LETTER FROM KIEV ON HIROSHIMA DAY
The day before yesterday, I stood on the sidewalk of a shaded boulevard and ate two ice cream cones. Not remarkable. For most people, it will be enough of an explanation to say the day was hot and I’d been walking the streets for hours. For others, who have visited the Soviet Union, when I add that the line at the sidewalk vendors was short, they will understand even better; a short line on a Soviet street is not to be despised. But this city is Kiev, and the day is August 6 — a combination calculated to turn the simple act of eating ice cream into a daredevil act.
Two days ago, I stood on another, very long line under a hot sun, at the entrance to Gorky Park, pretending to want a twenty-kopeck entrance ticket. But I was really using that line in another time-honored Soviet fashion, to stand where I wanted in a public place without drawing attention to myself. I wasn’t alone. I was with a small group of Soviet citizens and refuseniks constituting what has come to be called the Moscow Trust Group, a shorthand name for independent peace activists who risk imprisonment and other harassment for their consistent insistence that the Soviet government live up to its constant rhetoric of mir i druzhba, peace and friendship. I had expected to spend a quiet Sunday with two kingpins in this group, Yuri and Olga Medvedkov, in their Moscow apartment, but I had found it crowded with visitors when I arrived, some local, like the artist Nina Kovalenko and her daughter Ksenia (as well as others whose names didn’t stick — a refusenik actor, a professor of philosophy, a legless man who leads a nascent movement for the rights of the handicapped in the U. S. S. R.) and some like me from abroad — a minister from Seattle and an odd assortment of Americans and Britons: two countercultural New Yorkers, a lean young Englishman, and a sixty-six year old Scotswoman.
It was this group that dominated the day. They had come to mount the first joint British-American-Soviet leafleting demonstration in Moscow. The Americans, Bob McGlynn and Anne-Marie Hendrickson, had been saving up for years for such an action, and Hendrickson had smuggled the leaflets giving medical information on the effects of radiation from Chernobyl or warfare into Moscow, concealed on her person. The Scotswoman, E. M. Walford, was a veteran of Bertrand Russell’s CND campaign, and, more recently Greenham Common. They were hoping to get the Medvedkovs to join them and risk arrest; but Yuri and Olga, who deliberately maintain complete openness about their own beliefs and work, couldn’t afford the risk just then. They both had recently been arrested, and Yuri had spent ten days in jail in July, for wearing t-shirts with unacceptable slogans, and Yuri faces criminal charges in October for being out of work. (Geographers, the Medvedkovs have been kept from working since they began mounting their opposition to the establishment. The unacceptable words on their t-shirts had read, “We demand the right to practice the profession of our choice.”)
Instead, Nina Kovalenko decided to help with the leafleting. She, too, has been imprisoned and confined to a psychiatric institution for her activities. Her seventeen-year old daughter has grown accustomed to watching outside detention centers, noting the license numbers of KGB cars, and waiting.
Ksenia, the Medvedkovs and I (with camera) constituted ourselves the support channel for the action. We made our plans under the directions of the Medvedkovs and the principal participants by writing notes on scraps of paper and plastic slates, while conversation swirled around and the teakettle kept up a constant steam to fuel the inexhaustible pot. (The Medvedkov apartment, festooned with English-language bumper stickers and lapel buttons, was the only Soviet household where I’ve been allowed to help wash dishes. I think Yuri and Olga were just too busy to notice.)
At exactly four p.m. outside the Gorky Park gate, the five activists put on poster-board signs and began handing out the leaflets, while the rest of us watched more or less discreetly from some distance away (except Olga, who insisted on standing in their midst). Passersby eagerly took the papers and, four minutes later, when the police efficiently moved McGlynn, Hendrickson and Kovalenko (having missed Walford and the Englishman, David Barnsdale) into a side doorway, almost all the leaflets had been distributed. When Walford and Barnsdale inquired at that door about their associates, they too were included, and disappeared from our sight. Inside, the KGB detained them without arrest for two hours, engaging them in conversation about the leaflet and the dangers of nuclear radiation — didn’t they think the government was already doing enough? — and speaking primarily with Kovalenko, the only Russian-speaker in the group. Outside, Ksenia kept track of the KGB cars and the rest of us tried to look as though we weren’t loitering, waiting quietly in line. After their detention, the leafleters were released with only a warning not to disturb the peace, the same warning accorded all of us when we huddled together to hear Kovalenko’s narration.
That was all, except for our calls to the news media and our slow dispersal around Moscow — the Medvedkovs and Kovalenkos homeward, the others to their hotels, and I to the night train for Kiev.
[October postscript: After five years of waiting, the Medvedkovs and two other independent peace activists were suddenly issued their exit visas at the end of September. They are now in Vienna. Four others associated with the Moscow Trust Group have been arrested. I don’t know which four these are.]
Kiev is beautiful, and quiet. I read before I left the United States about the evacuation of children, but in the summertime there are few children in Soviet cities anyway, the Pioneer camps and grandparents at the dachas have them all. On the street the ice cream tastes delicious, and the kvass quenches my thirst. It feels good to walk around, I spend a good deal of my time here just standing at a café table under an umbrella — there are no chairs to sit in, the tables are elbow height for standing. My three acquaintances here drink endless cups of coffee and fruit juice. We talk and talk.
I met Volodya through the Medvedkovs’ recommendation. He’s a somewhat self-centered, soured independent peacenik of a journalistic photographer. He has introduced me to his friend Kolya, an unemployed schoolteacher who speaks some English, and Tanya, an architect who, like Volodya, speaks none. Tanya and I talk about American art. She had never heard of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington until I described its design, history and controversy. Volodya interrupted to ask if I thought his government would ever erect a memorial to the war in Afghanistan.
Yesterday Volodya took me, along with Kolya and Tanya, to another war memorial, Babi Yar, on the outskirts of Kiev. The bus rolled along the same street along which one hundred thousand Jews were herded by Nazis. Spring frosts still heave their bones up out of the grassy ravine, now in midsummer being mowed by bare-chested young men with long scythes, like puppets or apprentices of a grim reaper. Volodya pointed out to me where the survivors clambered over corpses to the safety of huts and shanties where Ukrainians sheltered them, helped them to hide and escape. Volodya as a four-year old boy was supposed to have been among those thousands, but his mother hid him away and, with the help of non-Jewish relatives and forged papers, he survived the war.
Kolya and Tanya are too young to have shared that history, and neither of them is Jewish. Kolya writes poems in Ukrainian. He’s unemployed, partly by choice. Although it’s technically illegal in the Soviet Union not to have a job, the unemployment in Kiev is so high that nobody bothers those without work. That’s what Kolya tells me. Last night I smuggled him into my hotel where we ate and drank to excess. He wanted gin and tonics in the foreign-currency bar after cognac and wine at supper — and Kolya’s stomach and head were better than mine this morning only by the advantage of his half-hour walk home after last call.
It’s a pleasure to see them all wearing “No Nukes” buttons today — the New Hampshire ones, blue with a white cow bubble-thinking the sentiment — especially since Tanya, on a summer work project, helped build Chernobyl.
I’ve made a point here of never being first in a conversation to bring up Chernobyl. Sooner or later, though, somebody mentions it. In Leningrad, people make jokes about serving Chernobyl-flavored ice cream; in Moscow, careful shoppers ask at the produce markets where their vegetables came from.
“How many did you hear had died?” I’m asked. I admit the hysterical American tonypandy, then say that the first accounts I believed reported two dead, then twenty-eight. “That’s what we heard, too,” is the response. We talk about Three Mile Island and Seabrook and American weapons testing as well. The fourteenth test was slapped in my face earlier, in Moscow, by a speaker at the Institute for U. S. A. and Canada Studies. In today’s Pravda there’s a long article remembering Hiroshima, but nothing I can see about whether Gorbachev will extend the unilateral moratorium on testing.
On the agit-prop front this summer, it’s Chernobyl v. Nevada and Human Rights v. Rambo. (“How can you allow a film like that to be shown?” Soviet citizens have seen excerpts on television, apparently, and I haven’t seen it at all.) The news I’ve watched here shows massive demonstrations in Venezuela against U. S. Central American policy, and some mention of South Africa. Attention on all sides to correct positions on the issues has muddled into every official meeting I’ve attended (on the Citizens Exchange Council writers’ tour I was part of until last week) and dissipates rapidly in any individual conversation, except for one tiresome exchange outside the Moscow synagogue, which I fear wasn’t as unofficial as I might have wished.
There’s an odd sensation, standing in the midnight dusk of a Moscow street, or trading poems in the bright hospitality of a Leningrad flat, realizing suddenly that the whole throw weight of the United States armory, the acquired purchasing power of my own thousands of dollars of tax money, is aimed squarely at my bellybutton. And when I go home, millions more megatons still hold me in their crosshairs. And here in the placid complacency of Kiev, when I recall that I live downwind from Vermont Yankee and prevalently upwind from the threat of Seabrook, it feels foolish to worry about visiting the Ukraine.
So I ate my ice cream. Nadezhda Mandelstam has written that the only good life is on in which there is no need for miracles. My notion of the good life also includes the possibility of standing under a shade tree on a hot day, eating an ice cream without risking my life.