Some of the wittier children in my neighborhood are talking these days about their class's recent field trip to "the little red schoolhouse." It's about a mile away: the Soviet Embassy school, where children of Russian diplomats posted in Washington are educated.
The visit was part of a successful and well-regarded cultural appreciation program that is federally funded under the Emergency School Aid Act. The children I've been hearing from--including 10-year- old Eddie McCarthy, who sits to my left at the dinner table and is on the left, too, on such political issues as allowances, bedtime hours and haircuts--are students up the street at the Janney elementary public school. Through an embassy adoption program--more than 40 embassies are involved--fifth- and sixth-graders from Janney have been exchanging classroom visits with Russian boys and girls.
D,etente may be dead between the leaders of the children's governments, but the interaction created by the exchange program--as fleeting as the three or four get-togethers were--appears to have been beneficial to the American kids. One wrote in a classroom essay: "Due to this trip, I found out Russian people are not different except for their beliefs. They are friendly, humble people who, like us, want to enjoy life peacefully."
Another child, more introspective, wrote that her new friends were "open and fun to talk with. I learned a lot about the Russian children, but it confuses me because all the articles in books and magazines tell me a whole different story."
As a parent and a citizen, I am overjoyed that federal money is being spent to counter in at least one American school the strident irrationality that undergirds the prevailing attitude toward both Russia's government and people. It has become so mindless that diatribes against Soviet leaders are vented with no apparent factual or diplomatic restraints. Ronald Reagan needed only his first press conference to lay into the Soviets: they "reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain" their goals.
The vilification of Russians reflects a type of nationalism found in the global historical pattern. Tribes and nations project evil onto other tribes and nations as a way of avoiding the painful task of correcting "the crimes, lies and cheating" within their own borders and hearts. But America's hostility toward Russia deviates from the pattern because as a nation we seem to be deliberately denying the obligation even to understand the culture, politics and language of this supposed demon enemy.
Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) reports in his book, "The Tongue-Tied Americans," that from 1975 to 1979, "52 colleges and universities in the United States dropped the teaching of Russian." In the schools resisting the trend, "Russian language classes are fewer and poorly attended, and Soviet study programs are suffering." Simon tells of a 1979 study that reported "a total of 4,943 positions in the federal government (that) require Russian proficiency, but there are only 3,206 persons who can fill that need."
With our hostility growing like a mold on ignorance, anyone who seeks to understand Russia by studying, say, Marxism, runs risks. Last year, when right-wing ideologues learned that Maryknoll seminarians routinely took courses in Marxist-Leninist theory, they said, aha, this proves the order has gone communist. Seeking to understand the Soviet system was equated with espousing it. Journalists who dare to write a benign word on Marxist theory can be assured of hearing from readers screaming the epithet, not "go to hell," but "go to Russia."
Russia's history, politics and culture are complexities that could absorb any American's intellectual energies for a lifetime. That Russia's current leaders are brutal despots of narrow vision and that hardly a one of the country's 262 million doesn't suffer because of it is no excuse not to make a passing effort to understand the Russian people.
Many Russians are as ill-informed about the United States as we are about them. In the recently published "Russian Journal," Andrea Lee, writing of a year she spent in Moscow and Leningrad, recalls the comment of a young Communist student she came to know: "We're studying American yellow journalism, propaganda and how your government controls newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post."
Ignorance and fear--and its poisonous byproduct, hate--exist in plenty on both sides. But as this academic year closes, both American and Russia can look at two schools--Janney elementary and the Soviet Embassy school--and say happily that at least a few children there remain unpoisoned.