Working Freelance

A Soviet journalist builds bridges between East and West

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 27
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Andre Orlov’s profession as a free-lance journalist is quite unusual by Soviet standards, but he may be an indication of what is to come with the new Soviet generation. He lives in Moscow.

Diana: Could you start by telling our readers something about yourself?

Andre: I’m a journalist living in Moscow. I’ve been writing professionally for ten years. I’m a freelance writer — at least that’s how I explain what I do to Americans, although there is no such thing here. I’m a member of the Journalists Union of the USSR and write professionally for more than one newspaper, rather than being employed full-time by one.

I went to college at a chemical engineering school in Moscow for four years; that was enough for me. I decided I was not going to be a chemical enegineer, and I started writing for some newspapers while I was a student there. After that, I left my engineering education. I realized that the only thing I could do professionally to make my living was to write.

Diana: So you had no special training as a journalist.

Andre: No. And none of my friends who I consider to be really good journalists had it. Some of them had some night courses in journalism just to get a degree, to get positions as managers or editors in newspapers. But what usually happens is that someone starts writing and then they just offer you a job; education doesn’t matter.

Diana: What was your first story that was published? How did that happen?

Andre: Well, the first story was actually while I was at chemical engineering school. There was this story in Moscovski Komsomol, a Moscow newspaper for young people, which used to be a really good newspaper before they changed the editor. One morning I picked up the newspaper, and there was a story entitled "Confession of a Boy from the Labyrinth Bar." A young boy about our age wrote about how it’s no good just hanging around in a bar and using all this English slang, which was really popular with kids in Moscow at that time. We used English words and made it sound like Russian. He wrote about how much more interestingly one could spend his time in a library, and things like that.

My friends and I had been pretty wild and used to hang around the Labyrinth Bar. We were really mad at this boy’s story, me and my friend who also is a journalist now, so we wrote a reply, and that’s how our careers started. The name of our story was "Bar Labyrinth: So What?" It was about half a page (the whole paper was only four pages). The Bar Labyrinth is closed now, but it was a very popular bar in the Arbat Restaurant. We really didn’t go there to drink. We didn’t see anything bad in it. We wrote in that paper "OK, it’s much easier to spend the time at the Bolshoi Theater than at a bar" (knowing that at that time it was really hard for a 16-year-old kid to get tickets to the Bolshoi). And we wrote that the slang was not that bad, since it substituted for a lot of unprintable words in Russian. When we spoke it in English, it didn’t matter if the words mean the same; it became more like a joke. And then we said that there are some kids who don’t go to this bar, don’t wear western clothes (another issue), who drink cheap wine and get into trouble anyway.

We started it by saying, "We know that letters like this don’t get published." It was a trick, and three days later the letter was published with the editorial comment "Some people think that letters like this cannot be published." For our first three years at the newspaper, they called us "the boys from the Labyrinth." I felt like I was famous, and it was really important to me at that time, because I was a really bad student in chemical engineering. Later, a letter came to the newspaper saying, "Orlov and Vasilyev are too smart, and that’s why they’re dangerous." Can you imagine, being 18-years-old and picking up a newspaper that says you’re smart and dangerous? It was fun.

Diana: What year was it when you wrote that first article?

Andre: May 14, 1976. After that, I got kicked out of the chemical engineering school, not for the article, but for academic reasons, and my friend was too bored to stay there without me, so he left, too. I went to work for the newspaper. It was hard for people to understand this, because most people think that to be a journalist, it’s not enough to be able to write, that you have to have a degree, to show position and some connections, but it was easy for us to become journalists because the beginning was something a lot of people knew about; our names were recognizable.

Diana: Did they put you on salary?

Andre: No, I was paid by the line. The only time in my life I was paid a salary was when I worked for a short time as a technical translator from English into Russian for a construction company. I learned English at high school, in what they call a special school, where they taught geography and history and English. We had about 10-12 hours of English a week. After school I practiced my English and earned some extra money working as a tour guide for Sputnik, the Soviet Youth Travel Agency. It was a way to travel around my country cheaply, to take a group of Canadian or American or Australian schoolchildren around to Leningrad or to Riga. I did that for a while after I got out of school. Then I did two years of military service, and then I went back to Moskovski Komsomol and worked for them full-time and became a member of the Journalists Union. After awhile, I decided to work on my own, and now I write for newspapers like Izvestia, Sovietskaya Kultura, Sports in the USSR, and Soviet Union.

Sometimes I host a Saturday morning program called "Musical Globe" on National Radio, which is broadcast all over the country. I introduce people like John Denver to the Soviet public. I interviewed Paul Winter, and also the Middlebury College Russian choir.

Now I’ve started working on Moscow television. On the first show, I interviewed Charles Berrigan, an American pianist who participated in the Tchaikovsky International Competition. I also interviewed some Spanish dancers who appeared in "Carmen."

Diana: When did you first begin having contact with Americans coming here for what we call citizen diplomacy?

Andre: Well, three years ago I was working at Moskovski Komsomol, and I had an assignment to write a small article on a peace meeting of a group of American and Russian children in one of the clubs in Moscow. The group was brought here by Cindy Lazaroff, who is director of the US-USSR Youth Exchange Program and a good friend of mine since that day. I wrote a longer story than I had been assigned to write, and I called it "A Lesson for Californians." Cindy had developed a packet of information for school children which taught something about the Soviet Union, some language, some songs, some political science, some history. She had spent a lot of time here teaching in Soviet schools in Moscow and Leningrad, and she did a really good job on the packet. It made a difference.

The next group of kids Cindy brought was for the Mt. Elbrus Caucasus trek. They were going up Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, a group of American and Soviet high school children. And I decided to go there with them, so I got an assignment from Komsomolskaya Pravda which paid my way there. I’d never been to the mountains before. I didn’t know what it was like, and that’s the only reason I survived the experience, because I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.

They gave me the name of the hotel, very close to Mt. Elbrus, and I thought I’d go and have some fun there, down south on the border of Russia and Georgia: hotel beer, shashlik, shishkabob. When I went to meet Cindy and the kids, they told me they had already gone up the mountain. They told me to just follow this path for a couple of miles, and I’d find them. But the guy who told me that was a professional mountain climber and guide. For him, anything less steep than vertical would be horizontal. It was the hardest couple of miles of my life, because I was dressed the way I was in Moscow, with blue jeans and ordinary shoes. So I got there with no sleeping bag, no backpack, just a pack of cigarettes and two bottles of beer. I started at 10 in the morning and finally got to their camp at 6 that night, not knowing the way up. But the moment I arrived and wanted to rest, I realized that they were taking down the tents to go back! One of the American guys was temporarily snowblind, so it was a good thing that I didn’t have a bag to carry, because I carried his backpack and the tent he had carried up.

I spent some time interviewing the Russian and American children about what it’s like to be there in the middle of nowhere, with no borders and no national flags.

Diana: So you’ve met a number of people who have come here for interesting reasons.

Andre: Yes. And I don’t just write stories. I’ve shared my feelings with them about Soviet-American relations. I spent some time with John Denver and told him different things, like the Legend of the Golden Dolphin. He got really interested in it.

Diana: Can you tell us?

Andre: It’s too long. It’s a legend that says that people can be free and independent and still strong as a group. Like a dolphin pod, doing whatever they feel like doing. Not just doing anything they want to do, but being as playful and as honest and as friendly as dolphins are, sharing this kind of dolphin good energy. That’s what it’s all about. The legend is more complicated and has a lot of dreaming in it. It connects dolphins with the symbols in the major religions, with Islam, Christianity, Egypt, and with primitive cultures like the Dogon in Africa, who have some connection with the star Sirius and knew about its having two moons before the second one was discovered with telescopes.

Diana: Where does this legend come from?

Andre: It comes from Australia, from Peter Shenstone. He lives in America now. It was shared with me by a friend of Peter’s, Gigi Coyle. Peter had said that, for some reason, John Denver was to be involved in the unfolding of the legend. It’s not written down; it’s only spoken. And I am one of the carriers of it now. People shared it with me, and I share it with other people. The legend first came to Peter while he was meditating.

Diana: You describe the dolphin legend and the way the dolphins have total freedom of individual movement but also know that their life is with the pod. What significance do you think that has for people in general and specifically for citizen diplomats?

Andre: One thing I know that I experienced on the Black Sea is that even if there are no dolphins around and I’m sitting on the beach in front of the sea, I know for sure that there are dolphins in the sea. The connection is there whether I see them or not. And what that has to do with Soviet-American relations is that every river goes into the same big ocean system. And it’s said that the oceans separate the countries, the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other. But actually, the water connects us. You put your hand into the water on the Soviet side and someone puts their hand in the water on the American side, and you’re connected by this water.

Diana: I think the dolphin pod is a great image, because it describes a way of behaving that is being completely yourself and also acknowledging that you’re completely connected. It’s interesting to me the that the legend came from an Australian, and here I am hearing it from a Soviet citizen. And it seems to me that what I’m learning about being human from coming to the Soviet Union has to do with understanding our human connections, especially our connections with the group. As an American, I’ve learned about being the best individual I can be, but I haven’t learned as much about being the best I can be as part of the whole human family. And my sense is that Soviet people understand a lot more about the life of the group. Can you say some more about that?

Andre: If you love someone, you have to expect that not everything they do is supposed to be done in your group. You accept it and realize that the bigger thing is more important. You might still want to spend your whole life with this person, being married. But we have to spend all our lives with all people, if we don’t want war. In a way, we’re all married. A marriage consists of many things that got added in through history and each one’s personal story. Do I want to change you or 200 million other Americans? Do you have the right to change me? Do you love me enough to accept me as I am as a part of this group of the whole?

Diana: When I first came here, the things I noticed were how much alike we are; I noticed all the similarities. Each one was like a really pleasing surprise. Now, as I come here more and more, just as in a relationship or a marriage, I’m beginning to feel more and more comfortable about expressing the things that I see differently from people here. At first, I didn’t feel safe doing that.

Andre: You didn’t feel safe because you didn’t know what the differences were, just that something was strange and unknown, but after learning about things, after testing and probing the relationship, you realize that the more difficulties the other person has that you can accept and live with, the stronger you are and the stronger the connection is.

Diana: And now it’s becoming even more exciting, because now we can get down to the real differences and find out what we really agree and disagree about.

Andre: You cannot help someone if you don’t know what the difficulty is. And you will never know if the person doesn’t trust you. He won’t speak about his problems. This happens in human relationships all the time. One person pretends nothing has happened, but inside a lot of things are going on, and it only gets worse. That’s what happens when we don’t get information about one another and don’t share our beliefs.

Diana: Or our feelings about something that happened.

Andre: Everyone traveling has some questions, but some people are really open to the answers, some people think they know them already, and some people don’t want to learn. This makes for a lot of difference in the experiences they have. And some connections are stronger and easier to make in a strange country than in your own home, if you want to make them.

Diana: One of the things we’ve noticed coming here was that we spend two weeks here with open minds and open hearts, and we talk to all sorts of people, anybody who’ll talk to us. Then we go home, and we’re still in this attitude, and we see our own place through new eyes. We realize how closed we usually are, and we start thinking about being more open with each other. We get practice here having open minds. Then we feel less judgmental, even at home. I could feel a real difference in myself. I saw opportunities I never saw before. And I think our presence in the Soviet Union makes that possible for Soviet people, too. Sometimes we are the connection between Soviet people that never would have connected otherwise. So deepened connections develop in many directions over time with this contact.

Andre: Yes, but if you remember this dolphin thing, actual physical contact is not necessary in this kind of a relationship. It’s very important, but not all the people can do this, so let some come here and touch a Russian, hug a Russian, so that someone who doesn’t have a chance to do that will feel it through them, like with the hundredth monkey, without knowing it.


CONNECTION

by Bob Hellrung

This is not a case of
Mistaken identity.

We are as special
As we suspect.

We are privileged to be
Each other’s confirmation.

We are kindred spirits,
On the same journey.

Close enough on the path
To share our footfalls.

Elevated by the conviction that
We’re all connected as kin.

Grounded by the reality that
Many feel differently.

Inspired by the potential of a
Common, caring consciousness.

Humbled by the awareness of how
Much we continue to learn.

Carried by the realization that
We can positively influence others.

Heartened by the fact that
We have found each other.

Convinced that nothing is stronger
Than the power of love,
Especially when
Collectively voiced.

We are
Committed to nourish our
Connectedness

And to further our
Common ideals.

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