets," a cameraman coached. Not a seat was empty. We were here to debate "Soviet-American Cooperation in the Peaceful Exploration of Outer Space -- an Alternative to the Arms Race." Our argument was simple: Space cooperation is valuable in itself, not dependent on political agreement. Each "debate" took the form of a symposium, followed by questions -- usually accusations about such topics as Star Wars, Libya and resumption of underground nuclear testing in Nevada.
The audience laughed whenever Bill quoted western sources: "The Soviet government spends 40 percent of its budget on defense the official Soviet figure is 4 per cent ." Vika, a Soviet debater, gushed, "As a woman and a future teacher and mother, I want my children to grow up honest." Suddenly, we realized our biggest challenge: debating with people whose "truth" is totally different from our own.
"They didn't use any facts at all!" Tim fumed afterward. Their arguments were based almost completely on emotional appeal. For example, in response to Tim's question about the Soviet radar system in Krasnoyarsk, which western experts say violates a treaty, our opponent retorted, "I live in Krasnoyarsk and I've never seen it!"
Students flocked around us after the debate. "Sign my program! Sign my program!" Saying goodbye, I kissed one of the Soviet debaters on the cheek. "Cameras, quick! An international kiss!" he yelled.
We rode an all-night train to Kharkov, second-largest city in the Ukraine. The four of us shared a cozy compartment with double bunks, falling asleep on starched linen sheets to the clacking of train wheels. A portly woman conductor woke us with glasses of tea in metal holders. Approaching the city, the train passed brown wooden houses in the middle of fields turning green in the spring warmth. In Kharkov, five girls in bright Ukrainian costume met us with flowers and a beautiful round loaf of bread decorated with flowers made of dough. Kharkov April 18: Kharkov seemed to be a smaller Moscow, with the same prefabricated apartment buildings, the same imposing cobbled squares adorned by huge statues of Lenin. Only the store names, in the slightly different Ukrainian alphabet, told me this was a different city.
We visited the Kharkov Turbine Works, sitting face to face with factory officials across a long, thin table. The director lectured us about the factory's history. I leafed idly through a booklet of photographs. "By a selfless effort of thousands of working people . . . " the booklet proclaimed. "By a selfless effort . . . " lectured the factory director.
An hour later, followed by a woman in blue reporting for local radio, we toured the factory, an enormous building filled with the din of machines several stories high. "First, we'd like you to meet one of our workers," announced the director. "He's a Young Komsomol member." (Most Soviet students aged 14 to 28 are members of the organization, first step to joining the Communist Party.) "He's the head of a brigade recently awarded a medal for intensive labor."
"Welcome to our factory!" said the carefully groomed young worker. "I have a few questions for you." By chance, he wanted our "personal opinion" on why the "imperialist" United States had bombed innocent civilians in Libya; the woman in blue turned on her tape recorder. We tried to explain the facts that official Soviet newspapers left out.
At Kharkov State University, the setup was as before -- Soviet and American debaters at tables on either side of the stage, with a moderator, our coach Don and the Soviet debate coach at a table in the middle. To the right stood a lectern. The auditorium was packed with 1,500 students. In my opening speech, I told of the Challenger disaster, stressing how the American media's freedom to report different views on the tragedy helped us understand its causes. Later, in response to an audience question, "Did you vote for Reagan?," we all answered differently. We hoped audiences would notice our freedom to disagree publicly.
That evening, in a diskotyeka at the Dream Cafe', groups of students sat at small tables. We listened to Ukrainian folk songs, then saw a short film about World War II, which Russians call "The Great Patriotic War." Black-and-white documentary footage showed soldiers being blown into the air, and scenes of parents pulling dead children on sleds. It was propaganda. I found tears rolling down my cheeks anyway.
Later, we danced to Italian disco, the rage in Kharkov. I danced with a round-faced boy in a dark blue suit, Vadim. Like everyone else we met, he wore the little Lenin pin of the Young Komsomol on his lapel. "Have you ever met an American before?" I asked him.
"No, I thought you'd be really . . . different. But you're just like one of our girls!"
I danced with Alyosha, a tall, skinny kid with a mustache, then joined his group: two boys, Tolya and Slava, and a dark girl with a pointy chin, Irina. I couldn't understand why she was glaring at me. I tried to start a conversation, but they said little. The next day at Kharkov Polytechnic Institute, I found out why they'd been saving their words. Our opponents: Alyosha, Tolya and Irina.
April 19: In the morning, we toured afternoon arts schools, where children receive extracurricular instruction in music, dance or drawing. The music school was identical to the one where I studied for two years in Moscow. Tim played guitar with a student; I played a scale on a borrowed flute with Katya, a 10-year-old with huge white bows on her ponytails. She seemed almost an earlier version of me, in her brown school uniform, waiting a bit timidly for her teacher to correct her fingering.
Don, Tim and I took a walk that evening near the hotel. A college kid sped up to us on a homemade skateboard. "What time is it?" he asked transparently. "You're foreigners, aren't you?"
"We're from America."
Don, unable to understand the conversation, walked on ahead. "Is he rich?" the kid pointed at Don, obviously hoping he'd just met a rolling-in-dough capitalist.
"Well . . . not really. He's a professor."
April 20: "I was up till 6 a.m.!" Tim said sleepily. "I was trying to explain supply-and-demand to some guy. He said, 'Our government has kept the price of bread the same since the Great War.' So I explained, 'Yes, but that makes other things more expensive. Like shoes.' 'No one buys Russian shoes!' the guy exclaimed."
Leningrad April 21: Leningrad. En route to the hotel, we laid red carnations on a memorial to Leningraders who died during the wartime siege of the city. Later, at a war history museum, a tiny woman with white hair and a chestful of medals wept as she described surviving the 900-day siege. Tim and I kissed her and gave her flowers. I cried too, and the TV crew filmed. The frail woman's tears were far more eloquent than our young debate opponents' endless calls for peace.
The TV crew wanted us doing "man-in-the-street" interviews. "What do you think unites our two countries?" I asked a young woman strolling with her husband. "We hear good things about what the American people want, but about what your president wants -- well, we hear mostly bad . . . We hear about it every night on the news. About rockets and wars and all that stuff. I think there's a separation between the people's opinion and the president's."
April 22: In the evening, we visited Mikhail Anikushkin, a short, stocky sculptor with round red cheeks who had designed one of the memorials we'd seen. His workshop was cluttered with busts -- Pushkin, Chekhov, several Lenins.
His wife, also a sculptor, had prepared a huge meal in true Russian style: salads, cheese, meat, sausage, several kinds of bread, vegetables, fruit. "I'm sorry it's not a hot meal. Mikhail Konstantinovich is leaving town tonight, nothing's organized," she apologized.
Anikushkin poured vodka around. Since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced a crackdown on alcoholism last spring, the so-called Maiskaya Tragedia, or May Tragedy, alcohol has been banned from official occasions. This was the first liquor we'd been offered on the trip. After several toasts, Anikushkin noticed, "Ninochka, you have some left! You must make a toast!"
I raised my glass: "To a person who is both an artist and a provider, who uses her hands in the workshop and in the kitchen to feed us." Anikushkin's wife bounced out of her seat in surprise. "Let's drink to all women, because women's lives are more difficult," she said. We drained our glasses.
Moscow April 24: We arrived by train in Moscow at 8 a.m. With a few free hours, I decided to visit my old school, Moscow No. 5. My classmates will graduate this spring and it was my last chance to see everyone.
Retracing the path I followed every day along broad Kutuzovsky Prospekt, I walked past Dom Igrushki, Moscow's largest toy store. My eyes devoured the familiar sights: pigeons pecking in a puddle under the lilac bushes; a young policeman guarding the foreigners' buildings across the street where I used to live; a stiff, blue-haired doll in Dom Igrushki's wide display window.
Looking over my shoulder, I almost saw my brother and me -- a little boy in blue uniform trousers and a brown rabbit-fur hat taking big steps to stay ahead of his ponytailed sister as she reached for his knapsack to slow him down.
I turned the corner into the schoolyard, sniffing for the yeasty smell from the nearby beer factory on the banks of the Moscow River. The first leaves were opening on the trees, tinting the yard yellow-gold in the morning sun. The four-story white building still looked the same. Only the clock above the three doors was missing. I opened the middle door. Somebody's grandmother dozed in a chair by the coat rack. I consulted the schedule on the wall opposite. Class 10-A was having chemistry in Room 38.
"Excuse me, ld,10 sk,1 sw,-1 when does the second period begin?" I inquired of some boys near the cafeteria. Their red armbands told me they were dezhurniye, on duty to carry trays of cocoa up to the first- and second-graders. "9:10," they answered incuriously.
I took the stairs two at a time to the fourth floor. The wide hall where we'd played tag during recess was deserted -- still 20 minutes to the end of class. I walked to one of the high windows overlooking the river. Boys in my class used to play fantiki, a game like tiddlywinks on the same windowsill, using foreign gum wrappers for the winks.
I went into the bathroom and stopped in surprise. Standing there was my very first Russian deskmate. "I never thought I'd see you again!" she exclaimed in recognition. Nine years before, I'd learned to write in Russian by copying the tidy letters in her copybook. Then, she'd been a plump little girl in brown wool uniform, her pudgy fingers holding a white plastic pen. Now, she was an attractive young woman in white blouse, dark blue skirt and blue vest of the upper grades.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. I described the debate tour and how everyone we met talked about the "warmongering" United States. She laughed sympathetically. "Yes, they'd all be hard-line Komsomol types!" What a relief! A Russian who wasn't trying to prove that everything's better in the Soviet Union!
I stopped by the classroom of Alla Yakovlevna, a teacher who tutored me when I first started school. She introduced me to her roomful of 8-year-olds. "This girl is big now and speaks Russian very well, but when she was your age she didn't know it at all. I used to help her do her homework. We communicated with our hands and our feet." The children stood up when I left, to show respect, as they would for a teacher.
Hurrying to the bus stop, I peered in the window of a bulochnaya, where we used to buy bread. The same poster of Mother Russia providing grain for her children hung by the cash register. I remembered running home with round white loaves still warm from the bakery.
Baku April 25: Baku scared me at first, it was so different. "Ancient Byzantium," I thought, looking at the dark, fiery-eyed people, the old stone buildings and twisting streets lined with outlandish, feather-leaved trees. The statue on a hill near our hotel was not Lenin but Sergey Mironovich Kirov, a local Soviet politician and aide to Stalin; the memorial we visited commemorated commissars murdered in the Revolution, not the Unknown Soldier. "On posters here, Lenin is swarthy," Tim observed.
April 26: We had lunch at the Caravanserai, once a hotel for camel drivers. Groups dined in separate alcoves around a courtyard. We sat on sofas against brightly colored cushions. Our waiter brought course after course of Azerbaijani dishes, beginning with heaps of exotic greens: a pinkish-black herb with a taste like licorice, a soft green minty one with long leaves, and a wide-leafed, mild-flavored grass.
One of our Azerbaijani hosts, a man with luxuriant black mustache and a heart-melting smile, showed us how to eat them, delicately nibbling the leaves like a colt. Then came a sour milk soup, thin pancakes cooked with greens or meat, and shish kebab on metal stands. We finished with tea in pear-shaped glasses.
The audience at that afternoon's debate seemed less anti-American than others. One of the debaters answered my invitation to "come and visit us in America," with, "Yes, I wish I could." The audience seemed to agree. "They really bent over backwards not to hurt our feelings," Tim said. One of our opponents cried when we said goodbye at the airport two days later.
That evening we visited a rugmaker's workshop where three Azerbaijani women knotted threads so fast their loom strings sang like a harp.
April 27: The last night in Baku, we cruised on the Caspian Sea. For the first time in two weeks, we talked to kids without an adult listening. Azerbaijani students ringed me, asking questions. A tall boy, an artist, asked his friend, "Do you think she speaks Russian? Will I need a translator?"
"Of course I understand!"
"She's awfully pretty -- look at her eyes," he said to his friend, teasing me. "Do you think I should tell her?"
I gave him a red carnation for his buttonhole. The sea wind blew mist in over the bay as the city's first lights blinked on in the dusk.
Moscow April 29: Back in Moscow, we faced our last and harshest debate -- at Moscow State University, an immense Stalinesque building above the city. Masha, Misha and Valery, all graduate students, were the oldest debaters we'd met. When I asked, "What good things do you read about America in Pravda and Izvestiya?" Valery dodged, "Your mass media distorts 80 percent of the news." He added, "Your figures are lozh lies !" The audience, too, seemed particularly antagonistic, reading their questions from crib sheets.
April 30: We flew out of Moscow on the first Pan Am flight from the Soviet Union in almost a decade. The stewardess celebrated, passing around champagne. "Well, didn't see any brown clouds over Minsk!" said the steward cheerfully.
Later a passenger near Don nonchalantly pulled a small Geiger counter out of his briefcase and checked his wife and child. That was how we learned about Chernobyl.
We thought back to the last debate, wondering if Valery's accusations were motivated by more than a simple desire to stick it to the Americans. We berated ourselves for badly phrased questions, for arguments we'd forgotten to use. "Our opponents are probably saying the same thing," Don comforted.
As we flew west, my mind kept returning to the Dream Cafe in Kharkov, to Irina's glare. Mybe her whole career was riding on that debate, I realized. Maybe if I had been in her place, I would have glared, too.