Ten years ago I left the Soviet Union on demand. My journalist husband had been given 24 hours to pack up and leave the week before. His writing "had given displeasure" to the Foreign Ministry. The authorities gave me a fortnight's grace to give notice to my own Moscow-based job, gather up children and pack.
Now I am back in Moscow, this time as a staff member of a Senate delegation invited by the "elected" assembly of the U.S.S.R., the Supreme Soviet, for talks on SALT II.
The surface of city life has hardly changed in the intervening decade. Moscow has continued to sprawl. Pedestrians still plod in customary heavy gait along broad sidewalks. Apartment units still line the avenues in a monotony of brick and concrete, new buildings indistinguishable from the old.
But as we approach the heart of Moscow, the desolate boulevards begin to fill with jaunty cars in stylish colors. The Fiat factory at Togliattigrad, which was still being built 10 years ago, now provides Moscow with thousands of new autos annually. Tuesday
The first meeting with the Supreme Soviet takes place this morning.
The U.S. delegation is young: its chairman, Joseph R. Biden, is 36; the vice chairman, Richard Lugar, is the "dean" of the group at 47. The other senators -- Bill Bradley, David Pryor, David Boren and Carl Levin -- are all freshly minted first-termers. The Soviet delegation is considerably older and, by contrast, stolid and formal.
It is an hour and a half into the first plenary session when the first crack appears in the Soviet surface. Both sides are nearly finished with the prescribed opening remarks. The chairman, Comrade Shitikov, looks down the long conference table to the last speaker, a self-styled bon vivant whom I had known a decade earlier as Foreign Ministry press spokesman, Leonid Zamyatin. Shitikov, announces, however, looking at Zamyatin, "We will now hear from Comrade Zagladin."
"It would be appreciated if my chairman would address me correctly," snaps the white-maned Zamyatin. "He knows me long enough to remember my name." ("Comrade Zagladin" I believe is sitting directly next to him.) "I do not look like him. And I do not behave like him. I am customarily addressed as Comrade Zamyatin." His tone is decidedly unpleasant. Was the tone and tension merely a matter of mistaken identity?
Thanks to a quick translation, the U.S. chairman picks up the animosity revealed within the Soviet ranks. He consoles his Soviet counterpart with a measure of mock sympathy. "I see, Mr. Chairman," Biden says, "you have as much trouble keeping your people in line as we do ours."
It is the first spontaneous response. And so the real dialogue begins.
That night in Moscow a few of us go to go to an American correspondent's home for dinner. We are a small group: a senator and his wife, a Russian novelist I had known 10 years ago and the newsman and his wife.
We climb one flight of chipped stone stairs to a dingy hallway which is lit by a bare light bulb. I had forgotten the shabbiness. I had also forgotten the cheerfulness inside. It is a western-style apartment. I feel at home. In fact, it had been my home. I had bought each stick of furniture in Copenhagen and Stockholm. I had assembled every peg and hole. In this apartment I had lived with my family for two years. But that was a decade ago, in another life.
The dinner conversation is strained at first. But then the Russian asks the senator: "Tell me" -- his English is halting -- "what happened to your Flower Children?" It is the magic question.
They talk of Joan Baez and Vietnam. They talk about Bob Dylan and the demonstrations. They talk of materialism and poetry. And most of all, they talk about themselves and what had been important to them 10 years ago. Suddenly, Americans and Russians come together riding their particular moments in history. In this one evening in Moscow each brings back his own moment and shares it with the other. Wednesday
Today the initiative at the sessions is taken by two junior senators. It is to attack the growing strength of the U.S.S.R in land-based strategic missiles. "How can we trust your intentions toward us," one senator charges, "when you increase the quantity and quality of your ICBMs at such a rate that -- our experts tell us -- nearly a third of all our strategic forces will be vulnerable to destruction by yours in just a few years."
The Soviet delegation is clearly embarrassed. It goes against the grain of Soviet policy to speak publicly of one's own vulnerability.
At first, the Soviets claim ignorance of the ICBM vulnerability issue, the question most debated in the U.S. Senate and the American press. A few disclaim even the possibility of Soviet superiority now or in the future. "In the face of American technology," says one of the Russians, "it just isn't possible for us."
One of our senators seizes the opening. "I agree with you," he says. "I don't think your ICBMs will be able to destroy ours. Not now. Nor in the Eighties. Nor ever. I think our technology gives us such strategic superiority that there's just no way for you to surpass us."
He adds: "Just remember, I and some others back home agree with you. I argue this case in the U.S. Senate. I tell my colleagues that between American know-how in technology and American flexibility, there is just no way the Soviet strategic force will become superior to ours."
He leans back in his chair. The puzzled faces of the Soviet delegation are evident.
The effectiveness of the gambit is lost on no one. The Soviets sit silently. To those trained in their heavily bureaucratic tradition, there could be no response except a "set" one. Soviets go by the book. In response to the heavy Soviet thrust, the Americans had offered a counterattack that was quick, light and flexible. We succeeded.
An observer of four previous parliamentary delegations to Moscow later remarked to the senators, "There's no doubt about it. You reached them." Thursday
Tall, broad-shouldered, vigorous, wearing the white beard of the wise patriarch, the Russian invites me into his cluttered foyer. A mere glance into the couple of rooms on either side of the narrow passageway tells you much about his life.
Books overflow from shoulder-high cases onto the floor in stacked columns. Writing paper and pads are spread, workmanlike, on high tables.
A few traditional pieces of mahogany furniture shrink the small rooms to doll-size. Unframed canvases, manuscripts, clippings and papers are everywhere, but not in disarray. They lay in readiness like tools. They are the everyday things of which his life is made.
I am still breathless from the six flights of stairs as he launches into a mock-serious lively polemic in the foyer. Will it be coffee or tea? Breakfast or lunch? Wine or brandy? And in which room would I find it more comfortable to talk?
We both laugh and settle on the kitchen. Like the other rooms, this one is ready for use. A stew pot on a small flame gives off the aroma of borscht. At the window, pushed against the corner wall, is a high, round table covered by oilcloth. Taking pains not to upset the informal state of a cramped kitchen, I slide carefully between the table and the stove. I pull out one of the six empty chairs squeezed beside each other. Small kitchen but many chairs. They speak: Always place for one more at the table.
We talk of mutual friends as Boris prepares boiled coffee and lays out a spread of cheese slabs and warm meat dumplings. When I hesitate, he places two dumplings beside my coffee cup. No choice. I am to eat and drink.
We talk about his writing. That which was published abroad (in French or English translation) because Soviet authorities refused it publication in his own country, in his own language.
"Then things haven't essentially changed since my time," I say, hunting for a broad response.
"Oh yes," he smiles, "I'm not in jail. I may be tomorrow. But not today."
"And you speak so freely. Here, with me, a foreigner. In your own kitchen."
"There are too many of us now for them to keep track of," he explains. (Us. Them. That hadn't changed.)
"Ten years ago," he goes on, "when there were just a few of us, we could speak with one voice. Now that there are so many of us who disagree with the authorities, we disagree among ourselves as well." He pauses, as if rethinking what he has just said. Then, "But perhaps that is good."
The doorbell rings. Boris returns from the front door holding a scrap of paper that apparently bears a message. He is followed into the kitchen by a frail, pale-cheeked young man. He introduces Yuri, excuses himself, telephones from the next room.
I recognize Yuri's name. He is the son of a famous dissident who had spent many years at hard labor in Siberia. Yuri is obviously in some sort of difficulty. Or he is bearing a friend's urgent message. He has come to Boris for help. It's not money that is needed. That is not what their life and struggle is all about.
Yuri shakes my hand. Dasvidanja. As they walk to the front door, I hear them speak Russian, in hushed tones.
I don't know the problem. Is a friend expelled from the Writers' Union? Is someone threatened with arrest? By virtue of their dissidence, these Russians live at the center of their lives.
"My bus leaves for the airport in an hour," I tell Boris. "I'm traveling with six senators. I can't be late." Suddenly switching into a professional voice, I say, "Tell me, do you have a message for me? Something you want me to bring back?"
"Yes," Yuri says. He is prepared.
"I am Jewish, you know," he begins. "And I am pleased that those Jews who want to emigrate can do so. But there are those of us who want to stay. Who feel ourselves Russian as well. It would be good if those concerned with human rights and the right of emigration could be as concerned with the human rights of those of us who do not wish to emigrate, who wish to stay in our own country."
"How do I go about doing that?"
"I do not know formulas," he says. "But I do know since the Jackson amendment, we are -- I speak of intellectuals, of course -- divided in our country. It has given a wedge between us. Instead of the community of writers that we once were, we are forced to being Jews and non-Jews because we have the privilege of emigrating and they don't."
"Are you suggesting that the Jackson amendment be rescinded?" I asked.
"No. I am perhaps asking for nothing. I am" -- he searches for a word -- "describing. I wish," he adds, "there were a way of solving problems . . . that were less . . . clumsy?"
"Perhaps," I venture, "there is no solution."
"Yes," he agrees almost eagerly, "perhaps there is no solution at all." He paused: "But will you try?"
We give each other traditional Russian hugs. We had just met for the first time. We are now friends. I promise I will visit his sister in Baltimore.
The delegation leaves Sheremetyvo airport on time. En route home, we hear about Soviet combat troops in Cuba. We talk about its relationship to the SALT treaty. Could the problem be resolved? Perhaps there is no solution. But we will try.