Reaping The Harvest Of The Soviet Union Breakup Talk Of Leveling Borders Can Be Fighting Words

Posted: October 02, 1993

In the summer of 1987, near Kiev, in what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, I started a fistfight with five words.

Watching Boris Yeltsin try and maneuver his hard-line opponents recently, I have been thinking of that evening - though his is a serious matter and ours was only tragicomic. I remember the paranoia and xenophobia of certain hard- liners I met in the U.S.S.R., and the way they always seemed to end up hurting, not Americans, but their fellow citizens. Perhaps they were following Stalin's example, even in that.

I was working for the U.S. Information Agency at the time, handling shipping, security and customs clearance for a traveling American exhibition on information technology. Most days were spent conferring with militia majors about crowd-control, arguing with customs inspectors and fire marshals about tariffs and asbestos, and supervising the Soviet crane operators and laborers who helped install the 10,000-square-foot exhibit in each of the six cities it visited. I can recommend no better way to get to know a country.

In the course of our work during that hot, dusty Ukrainian summer, I became friends with my Soviet counterpart, a young former soccer star named Vitali. After we had known each other a month or so, Vitali invited me on an overnight fishing trip.

At that time, the U.S. government forebade one-on-one outings with Soviet citizens. I told Vitali about this rule and said I would have to invite a friend. "Nyet problemi," he said. He invited two of his friends - one of whom owned a small motorboat and some old tents and fishing poles - and, on a warm August evening after work, the five of us set out on our cross-cultural adventure.

We drove to the Dneiper River, climbed into Vitali's friend's boat, and headed south. Darkness fell. Another boat, piloted by a stranger, cruised close off our stern for a while, then dropped back into the blackness. After an hour and a half, we pulled up on a sandy deserted shore, pitched our tents, and made a campfire.

We had all brought along food and drink, and it turned out - coincidentally and disastrously - that, along with marinated beef, potatoes, canned peanuts and Pepsi - we had somehow packed three bottles of vodka.

We started the beef cooking on skewers - shashlik, the Russians call it. Someone suggested a before-dinner drink. So while the shashlik was sizzling, we opened a bottle of Ukrainian wheat vodka, poured five healthy shots into five plastic cups, and drank a toast to world peace.

Somehow, a second round of shots was poured. Then a third. A fourth. Soon it seemed only logical to open bottle number two. Soon the shashlik stood blackened and forgotten on the skewers, and Russian phrases seemed to be flowing effortlessly off my tongue. I raised my plastic cup and proposed this toast: To a world without borders.

A very unpleasant silence fell over the campsite. Even my friend Ken, drunk and possessing a Russian vocabulary of 30 words, sensed something: "What's just happened?" he asked.

Despite my - and Vitali's - best efforts at diplomacy, the night deteriorated very rapidly from that point. We began to argue politics, and it turned out that Vitali's friends were hard-line Marxist-Lenists, professors of political philosophy at the university, men to whom a world without borders meant nothing less than a capitalist invasion. Voices were soon raised. The argument turned personal, then vicious. At one point, I had to be physically restrained.

The evening climaxed with a fistfight on the riverbank, but it was not between Americans and Soviets. Vitali's drunken friends, it seemed, had taken to calling into question the fidelity of each other's wives.

I remember Ken getting up from the campfire and trying to break it up. I remember one of the professors with an egg-sized lump on his forehead, I remember, in despair, smoking the only cigarette of my life, at 3 or 4 a.m., and staring out across the Dneiper's dirty current with my friend Vitali

mumbling embarassed apologies close by.

What is happening in Moscow now is something like the middle stage in the world without borders we were trying to bring about with our propagandistic exhibits on information technology. And that is anathema to the old-guard Marxist-Leninists.

The idea of a free, stable and separate Georgia is anathema to them, as is the concept of truly fair elections and truly independent Baltic states.

It is, to me, a sad mindset, an old poison. I hope that, in their zeal to preserve some of the ways of the dissolved Motherland, Yeltsin's opponents do not end up bringing yet more pain and poverty and isolation upon their fellow Russians.

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