Cold War romance: Minsk, Pinsk, Minsk

June 04, 1995|By Lars-Erik Nelson | Lars-Erik Nelson,Special to The Sun

"Breaking Free; A Memoir of Love and Revolution," by Susan Eisenhower. 295 pages. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux. $23

As an 8-year-old, Susan Eisenhower was charmed by a friendly little man named Nikita Khrushchev, whom she met in 1959, when the Soviet Premier visited the Gettysburg, Pa., farm of her grandfather, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But her father, John Eisenhower, promptly deflated her enthusiasm for the rolly-polly stranger. If Russia invades America, he said, the Eisenhower family would be the first to be shot.

Susan Eisenhower grew up a creature of the Cold War, suspicious of everything communist, believing every horror story she ever heard about the far-reaching tentacles and all-seeing -- eyes of the Soviet regime. When she actually met Russians as an adult, she was so wary of being exploited - or wonderful Soviet term, "discredited" by mere contact with them - that she, the free American, was far more fearful than they about sharing political views, and far more timid about making normal human contact. And when, after two unhappy marriages and three children, she met the engaging Soviet space scientist Roald Sagdeyev, a Soviet Tatar 20 years her senior, she fell in love.

Sagdeyev threw himself at her, drowned her in flowers and, stroke of genius, told her he wanted to be sure that she was "taken care of." Eisenhower was thunderstruck. ". . . No man I had every been close to had said that he would feel better if I were 'taken care of,' " she writes. "His obvious desire to win my heart was also in stark contrast to the ambitious but afraid-to-commit men of Washington." In other words: Die, yuppie scum.

The improbable Eisenhower-Sagdeyev romance story plays out in Moscow, Washington, London, Paris and Stockholm against the background of the collapse of Soviet communism. Their love is woven into the last-ditch struggles and maneuverings of the dying regime. It is a charming story with hideaway apartments, Moscow kitchen-table soul sessions, teary farewells, suspense-filled separations and joyous reunions, but it must be carefully mined from the dross of the bureaucratic, semi-official Soviet-American comings and goings - citizens' seminars, conferences, gatherings - that Eisenhower relentlessly details.

Eisenhower's chief credential for this international hobnobbery appears to be her last name and her resulting far-flung U.S. connections. She was a Kennebunkport house guest of President and Mrs. George Bush. Did you know that George Bush has a younger brother named here only as Bucky? (His first name is William.)

In her final chapters, Eisenhower gives a good worm's-eye view of the collapse of communism, tense times for her husband and herself. But her self-absorption is cloying. When Soviet Communist party leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally blesses her marriage to Sagdeyev three months after the wedding, she writes: ". . . He was three months late. More than gratitude or irritation, we saw his gesture as symptomatic of his great and tragic flaw: He was sadly behind the events caused by the processes that he himself had unleashed."

Throughout her book, Eisenhower falls victim to the Soviet trait of mild paranoia: All coincidences are, aha!, highly significant. Enemies are constantly plotting. All phones are tapped. If a man says he is going to Minsk, he must really be going to Pinsk, but he would know that's what you would think, so maybe he is going to Minsk after all.

Eisenhower is not a great storyteller, and much of this book is heavy going indeed. But there is a fine story here. Hollywood may want to tell it better.

* Lars-Erik Nelson, Washington columnist for Newsday, has covered Washington politics since 1981, until 1993 as bureau chief for the New York Daily News. Before that, he was for many years diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, based in Moscow, Prague and London.

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