USSR Journal

Notes from a first visit to the Soviet Union

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 16
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Molly Young Brown is a writer and counselor whose primary focuses are psychosynthesis and the psychology of peace. She lives in Fairfax, California. In May of 1986 she went to the Soviet Union as part of a group of women on a peace mission; what follows are excerpts from her journal of that experience.

LENINGRAD

May 1

We go to see the May Day demonstration: thousands and thousands of ordinary folks, all strolling along in a throng, smiling, talking, waving. They carry flags, portraits of Lenin and other Soviet heroes, banners proclaiming peace and friendship. One child rides on his father’s shoulders, hugging his head, rubbing his curly hair. Such affection and love! Not one of these must suffer at our hands–not one of these!

May 2

Our excursion this morning is to the Piskariovskaya Cemetery. This is where the victims of the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II are buried. Over 600,000 people died of starvation. We go out and see the mass graves, stretching out in all directions, each with a headstone with the year. I choose to lay my flowers by one of the markers of 1942, because I was born in safety and plenty that year. There is no hatred here, even of the Nazis, only sorrow and appreciation of the heroism of these people. We in the United States have no comparable experience in this century of the agonies of war on our own soil.

MOSCOW

May 7

We have a meeting with Joseph Goldin. He is introduced as the "ultimate dreamer" who has set up space bridges between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. He also was instrumental in getting Alcoholics Anonymous into the Soviet Union. He is especially caught up with the A.A. project because he sees the seriousness of alcoholism in both countries. Through his contacts, he was able to set up meaningful contacts between American A.A. members and the Sobriety Club in Moscow. As these people shared their experiences with each other, something very wonderful happened: a sense of unified purpose and hope to be offered to the people in both countries suffering from this disease. He is currently working on a project to have a global New Year’s party with two billion people celebrating sobriety.

May 11

Answers to Some Important Questions

We have a dinner meeting at the National Hotel, where Vladimir Pozner will speak with us. Pozner is an electrically attractive man, intelligent and urbane. He was raised in New York by his Russian father and French mother, so he speaks English just like we do. It is a relief to be able to talk with someone without constantly thinking about one’s choice of words.

In response to a question about the possibilities of real peace in the world, Pozner says he doesn’t experience a lot of hope for peace these days; it is time to hang tough. There are powerful reactionary forces which are in the way; the Summit at Geneva doesn’t seem to have paid off in any way.

Someone asks about the mood in the country regarding Gorbachev. The people want the economy moving, he says, and Gorbachev is trying to do that. People here are rather stubborn, he notes. They cannot be easily led into something they don’t believe in. The nation is waiting for results; they support the government efforts but think it is happening too slowly. "We know what we have to do; the problem is how to do it. Socialism won’t work without the man on the street, but we are coming from a history of autocracy where the common man had no heritage of being active. We have to change the outlook of generations."

He speaks of the anti-Bolshevik fears and animosity which existed in the West from the very start of the socialist revolution. The primary tenet of socialism is that private property is immoral; this is a direct threat to capitalism and is seen as such. This is the basis of American hostility towards the Soviet Union. A parallel level of anti-Americanism doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union. The basic difference between the two systems is in who owns property.

There is hope in human contact, which allows us to break out of our stereotypes of each other. We’ve dehumanized one another, and that creates grave problems.

Someone asks when Soviet citizens will be able to travel freely in the Western world. Pozner says the first problem is money, the lack of hard currency. The ruble would have to become hard currency. But the Soviet Union doesn’t want to become part of the international monetary system because that would make the Soviet economy dependent on the world economy, which is dominated by capitalism. There is also a very real fear that the capitalist countries would use this avenue to destroy the economy of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, there has been a history of American CIA agents trying to get Soviet visitors to defect. Pozner calls this "harassment." The government doesn’t feel that its citizens are really safe when traveling in the United States.

On Afghanistan, Pozner says simply that the Soviet Union would like to get out of that situation. They felt they had to support the failing regime; perhaps with the change in leadership happening now, there will be a way out.

Someone asks a tactfully phrased question about the refusniks. Why are they prevented from leaving? Well, in some cases, there is fear for national security, as with scientists who have secret knowledge. There are also cases where some bureaucrat or other uses his position to get even with someone. More understanding of the situation will help. Emigration has always been a political issue in Russia. Jews have fled pogroms through the ages. After the revolution, people sought to leave in protest against it. During the war, there were German collaborators who naturally wanted to leave. Moreover, Russia is traditionally anti-Semitic; Jews have always been scapegoats. There is fear, too, that a Jew may put his loyalty to his Jewish culture ahead of his loyalty to his country. To the man on the street, anyone who wants to emigrate is a potential traitor. This is reinforced by the Western applause for each emigrant; Westerners tend to use every emigrant or defector as proof that the Soviet Union is a terrible place to live. There are things which happen to people who apply to emigrate which are not justified by law: firings, refusals, emigrants not being allowed to come back. "We are still a young society," says Pozner. "People are not sure of themselves" and may overreact.

In closing, Pozner responds to a question about how we can build more bridges between our countries. He suggests using television, lectures, and interviews as a way of increasing communication and understanding between the USA and the USSR.

May 12

Visiting A School

I go with a group to visit a secondary school which specializes in English. The school is set in a large park area between several high-rise apartment buildings. Most of the children attending the school live in those buildings. We are welcomed and ushered through the lobby into the principal’s office. The lobby wall is painted with a blue design featuring the words "peace" and "friendship" in many languages. The principal greets us through an English teacher who serves as interpreter. The principal looks like the archetypal American principal in manner and dress.

The school system is outlined for us. Children attend preschool and kindergarten until they are seven; then they begin the ten years of "secondary school." In the first three grades, one teacher is responsible for each classroom group, as in our primary education. The curriculum for these grades includes Russian, math, nature studies, drawing, physical training, and stories about the history of the Soviet Union. The fourth through tenth grades are equivalent to our junior and senior high school, and the children move from class to class for different subjects. Physics is introduced in the sixth grade, chemistry in the seventh, and political science in the eighth. Foreign language study is begun in the fourth grade, although in a specialized school like this one, English training begins in the second grade. After eighth grade, the students may choose to remain in secondary school, which is academic and college preparatory, or attend a three-year vocational/technical school and earn a professional certificate.

The school term runs September through the end of May, with three 2-week recesses. June is set aside as an examination period and for field trips and gardening projects. During the summer, most children attend Pioneer camps under the sponsorship of their parents’ trade unions.

There are 50 specialized secondary schools in Moscow, available to children in the district who show special interests and/or promise in various subjects such as science, math (and now computers), music, art, foreign language. Nineteen of these schools specialize in English. They are not elite; they simply enroll students from the housing blocks nearby.

Students begin their study of English in second grade here. "Language is a way of broadening one’s way of thinking," the principal tells us. "We need language in our modern world, in technical schools as well as in the higher professions. Foreign language studies increase contacts between peoples of different countries."

"Our children know American children rather well," the principal informs us. Their International Friendship Club sponsors various friendship projects. Two years ago, a group of American children spent three days at this school and visited the Soviet students in their homes as well. Most recently, a group of children from Garden City, New York visited this school.

We are given over to a group of tenth graders for guided tours of the school. I am nearly grabbed by a couple of boys who look about the age of my younger son. Sure enough, they are 16 and 17 and very pleased to hear about my son. They want to know right away what his favorite rock groups are, and they tell me theirs. They are quite likable, earnest yet playful. I try to find ways to tease them a bit, although their grasp of English doesn’t always allow them to get my jokes. At one point, one of them gravely asks me, "Do you struggle for peace?" I tell him I do, and he asks how. I try to explain my work in exploring the psychological dynamics of peace, but I am not sure he understands. I have heard the term "struggle for peace" before and wonder what it connotes to the Soviets who use it.

They show me into several classrooms; in each one, as I enter, the children all stand until told to resume their seats by their teacher. They are very well-behaved, and their eyes dance with life. After a while, we join the others in the auditorium for a play performance by some kids about 10 to 12 years old. It is very sweet, with a peace theme (like everything else!), and it is performed entirely in English. Afterwards, my student guides and I talk some more, and I have them record a message on my tape recorder for my son. I also write down the names of some Soviet rock groups they recommend, which I will try to find records of to take home to my son. We go back to collect my things at the principal’s office and then say goodbye. I have really enjoyed my visit and my young friends and feel very good about Soviet schools. Clearly, others in my group have made similar connections with their student guides; it is almost a tearful departure.

An Evening Out

In the evening, four of us pay a visit to Olga, who shares her apartment with her aged grandmother. Ilya is Olga’s boyfriend. When we arrive, we are introduced to Yuri and Mikhail, who is represented by Ilya as the most dedicated Marxist in the Soviet Union. They appear young; when I ask, they give their ages in the late 20s and early 30s. We are also introduced to the grandmother; someone has told me how, when she visited the other day, the grandmother brought out newspaper articles about the Challenger crash which she had saved. She wanted to express her sorrow about that tragedy to these Americans. I give her some knitted booties, for which she is very grateful.

While the table is being set, Enid asks Mikhail how Stalin is handled in the schools. That gets us right into the thick of things, setting a kind of friendly "no holds barred" tone to the evening.

Soon we are seated around the table. None of the men speaks much English, so it is up to Olga, the English teacher, to translate. This adds more life to the discussion, for often she disagrees with what one of the men says and argues with them in Russian instead of translating. After a while, we almost don’t need the translation, for the energy of the interaction communicates a great deal.

Mikhail and Yuri, and to a lesser extent Ilya, believe so strongly in Marxism that I come to appreciate the values and principles behind it. They believe we have been given a very distorted picture of Soviet socialism in the American press. They experience the Western animosity against the Soviet Union which Pozner mentioned last night and don’t really understand it. Here they are trying to conduct this grand experiment, and all they get is criticism from the West. Everyone in America seems to think it is still like Stalin’s time over here. That just isn’t so.

One controversial topic is Afghanistan. The young men seem to feel that the Soviet Union had no choice but to offer military aid to the Afghan government. They were asked 14 times, says Mikhail, before they agreed to help. They believe that the CIA fomented the civil war there. Olga doesn’t agree; she thinks they have no business there and that CIA involvement is not that great. I remark that the United States held the same attitude towards Viet Nam that the Soviet Union holds toward Afghanistan. The parallels are striking. Everyone is in agreement, however, in hoping that the Soviet Union pulls out soon.

One of the men asks us what we think is best about living in the United States, as compared to the Soviet Union. We answer almost in unison, "personal freedom." They seem taken aback by this response; what do we mean by that? When we name some of the freedoms we have, they agree that they would like them, too, but they believe it is only a matter of time until they have them. The revolution moves slowly, but surely. Someone asks Olga if she is restricted in what she can teach in the schools; she says she wouldn’t think of saying anything critical of the government at school, although she holds some such opinions privately. Yuri defends this, asking if teachers in America can advocate the overthrow of the government. Enid points out that we have an "overthrow" every four years, through elections. I say that the only restriction on a national level would be against advocating the "violent" overthrow of the government, although there might be local social pressure against expressing certain opinions in the classroom.

Both Mikhail and Yuri are concerned about the materialism and greed of the West, where people put personal gain above the welfare of the collective. I agree that this is a problem and speak of trends I see in the other direction, such as voluntary simplicity and the Hunger Project. Mikhail dismisses these as being like someone who has gotten rich by exploiting others and gives back some of his ill-gotten gains in order to appear generous. It strikes me that Mikhail has this image of robber baron-type capitalists getting fat off the underpaid labor of the masses. I try to counteract this impression, noting that most Americans are middle class and have earned their money through their work, just like most Soviets. I wonder if he hears me.

At some point when Olga is protesting something one of the men has said, one of them puts her down as an emotional woman. She translates this for us, and we launch into a discussion of men and women, rationality versus emotionality. It is clear to me, at least, that an ideology such as Marxism goes astray because it is an idea, very mental, and does not allow for the wisdom of the emotions. I offer the psychosynthesis theory that when emotions are repressed, they affect the mind unconsciously, so that our ideas are in fact emotionally determined. Mikhail and Yuri are pretty determined to hold their positions of the superiority of the mind, but Ilya is willing to recognize the value, not only of the emotions, but of the feminine perspective.

We talk until past midnight. We have challenged each other’s prejudices and assumptions about the others’ system and everyone seems to feel good about the exchange. Somehow, there was never any animosity or threat in our lively discussion, at least not between the Americans and the Soviets. I suspect Olga may harbor some resentment against the rather rigid opinions of these men. At one point, she comments to us that they are still young; she has lived longer and experienced more, so she is not so idealistic as they.

I have been vastly nourished by the evening. It has been like coming home to be able to talk at such a level of honesty and candor with people who truly believe in the Soviet system and yet are clearly not in the highly privileged class. I am left with a perspective on the Soviet Union which is far more positive and forgiving than the one I had before. I see that the Communist Party, at its best, is attempting to build a society based on values and principles which I can admire. The Soviet Union is a grand experiment: can a people, through education and social conditioning, be brought to a place of optimal collective morality? Can a society be created and maintained based on values of economic and political equality, collective responsibility, cooperation, and sharing? I certainly cannot fault these values. I only differ in my opinion as to how those ends can be met. I believe in "natural evolution" and am highly suspicious of anything managed by "rational" man. I differ with the atheistic perspective which recognizes no higher wisdom than that of the conscious human mind. I do believe it is better to muddle through, the way we do in the United States, than to try to control and manipulate people "for their own good." On the other hand, I see that, for all their ideology and theory, the Soviets basically muddle through, too. They are also part of the evolutionary process in which we all participate. They are making a contribution to progress as much as we are. Together we can find a synthesis of optimal good for the planet; in opposition, we threaten to blow it all up. We Americans can begin by giving them the respect and honor they deserve, by listening to their point of view, by acknowledging their values and perspectives. When we do, as we did around the table tonight, we can ask the hard questions, challenge what seem to us to be faulty assumptions, offer a different approach, all in an atmosphere of mutual caring and respect. If we ordinary citizens can do it so easily, I believe that our leaders can do it, too.

May 14

We climb in our buses for the final trip to the airport. I feel sad to be leaving; at the last minute,I jump off the bus and gather a handful of earth. I know I want to return here to this beautiful, mysterious land.

We board our flight to Helsinki. There we are taken to the Hotel Presidentti. Many of us walk to a church near our hotel which is carved out of the granite hillside. I sit for a long while absorbing the peace and space. I feel renewed and released from some kind of tension. And yet, I also feel like I’ve just left a lover.

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