At midpoint of the two-week sports spectacular, Moscow's Summer Olympics have taken on a mesmerizing, precision life of their own in this subdued capital.
The Games have attracted enormous attention to the Soviet Union, as the leadership hoped and knew, and have glued a national viewing audience to its television sets virtually from the opening moment. In addition, more than two million Soviets themselves so far have actually attended at least one event, using tickets from their trade organizations and institutes, or bought cut-rate at several outlets in Moscow, including a small booth at Gorky Amusement Park. They all will have something to tell the grandchildren.
But for all the sheer drama and surging power of the competitions themselves, the enormous official hoopla and chest-thumping, and what for Soviets must surely be the gratifyingly frequent playing of their anthem at winners' ceremonies, there is something remote and disconnected about the Olympiad that makes it almost seem as if it is happening somewhere else.
Much of this disembodied quality is inherent in the Olympic setup itself: The athletes live separated from the city by an inconvenient bus ride and chain link fence. Foreign tourists, their numbers drastically thinned by the boycott and international tension caused by the Afghanistan invasion, are cloistered in hotels and dormitories webbed round by police who bar Russians from entry. Many of the foreigners are shunted to and from the events in convenient bus convoys, shuttled around to cultural events, and shown the hard currency shops where prices are far lower than in regular shops, the selection far superior, and from which Soviets generally are barred.
With the city reduced by about two million daily visitors, and untold hundreds of thousands more deliberately on holiday to avoid hassling, there is a certain forlorn quality to city life. Restaurants, normally bulging with a rich mix of Russians, wealthy Armenians and Georgians, and plenty of foreigners, now are frequently empty at lunch and dinner, and the shoving crowds of people trying to get past the obdurate old doorman -- a fixture of Moscow -- have evaporated.
Apart from the chilling presence of more than 200,000 uniformed and plainclothes police, the Soviets are keeping tight rein on the thousands of youngsters from institutes and colleges specially trained to assist the foreign press and tourists. One senior guide to a Western group here for the games reported how his Soviet boss warned of "certain consequences" if he accepted the man's invitation for luncheon out with some other western friends. "I went anyway," said the guide proudly. But that is the exception, not the rule.
Here is the rule Muscovites shy from talking to the few foreigners they do encounter. "Fear of foreigners is bred into us with the first drink of mother's milk," said one Muscovite in trying to explain this. But it is more than that.
Although the police presence has visibly declined since the first Olympiad days, it is a common sight to see two white-hatted cops gathered to check the documents of some hapless pedestrian in Central Moscow where foreigners are most likely to venture. It hardly seems coincidental that of half-a-dozen such incidents observed in the past two days, all those stopped were young people.
"We've seen plenty of foreigners," a young Moscow husband said today as he and his pregnant wife were out for a stroll with the in-laws.
"We couldn't go to any of the events," put in his wife, "not in my condition." Then she reflected on the opportunities for interchange the Games seemed to promise. "People should talke to one another," she said earnestly. But, it turned out, they hadn't. "We haven't talked to any of them," said her husband without a trace of regret.
Three young gas pipeline welders taking the sun on a handrail near the Kursk rail station said the Games had brought "a better mood to Moscow," with all the banners and flags, the strangers around, and the endlessly fascinating competitions themselves, which they had watched avidly on TV.
"Sure, we've seen foreigners," said one of the welders, who work in Norilsk, the northernmost city in Russian Siberia. But he and his friends, it happened, also hadn't talked to any of them. "We had no cause to," he said.
But if he did, he imagined, he would find them to be "common-sense people," just like himself, a solid family man with a wife and small daughter. And yet, he said, there was something important to say to these foreigners, especially to any Americans who might be in town despite the despised boycott: "We should make up our differences. After all, we are the world's two greatest powers."
As for the boycott, he said, he had listened to the Voice of America broadcasts about it being connected to the Afghan intervention and concluded, "I don't believe it. It's not for me to say the Soviet Union did something wrong." He paused and squinted in the sun. "We can't bother ourselves with understanding everything."
"Sport is sport," one of his friends intoned evenly, echoing Soviet propaganda, "and politics is politics. Only the U.S. athletes have lost and I feel sorry for them."
When repeated to some of Moscow's intellectuals, who have stubbornly stayed on in the city despite pressure from the authorities to leave for the summer, the docility of the Norilsk welders brings anguish. These people, writers, artista and scientists, who have spent years in subtle and sometimes raw contest with the authorities for greater freedom and usually lost, are appalled by the solemnity and security of the Moscow Olympics.
They remember, in vivid contrast, the last such giant gathering of foreigners here, the first International Youth Festival, when about 40,000 foreign students, a majority from the Communist bloc, Third World, or Western Socialist movements, came to Moscow for several weeks in the summer of 1957.
A translator remembers disobeying her mother to sneak downtown by Metro every night and listen to impromptu jazz concerts in the squares and parks, the first time live jazz had been publicly played in the country. She struck up a friendship with a Polish girl, she recalled, the first foreigner she ever met, and they promised to write each other. "Every letter I sent her cam back to me. It turned out no such address existed on earth. She certainly knew more about life than I did."
Another Muscovite of that generation remembers: "Such a time that was! Stalin had died four years before, Khrushchev had made the secret speech' denouncing him, our parents were returning from the concentration camps. It was a historic moment for our new generation of Soviet youth. There were completely open discussions around the exhibitions, on the streets, anywhere. It was a completely different atmosphere -- maybe anything seemed possible."
The writer paused and with a wry, utterly Russian grin, added, "Of course, it didn't turn out that way. It turned out this way."