Soviet creativity freed as doors to cells swing open

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 19, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The interpreter was talking about 75 years of Soviet abuse when they came to the cells. This is where they kept the political prisoners, she said, and then she motioned for Sue Sadowski to go in.

''Don't panic,'' said the interpreter, whose name was Elena Dragunova. ''I'm going to close the door behind you. I want you to get a sense of what it felt like.''

The cell was small and airless. Across the street was the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, where Peter the Great is buried. The irony was not lost on Sadowski: In the shadow of a church was this armory where dissidents were routinely locked away, many for the simple crime of expressing an idea.

When Sadowski emerged from the cell, Elena Dragunova gathered everyone around her.

''We should cry,'' she said softly, looking back at 75 years of bTC Soviet political darkness. ''But we love instead.''

For two weeks, Sue Sadowski says, she saw much in the Soviet Union to love, and also to cry over. Yesterday, she was back at her job at Villa Julie College, where she teaches accounting. She and 16 other People to People delegates -- it's a citizens' ambassador program founded by President Eisenhower -- went to the Soviet Union to explore business possibilities.

When they got there, in the very aftermath of the failed Soviet coup, history was being written at breakneck speed, but ordinary people were still living their lives in clunky slow motion.

''Incredible,'' said Sadowski, ''the amount of patience they have. They've had to tolerate so much for so long. Americans have no conception, the lack of basic necessities like food. The poor housing, the health facilities. The dental hygiene is dreadful.

''There's very little fresh produce that makes it to market. The people stand in line for dairy products, and there's a limited supply of milk and virtually no refrigeration. They were buying milk that was piled up and crated right on the city streets.''

In the Pyatigorsk area in the southern part of the Russian republic, the American delegates met with leaders of some of the new Soviet free enterprises.

''Which do you need more?'' the Americans asked. ''Money or technology?''

''We would never just take your money,'' a Soviet responded, and heads around the table nodded in agreement.

It was the same response in meeting after meeting: a tremendous show of pride and a firm refusal to take without giving back.

''They had no interest in handouts whatsoever,'' Sadowski says. ''They want business and cultural and educational exchanges.''

In Moscow, she said, almost no one owned a car, but almost anyone with American money could take cabs without financial concern.

''No one owns a car because no one could afford one. There's no financing for any consumer goods. There's no way to get credit for essential appliances. There's no real banking system.''

An American with dollars, however, could ride taxis forever.

''Maybe $10 or $15 for the whole day, and you could negotiate the price. The driver would stay with you. They'd take you wherever you wanted, and they'd stay when you got out. They were like hosts.''

They wanted the American dollars, as did street merchants. But the merchants are only permitted by law to deal in rubles, and with police patrolling the outdoor market, transactions had to be made quickly and quietly.

At Red Square, the Americans watched the changing of the guard and noted two flags flying side by side: the old hammer and sickle, next to the new white, red and blue stripes. The flags seemed to symbolize the nation's current split personality.

But the events of recent weeks were brought home most strongly at a stretch of road where fresh flowers were brought every day: The spot where four young men were killed trying to hold back the rumbling tanks that were the final death rattle of the old order.

''Until then,'' says Sadowski, ''we hadn't seen any graffiti anywhere. But on this side street in Moscow, near an overpass, somebody wrote in red paint the date of the killing. And day in, day out, people gather there. And visiting heads of state now come to the spot and lay wreaths there.''

Clearly, change in daily living will not come overnight in the Soviet Union. Will citizens, in their anticipation of new freedoms, expect too much too quickly and grow restive for the comforts, however meager, of the old system?

''No,'' Sadowski says, ''these people have desperately wanted freedom for a long time. That was very clear to us. They just would not tolerate going back to a strict communist regime.

''One of their business managers said, 'You people have had freedom for 200 years. We've never had the freedom to do anything but conceive of ideas in our head.'

''They see this as the chance to act on their creativity. Once they feel the release of this pent-up creativity and invention, immense strides are going to take place.''

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.