In Moscow, the discovery of people like us

Anna Quindlen

August 22, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

New York -- I WENT TO the Soviet Union in 1987 with a group of American women. A delegation from the Soviet Women's Committee waited to greet us at the airport, just beyond the security kiosks. A guard noticed what I had not: that the dates of birth on my passport and my visa were different. He looked from one to another and I, an American child raised on Godless Communism nightmares and Red Menace movies, wondered whether I was in deep trouble.

Suddenly one of the Soviet women, the one we would come to love for her sly cynicism about the system, stepped forward with her clutch of ceremonial red carnations and barked out several sentences. The guard looked at my flawed papers one last time and then slowly handed them back. I had officially arrived in Moscow.

I felt as if I'd landed on Mars.

I felt that way often as I stood in line for old cranberries and carrots one day and carrots and older cranberries the next, as I heard stories of exchanging vodka and cosmetics for clean sheets in the hospital, as I visited college professors in a crumbling barracks of an apartment building, their perishables chilling on the window sills as mine had in my dorm days.

The everyday tales of the women I met in Moscow stunned me: the ubiquitous only children because the authorities would never assign an apartment large enough for more; the hours of grocery shopping because the stores were poorly stocked and reliable refrigerators scarce; the repeat abortions because the supplies of decent contraceptives constantly ran out. A poet poured tea in her apartment, the walls lined with books. The bathroom ceiling was falling in. "The apparatus does not work," she said, with an air of meaning more.

.` They were hoping for something

better then; "glasnost" and "perestroika" were just beginning to be catchwords, and letters critical of the government had started to pop up in newspapers, which made people scent possibility.

visitors already had something better; once we got past the paucity of comforts, the acceptance of economic failure, we discovered that our hosts were people like us.

We talked of our children, of women's liberation, of whether the Soviet Union was ready for democracy and whether America was as democratic as it thought itself. We complained of husbands who watched sports events and left wives all the work. The Soviet Union still seemed like Mars, but after eatingdinner in their combination living-dining (sometimes bed) rooms, its people no longer seemed like Martians.

Over the past three decades, a succession of square gray faceless nonocrats have come and gone in the Soviet Union, and we hardly noticed, in part because we believed they led square )) gray faceless people, whose most signal attribute was that they were essentially different from us.

But in the past few years, with glasnost, openness, Gorbachev, we learned something new, about essential similarities. We have seen the people of the Soviet Union hold beauty contests and fashion shows, jam into churches, listen to rock-and-roll bands, battle for independence, even go to the polls.

This week we watched Boris Yeltsin climb atop a tank to exhort an uprising, looking like a Chicago pol on the hustings. A wall of Muscovites linked arms, a human wall like the ones we have seen around the Washington Monument in other freedom fights. And the occasional com

rade walked by and said it was about time they threw the guy out.

Never are the differences between the Soviet Union and the United States clearer to an American child than when she wakes to find that one of the world's great leaders has been called in permanently sick by his opponents, with the help of tanks. Contraceptives, vegetables, apartments, economic hope -- all are still in short supply. A McDonald's does not a revolution make.

But the Soviet people changed, and so did we. They began to become people to us, with their struggles and their seemingly hopeless hopes, instead of ideology in a boxy topcoat, and that is one of many reasons we are riveted today by their continuing drama.

History is happening at this moment there. Because of the Gorbachev years, for many of us it is history with humanity. That alone is no small change.

A5Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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