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Americans Encounter the Soviet Curious

July 01, 1987|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

ON THE ROAD TO MOSCOW — Last Saturday, as crowds gathered by a bridge in the 12th-Century city of Kalinin to watch the American and Soviet peace walkers cross the Volga, several old women stood solemnly holding richly ornamented icons over their heads.

Many of the 230 Americans, who are walking about 360 miles from Leningrad to Moscow with 200 Soviets, stopped to snap photos of them. A Soviet film crew documenting the peace walk also spotted them, brought one out from the crowd, posed her and started shooting. She stood there, looking defiant, another old woman standing staunchly at her side.

Vladimir Glushchenko, a young translator from Radio Moscow who is part of the Soviet delegation, explained, "That is very Russian, a very old Russian tradition. When something sacred was happening, they would bring the icons out to bless the people. She was bringing the most sacred things from her house to bless us."

And indeed, one of the old women had blessed the Helms, a Christian family from Washington, carefully making the sign of the cross with the icons over the parents and their four children.

On the following day--the 11th day of the walk, which is due in Moscow late today--some of the walkers, including a few Soviets, went to services at the Russian Orthodox church called Belya Troitsa, or White Trinity. Father Viktor Alaikin, a peace walker himself, serves there.

The church, in a quiet, old neighborhood of tree-lined streets and old wooden cottages with ornate trim, was filled mostly with old women, their visitors, the peace walkers and the Soviet camera crew.

The services, led by the metropolitan (bishop) of the area, went on for two hours--the air filled with singing, incense, candles and people--before the metropolitan interrupted the normal course to introduce the visitors.

He blessed them and the walk and introduced Judy Imai of Santa Barbara. Wearing a T-shirt lettered "No More Hiroshimas," she lit a church candle from a lantern she was carrying that had been itself lit from the eternal flame at the Hiroshima Peace Garden.

Through an interpreter, the metropolitan told the visitors: "You can see our believers can really pray in the church, and they pray first of all for peace."

Outside in the courtyard, security was keeping the area clear. A few onlookers stood on the other side of a picket fence. Two Americans sat on the church steps taking a breather. When a Soviet man and his daughter did the same, making a few stabs at an English greeting, security shooed him from the courtyard, mentioning "Americanski." It was done in good humor, and the man took it that way, throwing up his hands, laughing and moving his daughter away.

The Americans have stepped through the looking glass on this Soviet/American Walk to end the arms race. (As of last weekend, they have been joined by actress Betty Thomas, formerly of "Hill Street Blues," disc jockey Casey Kasem and his wife, actress Jean Kasem.) They are getting a rare experience of Soviet society that is complicated, frequently confusing and full of surprises.

Consider the baths. On Friday night in Kalinin, about 100 of the walkers went to the local baths by bus, a police escort stopping all traffic along the way.

At the baths, it was no longer Soviets and Americans, but men to the left and women to the right. Within moments, the women had stripped down and were in a very hot wooden sauna. And there they stood, the Soviets laughing at the yelping, gasping Americans while they obligingly beat the backs of their visitors with fragrant wet birch leaves.

Outside in the shower room, some of the Soviet women took sponges that seemed made of shredded paper and scrubbed what was left of the American flesh, before directing the American women toward one final shrieking moment under an icy shower.

The 200 Soviets walking, camping and living with the Americans include students, war veterans, a few laborers and a large number of professional people: musicians, political scientists, teachers, journalists, translators and disarmament specialists. They have been selected by the official Soviet Peace Committee and its regional affiliates (co-sponsors of the march with the private American organization, International Peace Walk Inc.).

Of the adults, about 70% to 80% of them are Communist Party members, Igor Filin, in charge of the walk for the Soviet Peace Committee, estimated--a high percentage in a country where party members make up about 5% of the general population.

Regardless, the Soviets seem, almost without exception, to be people who have high hopes for glasnost and reconstruction of a society that they are saying has been crippled by entrenched, unbending bureaucrats. They seem to see the walk as a chance to promote this "new thinking," as they call it. They are anxious to present and explain their country to the Americans.

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