An Enlightening Day in the Soviet Union

January 04, 1986

Jack Burby's experience in the Soviet Union as he described it (Opinion, Dec. 1), brought to mind our more limited but just as illuminating contacts with the Russians just 10 years ago: most people, the world over, want to be friends.

We were among the eight passengers aboard a Lykes Lines freighter on a Mediterranean and Black Sea voyage. Our first stop was at Kherson, in the Ukraine near Odessa; it is a city of about 200,000, a port where goods are transshipped between river barges and ocean-going vessels; its textile mills employ over 20,000 workers. Here we off-loaded much of our deck cargo, consisting of huge steel fabrications built in Milwaukee and bound for an iron ore-pelletizing plant being constructed farther up the Dnieper River. Kherson was not on the usual tourists' itinerary and foreigners were a rare sight there, indeed.

We had been warned by the agents that we should not expect to be able to visit ashore in Russia, since the Soviet Embassy would not issue visas to freighter passengers. But as had happened on prior voyages, once the ship was in port, Intourist responded to the captain's written request by offering a guided tour of the city. We traveled in a clean, new, tour bus, built in Hungary, and our guide was a well informed, very personable young man who spoke good English.

We had a number of interesting experiences that day, but the one that best illustrates my point occurred in mid-afternoon when we visited the Palace of Culture of the Textile Workers Union. We were seated in a large, modern auditorium and two other interpreters joined our group to explain the events that were taking place. We had learned earlier that as a part of an overall liberalization policy, the domestic passport (and that is what it looked like), heretofore renewed annually, would now be issued for life, subject only to a new photo every five years. To impress the people with how fortunate they were, a big ceremony was being made over the initial distribution.

About 30 people had been selected to be honored by this public presentation: outstanding students, who were receiving their first passport at age 17, star athletes, workers who had exceeded the "production norms," handicapped veterans, heroes of World War II (all were bemedaled). Seated on the stage were a number of big-wigs, most of whom made speeches, and some of the honorees.

As each person's name was read, his feats were enumerated as he stepped forward to be greeted by the presenting officials and the chief of police who handed out the new passport. At the same time, a young woman came out from the wings to give the honoree a small bouquet, a rose and a frond of fern. All of this was being recorded by a cameraman from the local TV station.

We all remarked later how much the affair reminded us of the school graduations, civic presentations, etc. that most of us had had to sit through so often at home. After the ceremony, the audience was told about us: the passengers from the American freighter in port who were touring their city. There was some entertainment to follow and during the half-hour wait before it began, we were interviewed by a reporter from the radio station.

We appointed one of our group to speak for all of us. During the interviewing, several of the honorees who were seated nearby stood up and leaning toward us, handed their bouquets to the three women in our group. These gestures transcended the language barrier and seemed to say: "We are honored and happy to have you with us, enjoy your stay."

The entertainment was excellent: folk dances by small children, teens, and by adults, some stand-up comics, choral groups, etc. Later that evening we dined at "The White Lilac," a supper club, the likes of which could have been found in many small U.S. cities of that time although the music played by the combo was probably 15 years old.

Most of the diners were in segregated groups, women at one table, men at another. The food was good, as were the refreshments, and, while we were reluctant to start the dancing, in time some of us were swaying to the music. One of the younger men came to our table, and with a polite bow and gesture, invited my (senior citizen) wife to dance and before long,, I, too, was invited to dance by, you guessed it, one of the charming younger women from another table (we were the only dancers in our party). Conversation was non-existent but the gestures said: You love to dance, we love to dance, so 'Let's Dance!' "

So much for an enlightening day in the Soviet Union.


South Gate

Los Angeles Times Articles