2 young Russians recall their 1991 U.S. odyssey

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

August 05, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- In the summer of 1991, two young Russian men dared to take on a journey that would terrify most Americans.

With about $100 in their pockets and their hearts full of pluck, they stuck out their thumbs and hitchhiked across the United States.

They quickly got the hang of the country. (They returned to Moscow with more money than they had when they left.) And, to the astonishment of the Americans to whom they tell their story, not once were they beaten up and left for dead by the side of the road.

Two years later, the two men still bear the mark of their immersion into American culture. This, naturally, means that Stanislaus Kutcher, the organizer of the trip, has written a book about it. He has a publisher interested, and he's already giving book interviews in Moscow -- don't ever let anyone tell you Russians don't have an immediate and complete grasp of capitalism, including the nuances of advertising and promotion.

Stanislaus ("call me Stas") and his friend, Sergei Frolov, are reporters for the Moscow newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, which is oriented toward youthful readers. Stas, 19 at the time of the trip, persuaded his editors to buy the plane tickets and spring for the $100 in return for stories of a youthful odyssey across America.

Sergei, 31, had some doubts. "America of the '90s is not the America of the '60s, of the Kennedys," Sergei informed Stas. But Stas would have none of it. "Let's try it, let's try it," he said.

"Having only $100 inspired us to lecture and write along the way," Stas said. They returned with close to $200, and numerous acquaintances among local Kiwanis and Rotary clubs.

Stas already had met a number of American reporters and editors who had been to Russia on an exchange program, and he knew he could count on many nights on living room couches should he turn up, say, in Rugby, N.D.

They had all the obligatory tourist experiences. "We arrived in New York June 29, 1991," said Stas. "On the next night, we were mugged."

Like many travelers, they found as many of their preconceptions confirmed as dispelled.

"In North Dakota, we found the editor of the Grand Forks Herald had more books on Russian literature and philosophy than you would find in a Moscow home." (This was in the dispelling category.)

"Friends are not as important to Americans as they are to Russians," Stas said. (This was in the confirming category.)

The New York incident -- it was actually a robbery more than a mugging -- got them streetwise. "Instead of getting off the subway at 33rd Street for Penn Station," said Stas, "we got out on 14th Street." Faced with a mile walk, Stas suggested a taxi. "Give up your taxi thoughts," Sergei said. "You're not in Moscow anymore."

So they walked. "Imagine us hiking down the avenue, heavy backpacks, straps biting our shoulders. Ten to 15 minutes from Penn Station, Sergei heard someone demand his money. He understood the guy would take no interest in a lecture. He was ready to show him Russians are ready to fight like lions for their dollars. But there were five of them, and two of them had baseball bats.

"Thus we recalled the advice of American friends in Moscow who told us, 'Please have $20 with you. It's the price of a crack dose.' Sergei pulled out $20. 'Thank you, sir,' our muggers said. Of course all we did was look at each other and say, 'Welcome to America.' "

In North Dakota, they rode a hot air balloon. In Baltimore, they went to an Orioles game. "I don't know why you call it a game," Stas said, still puzzled two years later. "It was a lot of slow, inert movements. It was a whole bunch of people getting together to shout. And then when the game was over, they each got into their own car and left."

There is a readily understandable explanation for this odd reaction -- the O's lost.

The title of Stas's book will be "Where Are You Guys Going?" That was the question they heard constantly during their journey. "It's also a question to the American nation," said Stas, who thinks America could do with some more of the soul-searching Russians are famous for.

When the two got back home, they heard another question: "Why did you guys come back?"

"America is a great place to travel," Stas said, "but I sure wouldn't want to live there."

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