Old friends, unimagined visitors, talk of life in Moscow

A LETTER FROM BALTIMORE

December 09, 1990|By Hal Piper | Hal Piper,Hal Piper is editor of The Sun's Opinion-Commentary page.

We hated to put Nadya on the plane the other day, and not only because she was a good guest who fell into the family routine at the same time she enlivened it. We hated to send her back to Moscow as a hard winter approaches.

It's remarkable, of course, that she was visiting us at all. Nady was my family's Russian-language tutor in Moscow when I was The Sun's correspondent there in the late 1970s. At that time Soviet citizens could not travel. It was preposterous to think that some day she might spend a lovely, mild autumn in Baltimore County, day-tripping to Washington or the Inner Harbor or the Walters Art Gallery.

Much has changed in a dozen years. Last year we were conten to watch and rejoice as the Soviet empire collapsed. Who can forget Berliners, East and West, dancing, drinking, embracing on the wall as impotent border guards looked on, abashed, from their watchtowers? Who can forget Czechoslovakia's "velvet revolution" -- Vaclav Havel in Wenceslas Square gently promising that there need be no reprisals for 40 years of oppression, since the people's will had triumphed at last?

But this is 1990, and history has not ended in happily-ever-after. Lech Walesa in Poland turns out to be not only a Nobel Peace Prize winner but a demagogue and anti-Semite as well, or so his former friends insist. Romania got rid of the Ceausescus, but apparently not of dictatorship.

And there is unimagined freedom in Moscow, which permits ou friend Nadya to visit, but all the news from there is bad. Lately it was the army. Apparently, people have been mocking soldiers, desecrating military monuments, even threatening to cut off supplies of electricity and water to military bases.

The defense minister, Gen. Dmitry T. Yazov, said the armed forces would not put up with civilian disrespect, and he said he spoke with the full backing of Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Military coup coming? Or am I catching the Moscow disease rumor-mongering?

Nadya wasn't our only Soviet visitor this year. Leonid an Natasha and their daughter Xenia were with us in the summer -- he was the major domo when I was in Moscow, the man who could smooth the path through customs, or find a plumber, or produce tickets to the Bolshoi. Both Nadya and Leonid's family fear not only material hardship (which they are better insulated -- against than most Soviet families) but a complete breakdown of Soviet society.

Leonid worries about the accumulation of high-powere weaponry in private hands, and not just the Soviet equivalent of "Saturday night specials."

"On the black market," he said, "you can get anything from a machine gun to a rocket launcher."

Some of the firepower, he said, comes from soldiers who deserted during the failed Afghanistan campaign, and some from a series of break-ins at military arsenals all over the country.

"Why is it suddenly so easy to break into an army arsenal?" Leonid wondered. He speculated that it can only be because renegades inside the arsenals make it possible. This in turn could be because outlaw groups, arming for some future guerrilla campaign, are placing confederates in key locations. But Leonid is more inclined to suppose it is simple corruption, a symptom of the increasing demoralization of society: Soldiers looking out for No. 1 see a chance to make a little money.

Either way, if Leonid is right about the black market in weapons, one of the hitherto most tightly controlled societies in the world is becoming one of the most highly armed -- at the same time that it is slipping its social bonds.

Nadya has a different story. Bandits -- "mafia" is the term she uses, meaning organized bandits, not free-lance ones -- are stopping trucks laden with farm produce on the outskirts of Moscow. They give the driver a fair price for the potatoes or carrots or whatever he is carrying -- and direct him to dump the load into a ravine, "or burn it, or eat it, or whatever they want, so long as it doesn't reach the Moscow market."

The idea, Nadya said, is to sabotage the food supply in the Soviet capital -- to sow panic or undermine the government's legitimacy, or whatever the ulterior purposes may be.

The story reminds me of those oil tankers "they" were supposed to be keeping moored in the Atlantic off Ocean City to disrupt supply during the 1974 gasoline shortage in America. "No," said Nadya. "This is true. It was on television."

Russians are proverbial doom-criers and pessimists, but these Russians -- Nadya and Leonid's family -- used to be reasonably positive and cheerful when we knew them a dozen years ago. I can't say whether the stories they tell are true, but I'm impressed that they believe them.

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