When a group of American congressmen left here some weeks ago, there was a final barbed exchange of invitations between Rep. Robert Michel (R-Ill.) and Mikhail Gorbachev. The new Soviet leader invited the congressmen to come back for a longer visit so they could see "we don't all live in caves." The congressman from Illinois invited Gorbachev to the United States so he could see "we don't all sleep on grates."
Since I have been here, I have thought about these caves and grates. The Soviets, especially official Soviets, are highly sensitive to their country's Western portrait. One, a professional America-watcher, tells me resentfully, "The Soviet Union is seen in your country as a very primitive place where people are under constant surveillance." It is the word "primitive" that wounds him and others.
At the same time, the party-line picture of America is foreign to my eyes. If Americans see a Soviet Union full of dissidents, the Soviet people see an America full of derelicts and demonstrators.
The newspapers here run endless photos of the homeless and the protesters. A recent Literary Gazette carried a picture of a derelict with the caption, "Everyday Life in the Free World." The youth paper, Komsomol Pravda, featured a photograph of American police in tear-gas masks captioned, "Residents of Crossroads, Ky., treated like insects."
The cartoons in the daily paper Pravda are as subtle as the one that portrayed "America's peace plan for Nicaragua" with a huge foot coming down on the country. Even the current humor magazine, Krokodil, had a cartoon entitled "Democracy in all its arms" that showed a towering male figure outfitted with syringes "for heretics," brass knuckles "for colored people," and machine guns for "the fighters for human rights."
Despite this portrait, the same America-watcher complains that the Soviets have "an idealistic view of American technological prowess. They have myths about American prosperity. They don't know enough about your severe problems." It is an admission of public cynicism about the Soviet press.
In fact, there is little firsthand knowledge of any kind about the United States among the unofficial people I visit. Very few have been allowed to travel to the West, although travel ranks high on the wish list. Few have read the Western press, although Hemingway and Updike may have more Soviet than American fans, and "Gone with the Wind" is a high-school hit.
This mix of ignorance, propaganda and skepticism of propaganda produces a complicated impression of America. Some of the most educated people I have met express simultaneously an exaggerated idea of American unemployment and envy of American prosperity. There are also subtle misconceptions that come to the surface in an odd phrase, an assumption or a question.
In a school visit, a 15-year-old student explains to me that, "In America everything is done for the sake of business." I hear a report from a geography lesson: "California is a place with a lot of rich people where they build missiles." Five or six times I am told with absolute certainty that "American families are not close like our families." Once, after a long afternoon with a sophisticated, thoughtful teacher, I am startled to hear her ask about communism in America, saying, "We know it's the second largest communist party in the world."
But the widest gap between image and self-image emerges one night in a home in Leningrad. My hosts, Lydia and Alexei, are gracious but uneasy, and halfway through a supper of dumplings and cake, I suspect that I am the first American this young family has ever entertained. When the conversation turns to world affairs, the doctor expresses her utter conviction that the Soviet Union is peace- loving and America is threatening. When I tell her that many Americans believe the reverse, she is sincerely startled. If it is so, she says quietly but firmly, it's because of your propaganda. As I leave, she gives me a copy of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," and I have the distinct impression that she believes it is banned in America.
More than once in these two weeks, I have been tempted to shake my head in disbelief at Soviet descriptions of America. But each time, I think about the exchange between Gorbachev and Michel, about our own narrow vision.
Some of it is as blatant as the headline in a British paper asserted: "Soviet Union Keeps the Worker in Chains." Usually it is more subtle. An ebullient Leningrad sociologist, Vladimir Lisovski, for example, tells me pointedly of his trip to America, and it echoes with my own experiences. As Lisovski left the New Jersey family he was visiting, he said to them, "You know, I am a communist." They said, "No, no, you are too jovial, too nice," and he repeated it until at last, impishly and provocatively, he said to them, "What do I have to do to make you believe me? Put a knife between my teeth?"
I suspect there are as many misconceptions as miles between the land of caves and the country of grates.