Here is a small ceremonial spoon, virtually weightless, lacquered gold, with red and green stylized designs. It is Russian, a present, handed across the table during a momentary pause in a lunchtime conversation about nuclear war. It was given, politely, by a Russian man and received, politely, by me.
We were participants in an unofficial exchange conference between Americans and Soviets on arms control, disarmament and U.S.-Soviet Relations, in a Minneapolis hotel. The five-day meeting was sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies. Some 50 persons, more or less evenly divided between nations, sat closely about an immense rectangle of tables for long hours.
The Soviet statements, usually as stylized and carefully executed as the designs on my gift, demanded careful listening to determine if there was any deviation from the standard rhetorical detail. For those Americans expert in arms there may have been something. For me, the discussions were as weightless as the spoon. And as ceremonial. There is never a concession of imperfection by Soviets around a table; total denial is the norm.
While the conference itself was definitely not official, not sponsored by the U.S. government, not on the diplomatic agenda, not part of any official bilateral record, there is no such thing as an "unofficial" Soviet delegation. The people in attendance came with the permission and at the behest of their government.
Dealing with official delegates is like talking with people encased in cloudy glass. The canned speeches, super-cautious conversations, probing, are relieved, barely, by time-out trades about work habits, children, family. The overall effect is one of exhaustion, exasperation and creeping cynicism. The Soviets come across as a fixed unit, confident they have "the correct information."
Americans seem to come across as pieces in a menacing kaleidoscope, encased but constantly moving and presenting new patterns. Even the most sophisticated and experienced of the Soviets, the very smoothest, don't get us, don't fathom this society much less its democracy.
The taped-for-TV public forum put on by the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, nominally on arms control and disarmament, demonstrated the non-understanding. Three Americans and three Soviets appeared on stage with a moderator. Members of the audience lined up at two microphones and for an hour one after another raised human rights issues. Some were former Soviet citizens, all were serious and very few dealt with nuclear war. It was a tough session, and the Soviets were visibly annoyed and shaken.
One man asked if the Soviets would make an inquiry or give some information about Galina Vilchinskaya, who had served three years in prison for reading the Bible to some children in the woods. She was rearrested, after refusing to join the "official" Baptist church, and at last word was awaiting trail. He stumbled in the pronunciation of Vilchinskaya and was curtly dismissed by the Soviet respondent, who said scornfully that he "should learn to pronounce the name first."
A woman commented that the forum was "an important occasion to send a message to Andropov: free Sakharov." The Soviet delegate sitting next to me whispered, "Who is that woman?" I shrugged. "Don't you know her?" he asked with disbelief. One of his colleagues on stage observed, toward the end of the program,"These people are not representative of the United States."
That session provided the only break in the too-pat-to-be-believed unanimity of the Soviets. They reacted: "There's an example of democracy--hatred." "This doesn't change our view of the American people." "The subject was not dealt with. Subjects raised were not on the agenda." "This cannot be given the name of 'forum'; 'organized event,' perhaps. It could have been avoided."
The Soviet delegation chairman later read aloud a letter from a Mr. Swenson apologizing for the "trend and direction" of the forum. Don Fraser, mayor of Minneapolis attested to the "honest, strong convictions" that he thought were not "reflective of general sentiment" and "regretted the diversion of the discussion," but pointed out that the forum had been "a piece of American political life" and that the Soviets needed to understand it because "it will continue."
One of the high-ranking Soviets said that they were not offended, but felt "lucky that the conference finally found ourselves faced with realities." He said he would show the tape at home so all could "see what happens in America." He found a "different strata of democracy" which showed that "even democracy has its limits and borders."
Genuine communication, at last. Anger.
Perception and language difficulties? Yes, but more than that. We are people from antithetical systems. There is no nation more "foreign" to Americans than the Soviet Union. And so it is for them. Friendship, could it be attained between the people of the two nations, would have nothing to do with arms control, disarmament or U.S.-Soviet relations.
Why keep meeting?
Friendship may be as impossible as it is irrelevant in the grand scheme. Anger may be an honest emotion, but it is useless. Our systems are so stunningly different that Americans are not going to come around to "understanding" or approving the consistent gross violations of human rights by the Soviet government. Nonetheless, we are obliged to know the Soviets because we have business between us.
Nuclear arms, war, mistake, the death of all life on the planet compose the business.
We must meet because our diversity seems mad to them and their singular intolerance of diversity seems mad to us. We are weak and unpredictable as only madmen can be, to them. They are strong and predictable as only madmen can be, to us. If there is another reality, we must be able to comprehend it.
The only way to comprehension is knowledge and experience. That won't come with meeting 10,000 Soviets or Americans once. It comes with meeting the same people over and over again, getting past opening statements and host/guest rituals to whatever else is there.
The alternative is wildly dangerous. The longer both sides believe they are dealing with madmen, the likelier one will choose to go down fighting.