The man cocked his head and said incredulously, "But what do the Poles want?"
His two Western interlocutors suggested that the Poles perhaps are trying to get more breathing room, more freedom from Soviet controls.
"What more freedom do they want?" the man shot back. "We spill our blood for them and now we will have to feed them. Do you know that more than 600,000 of our boys died to liberate Poland [in World War II]? Besides, the Poles have more to ear than we do. They should start working, stop speculating!"
"Ah, you know," this Russian worker, who must have been a boy during World War II, said. The Americans, he continued, "have cooked the whole thing up.
"Why don't our two big countries get together and divide everything? Then we both could live in peace. Why is America against us? We don't threaten anyone."
Perhaps the United States is concerned about Soviet behavior, say, in Afghanistan?
"Eh," he laughed expansively, "Afghanistan is a different story. We are talking about Poland."
What was actually happening in Poland?
The man squinted. "Well, there were some strikes there and you were helping antisocialist forces create more trouble. But things will get better now that they have had their Congress. Anyway, I say 'to hell with Poland.'"
The conversation, initiated spontaneously at a chance meeting, was typical of what Ivan Ivanovich, the average Soviet man-in-the-street, knows about and thinks of Poland. In contrast to the voluminous and detailed accounts Western readers have been treated to, particularly centering on Poland's recent precendent-shattering Communist Party Congress, Soviet citizens have been kept largely in the dark.
There are, of course, intellectuals here who regularly listen to the Voice of America and the BBC to keep abreat of the ins and outs of the Polish crisis and who sympathize with the democratization process in that country. Most of them hope for a similar political evolution in the Soviet Union itself.
Travelers reaching here from the Baltic republics, Western Urkaine and Western Byelorussia also report considerable public sympathy for the Poles and a greater understanding of gut issues, largely because of the access to Polish television.
But Ivan Ivanovich, the average citizen of the Russian Republic, the largest and most important republic of the Soviet Union, knows very few hard facts about the Polish situation. What information was distributed here seems to have produced indignation toward the perceived ingratitude of a people who were liberated and sustained by the Soviet Union to the detriment of its own population.
The way the Soviet news media have handled the Polish crisis seems to offer a case study in how they normally distribute information on a need-to-know basis with the assumption that the public should not be infected by alien ideas.
Soviet readers were subjected to a virtual information blackout during the recent Congress while Moscow awaited its outcome. The media, however, have devoted endless columns to Poland both before and after the event.
In the months preceding the Congress, the Poles were criticized for allowing "antisocialist" forces to chip away at the foundations of socialism. Dispatches were sprinkled with allegations of a Western conspiracy against Poland and the Soviet Bloc and by reports of direct support for Polish counterrevolutionaries.
In a society historically distrustful of foreigners, such generalized criticism has tended to reinforce prejudices against the Poles.
Since the Congress, the stream of dire warnings has given way to a message that the Poles may have strayed a bit but that they are still good Marxist-Leninist boys at heart.
Apart from foreign policy considerations, such a change in approach to the Polish situation has important domestic implications.
By treating the Warsaw Congress as routine, the Russians managed to put a brave face on a distasteful event. It meant that no polemics were needed to counter the event and thus no risk of contaminating the minds of their citizens.
Instead, the news has been calculated to stress Poland's commitments to socialism and the Warsaw Pact, with only occasional hints of Polish displeasure -- which remain unclear to Ivan Ivanovich.