Encounters

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

One evening in Red Square I fell into conversation with a fellow stroller. We walked together down to the Moscow River. Set atop the Kremlin's several towers, massive red stars, made of artificial rubies, blazed forth. Pointing up, I remarked, "Krasniye, krasiviye"—"Red, beautiful"—two words that, significantly, have the same root in Russian. Without missing a beat, my acquaintance added, "I krovaviye"—"And bloody."

Her cheeks flushed with pride, the historian described to us how the Decembrists, 19th-century aristocratic revolutionaries, had brought learning and culture with them into exile to her beloved Irkutsk. "I saw the Donahue program that was beamed here recently. Americans don't understand Russian people. They think Siberia has prison camps, gulags. Well, it isn't true! There used to be, but that was in the time of the tsar. There are no exiles here now." I mentioned that Yuri Orlov had just been released from Siberian exile. And what about Anatoly Shcharansky? "I don't know those names. I have never heard of these men," she said, and coldly turned away.

I noticed something different about Ivan. Suddenly I looked down at his shoes. "Reeboks!" I exclaimed. The black leather sneakers set him subtly but indelibly apart from most Russians, whose footwear is of poor quality leather or vinyl. Western clothes simply aren't for sale—legally—in the U.S.S.R. "I traded for them," he laughed, meaning he had swapped something with a tourist. "My friends and I at the university talk English, listen to American music and read every American book and magazine we can get. We've formed a club.

"I have my Russian clothes—and L.L. Bean, Levi's and Land's End. You know, of course, that the only night clubs and discos in Leningrad are in the foreign hotels. Russians aren't allowed in. So my friends and I dress up in our American clothes. We walk up to the door. The KGB asks, 'What do you want in there?' We tell them in English, 'We're tourists. We left our hotel passes upstairs.' And we're in." "And what do you call your club at the university?" I asked. He replied, "The Pseudo-Americans."

We decided one morning to tweak our Communist guides, all confirmed atheists, on the subject of religion. Once we were seated at the breakfast table, we Americans bowed our heads in prayer. The Soviets looked startled and uncomfortable. Later that day one of our guides approached me. "That was very disrespectful, what you did this morning," he said angrily. As blandly as possible, I asked, "What do you mean?" "No one," he said, "should ever address God sitting down!"

Questions often heard in the U.S.S.R.:
1. Do you have to carry a gun in the U.S. because of crime?
2. Why do all Americans want war?
3. Is pornography sold everywhere?
4. How much do you make? How much is your rent?
5. As journalists, do you work for the CIA or for the government?
6. Do you live in fear of the FBI?
7. Have you ever hung any blacks? And one question harder to answer:
8. Why are there poor people living on the streets in America?

One of the many jokes about Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign: A man stands restlessly in an endless line to buy vodka. Finally he can stand the wait no longer. "Enough!" he cries. "I'm going to get my gun and shoot Gorbachev!" He stomps off. Hours later he returns, totally dejected. "Did you shoot Gorbachev?" another man asks. "No," he sighs. "You should see the line over there."

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