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October 03, 1971 - Image 4

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1971-10-03

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Number 48 Night Editor: Sara Fitzgerald

Sunday, October 3, 1971







THERE WAS no reason to believe
this day would be unlike any oth-
er. Rising early, the young American
began her regular routine: first a
quick breakfast, then four hours of
classes at the university, another
,meal, and an excursion perhaps. In
the evening she would meet her friend
Vanya, study, and go to bed. For five
weeks she had been staying in Lenin-
grad, and with only one week remain-
ing of her stay, she could already
hear her teachers reminding her class
about upcoming tests.
Already dressed, she paused to view
the panorama visible from her third
story window. Before her flowed the
Neva in customary stillness, reflect-
ing the light of the advanced mid-
summer's sun. A few hundred yards
away, across the river, she could
make out the pastel, statue-laden
outline of the Hermitage. Now a fam-
"bus museum, it had once housed tsar
Nicholas II, whose fall in October,
1917, marked the. start of a new era.
On either side, however, the scene
along the horizon gave little indi-
cation of time's passage. The pre-
revolutionary buildings still stood,
made old only by the cars,
trucks, b u s e s and streetcars that
moved within their shadows.
On the sidewalk below stood ano-
ther pre-Revolutionary remna'nt in
dark, baggy clothing, hunched over
a broom made of twigs. Together,
there are millions of these old wo-
men, and their lives preserve a legacy
of a war whose results here had been
covered very i'ttle by time.
Seeing them reminded the girl that
twenty million Russians died in that
holocaust from which the nation still
had not fully recovered. But somehow
she knew she could never fully un-
derstand the war and the effects it
had had on this culture. For there
was everywhere in this cultre a mys-
tery she had not been able to pierce.
ofthe 150 Americans in her group,
had been surprised by much of what
they saw here, even though they were
as well prepared as any American
could be for their trip. They were
students of the Russian language and
Soviet culture, and so no great shock
had accompanied their arrival in the
Soviet Union. Rather, they found
their impressions somewhere between
the two poles of propaganda they had
regularly been exposed to,
They were neither in a land of
equality and harmony, nor in one
filled with fear. The standard of liv-
ing here was lower than in the West,
but considerably higher than just a
few years ago. Yet it was not for
these general impressions that these
people had come in the first place.
Instead, the aim of the 150 was to
live the life of Soviet students, and
to understand on a day to day basis
all that had been misunderstood by
their Western contemporaries for so
long. But somehow this was not to
For the students had never really
been allowed to live the life of nor-
mal Soviet students, and thus, it was
only in brief and often startling
flashes that they received their in-
sights into Soviet culture..
SOON THE GIRL joined the stream
of her co-students walking across
the bridge toward the stolovaya-the

dining hall, where all had their meals.
This morning's menu was one of her
favorites: kasha (a porridge made
from rice), tea, potatoes and a jelly-
filled turnover. At breakfast the stu-
dents discussed rumors that "sec-
onds" were no longer being served
due to thievery on the part of the
stolovaya's director.
"I was talking to this guy the oth-
er day who waas telling me the three
biggest problems in the Soviet Union
are alcoholism, thievery, and laziness
on the job," offered one student.
"Who was the guy?" she countered.
"Oh, just a black marketeer who
wanted to buy my jeans."
But the incongruity of the ex-
change did not strike the trio as it
conversed over breakfast. The stu-
dents had simply been approached
too often by Leningradites interested

shbi-house of friendship. Unfortu-
nately, Sputnik had forgotten that
most of Leningrad's students were
out of town for the summer, working
on stroiki, or youth work projects, so
when we arrived at the well-preserv-
ed former palace, the "get acquaint-
ed dance" turned into nothing more
than lengthy addresses from local no-
"They were followed by student
musicians, whisked on and off with-
out a word of contact with the audi-
ence. There were, howover, a few
"real" students present and among
them we found Shenye and Sergei.
We then became acquainted as our
hosts played old Aretha Franklin re-
"Shenye and Sergei live with two
other students (all are involved in
the physical sciences) in one of the

The young men would try to demonstrate their worldliness
with a show of elan, hopefully gaining access to western
pop music records in the process. Their older counterparts
realized American visitors provided their only chance to get
something nice from America, and became almost beggars.
Both groups, she thought, have opinions of America as far
from the truth as those of their government.

in "doing some bizness" over the Am-
ericans' western clothing.
Such is not to say that these con-
cerns were the only topics discussed
at breakfast that morning. There
were homework assignments and gos-
sip of a more mundane sort. And soon
everyone's attention was immersed in
a story about a birthday party, given
an American by some Russian s t u-
dents the night before.
rgJHE AMERICAN, who had been the
guest of honor, told his story:
"We became acquainted with She-
nye and Sergei almost in spite of
ourselves. Sputnik, the Soviet youth
travel agency, had arranged a meet-
ing between us, and a group of So-
viet students at the local Dom Dru-

older dormitories at Leningrad State
University. It's quite hard to deter-
mine the oldest, since all date from
before the Revolution and have var-
ious histbries. They appear no differ-
ent from the dozens of old, massive,
thick-walled apartments scattered in
that area of the city.
"When we arrived there, we walked
into a small dark vestibule at the end
of which sat an old woman by a rack
of keys and a rack for holding the
inhabitant's passports. Every Soviet
citizen must have a passport con-
taining all the pertinent informa-
tion about him. In this case, the rack
served to hold students' passports
while they were in their rooms. Only
when a student left the building did
his passport leave its place.

"This surprised me. The closest I
had come to such controls before was
with the library cards issued to us
for which our pictures were taken.
Though I never had occasion to use
the libraries for which the card was
intended, I knew of one curious stu-
dent who was refused when he at-
tempted to use his card.
tions,,Shenye, leader of his local
komsomol group, led the group of
Russians and Americans upstairs, our
arms full of breads, wines and vodka.
"Slogans and pictures of Lenin de-
corated the dank stairwells. The
wooden bannisters were in need of re-
pairing and, at the top, a lone light
bulb guided our way down the corri-
dor past what our noses told us must
be the jon. Their room seemed aw-
fully crowded. Two bunk beds side
by-side in a corner, table, chairs,
bookcases and a ceiling that seemed
like it was twenty feet over our heads.
"While we had been quick to criti-
cize our dormitory for being, scarce
in hot water and not having proper-
ly equipped toilets, we suddenly real-
ized it was considerably better than
average at the second most prestig-
ious university in the Soviet Union.
"Securing glasses and the ever-pre-
sent corkscrew, we warmed to the op-
portunities of our repast. Each bot-
tle became the vehicle for a suc-
cession of toasts: to international
friendship, to my health, and to
I wanted to know more about how
Sergei, who was respected as a bril-
liant student of mathematics,
thought. In return I was trying to
explain why I thought Soviets could
never get an accurate view of Amer-
ica with a controlled press - that
things weren't quite as bad as the
Soviet press depicted. Sergei was re-
ceptive to the argument, and said he
heard that Ramparts was run by
Maoists, whom he severely criticized.
"'Just one question,'" said Sergei,
half in earnest. 'When will the re-
volution be?'
"'Next year,'" I said as seriously as
I could. We all laughed.
THE MONOLOGUE ended, and with
breakfast complete, the group set
out for class.
The afternoon passed uneventfully
for the American, adding to the ted-
ium of the day's strict Soviet-style
classes. She was bored, and it made
her think of that morning's conversa-
It seemed to her there were really
two types of 'Soviet youth. The first
group, including people like Shenye
and Sergei, was cultured and self-as-
sured. The second, however, was not

tourists from western nations for
bubble gum, jeans, and button-down
shirts. Five years behind the times,
but desperately wanting to be cur-
rent, they became slavish, is some-
what apologetic, copiers of western
In a way she found it quite un-
pleasant to meet these refugees from
Soviet culture. The young men would
try to demonstrate their worldliness
with a show of elan, hopefully gain-
ing access to western pop music re-
cords in the process. Their older
counterparts realized American visit-
ors provided their only chance to get
something nice from America, and
became almost beggars. Both groups,
she thought, have opinions of Amer-
ica as far from the truth as those of
their government.
SHE WAS NOW BACK in her room.
Her train of thought was sud-
denly interrupted by a call from out-
side her door. It was another Ameri-
can from her group, asking if she-had
remembered her promise to go to the
Alexander Nevsky graveyard today,
accompanying the caller on the 20
minute bus ride to the graves of
some of the most famous people in
Russian literature and music. It was
too late to refuse.
Within the estimated time t h e y
were outside the entrance of t h e
graveyard and waiting with a large
group of Ukranian tourists. When the
group learned of the nationality of
the two new arrivals, it crowded
around them and stared while a dis-
cussion ensued between the self-ap-
pointed representatives of the groups
and the Americans.
One man, as it turned out, was a
World War II veteran who emotion-
ally voiced his hope for world peace.
Explaining that much of his family
was killed or injured during the war,
he expresed the fervent hope that
the United States might help the
world avoid such catastrophies. How
odd, she thought, that people being
governed by the U.S.'s chief political
opponent should express such an un-
usually strong pro-American senti-
Perhaps it could be explained sim-
ply as an adverse reaction to the
Soviet Union's unremitting propa-
ganda campaign against the U. S.
government. This would be particu-
larly true in cities frequently by tour-
ists -- like Leningrad and Moscow -
where the contradiction between de-
grading Soviet propaganda and the
wealthy appearance of Western tour-

ists lends little credence to the gov-
ernment's view.
But for these rural people, living in
areas with few contacts with the
West, the explanation was probably
much simpler. For their ideas h a v e
simply failed to keep up with t h e
times, and in their anachron-
istic view, America is still the mythi-
cal land of riches that spurred Euro-
pean immigration at the turn of the
BY THIS TIME, dusk was approach-
ing, and 'the girl remembered that
soon she would meet Vanya and they
would go shopping. Several stores
near the outskirts of town would be
their destination, but it would be one
they would never reach.
Getting off the tramway at the ap-
pointed stop, there would be a car
ready to take Vanya into custody for
questioning. Two days later, Vanya
would come to see her at the dorm,
saying he couldn't see her any more
and refusing to say what happened.



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