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Looks at the Soviet Union

January 22, 1985|GWEN WINTER Bryte, Calif. It was a warm summer day in Moscow when I received a phone call from Aubrey Wallace, who said she was from San Francisco and had just talked to my mother. What a pleasant surprise, fresh news from Mom and Dad. Of course I said I would be delighted to host Aubrey and her mother while they were in Moscow for a brief tour. and My 11-year-old son, Gregory, and I were packing his suitcase because he was leaving early the next morning for a one-month stay at a summer camp near a forest lake outside Moscow, so instead of making arrangements to meet the two women at the hotel that night, I asked them if they would like to visit my home the following evening . . . and since the two tourists had no knowledge of Moscow or the sprawling Soviet capital, I offered to pick them up at the Kosmos, a 45-minute subway ride from my home on the other side of Moscow. and Aubrey explained she had found my mother through the Russian-American Institute, one of 22 chapters of the New York-based National Council of American Soviet-Friendship. She had a bag of goodies for me from my thoughtful mother, a sack filled with cassette ribbons for my Smith Corona electric typewriter. Unfortunately, Smith Corona has no dealer in Moscow.

I'm writing this in response to an article you printed about Paula Garb, an American citizen who is living in Moscow with her two sons ("American Woman Makes Her Home in Moscow" by Aubrey Wallace, Dec. 17). This article was very disturbing to me because the author's description of Paula's living conditions was not accurate according to my experience.

I visited the Soviet Union last April as part of the First U.S./Soviet Tradeswomen Exchange for Peace. I had received Paula's address as a contact to visit in Moscow. I visited her on three different occasions while in Moscow.

Maybe it's because I'm of a working-class background, but I saw nothing undesirable about her apartment. In fact I know many of my friends would love to have an apartment like hers, especially at only 3% of one's income, and fully heated at no extra charge. Sure it was small, but not as small as the author of the article suggested. The boys' room, for example, had more in it than just "a wall with bunk beds against it." It was a fairly good-sized room. A good friend of mine (in the U.S.) is living with one child in an apartment smaller than Paula's. Her apartment costs nearly $300 and does not include utilities. In big cities in the U.S. such an apartment, if not in the projects, would cost $500 or more per month. Even in government housing projects the price would be way over 3% of one's income.

Frame of Reference

The author of the article obviously has a wealthier frame of reference, and is critical of small Soviet apartments as compared to large middle-class and wealthy Americans' apartments. Well, most people here simply don't live as the author thinks they do. The elevator groaned, yes, and it was small, but so are many elevators in our city apartment buildings; even in expensive ones the elevators can be quite rickety.

Also, I walked to Paula's apartment, and unlike your article reported, there were sidewalks the entire distance. I went at night on one occasion and noticed that although this residential area was not exceptionally well lit, senior-citizen women walked freely there with bundles and purses without fear of being mugged. This was a phenomenon I noticed, to my surprise, in all five Soviet cities I visited. Mugging does not seem to exist there. Also, the cities are very clean and subways are also clean and crime-free, with no homeless or beggars anywhere.

I think in these times of nuclear war danger, we "citizen diplomats" should try harder to be fair. Sure, the Soviet system is not perfect, but neither is the U.S. system. Let's give credit where credit's due.

Planned Community

When we emerged from the Metro in suburban Moscow, I showed my two new acquaintances part of my community, explaining the careful planning that went into it and the other modern neighborhoods built since the '60s. Within an area of six square blocks, there are three secondary schools, three child-care centers, a children's polyclinic, adult polyclinic, four small grocery stores, one large, well-stocked supermarket and a giant movie theater. There are no streets within the area, only sidewalks so that small children can run free without having to worry about traffic. In summer and winter the nearby woods, just a few minutes away from the neighborhood on foot, offer a welcome retreat for the local apartment dwellers.

Inside my apartment, I introduced my guests to Andrei, my 17-year-old son who was about to graduate from secondary school and has since entered Moscow University, my alma mater. I presented my cozy home with pride, with its panoramic view, from every room, of wide open spaces and verdant gardens, not other apartment houses clumped together.

In the children's room, my guest saw Finnish-style bunk beds, two large desks covered with school books, a wardrobe, bookshelves and a toy chest. The kitchen has all modern conveniences except for a dishwasher, but my boys are good substitutes. The living room is where we entertain and where we frequently watch excellent movies from all over the world on our color television, which is hooked up to two video tape recorders for both European and American systems. Two years ago I bought all new modern furniture, which I am still paying for on an interest-free loan.

In the conversation I learned that Aubrey was a free-lance writer. She was warned by her travel agent not to declare that information in her visa application, but I insisted it would not have prevented her from gaining entry into the Soviet Union. I never cease to be amazed at the unwarranted fears Americans have of associating with the U.S.S.R. and told her so.

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