MOSCOW, Ida. — The big 100th anniversary party for the world's pea and lentil capital was threatening to fizzle. The Folklore Society was hard-pressed to find people to square-dance on Main Street, and the Liar's Contest had been scrapped because no one had entered.
Just when it looked like the centennial highlight would be a helicopter dropping 5,000 Ping-Pong balls over the shopping mall, glasnost came to the Moscow, Ida., centennial.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev's Soviet-style openness arrived in Idaho in the grandfatherly form of Yegor Yakovlev, an influential Soviet journalist who agreed to trade Moscows for a week with a reporter for the daily Idahonian.
If the exchange of journalists and views didn't stir passions among the populace, it at least provoked thought. "Hell, yes, a place like this can play a role in international politics," local real estate agent Linda Hartford said.
What Yakovlev came to call "a small, first experiment" in this quirky university town of 18,000 in fact reflects a blossoming grass-roots diplomacy; scores of Soviet citizens are paying official but privately funded visits to America's smaller cities and towns this summer.
They range from teen-agers camping in Colorado to Kirov ballerinas dancing in New Jersey, and from the Latvian choir singing in Missoula, Mont., to the Leningrad Dixieland Jazz Band playing Sacramento, La Crosse, Wis., and Grand Rapids, Mich.
One advantage was immediately clear to Yakovlev. "I knew much about America before," he said. "I saw a lot of films and read a lot of books. But probably before I saw black-and-white pictures--now it's in color."
Wrote Daily Column
Yakovlev spent his week gathering material for his own paper, writing a daily column for the Idahonian's front page and sampling a style of American glasnost that left him at times resentful, grateful, bemused, enlightened, touched and--if you count the boat crash--downright worried.
He left for home over the weekend to resume editing the weekly Moscow News, a tabloid publication that some observers call the Soviet Union's liveliest, with a circulation of 1 million in five languages.
It has published articles suggesting a clampdown on information about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and it often reports on other controversial subjects, putting it on the cutting edge of the new Soviet openness.
How glasnost came to Idaho is another story. Jay Shelledy, editor and publisher of Moscow's 10,000-circulation, seven-reporter Idahonian, had yearned to do "something different" for the town's centennial.
After countless phone calls and three trips to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, Shelledy had a successful plan.
Vera White, a 52-year-old cub reporter, went to Soviet Moscow to chat with journalists there, meet with officials and write cultural pieces for the Idahonian.
With her went a mayoral proclamation, centennial T-shirts, pictures of the seasons in her hometown and two dozen packets of lentil chili. (At the last minute, a sack of Idaho potatoes was deemed too heavy to carry.)
In return came Yakovlev, toting bottles of vodka, jars of caviar and a somewhat reticent interpreter supplied by his embassy.
"The Russian has landed," the next day's Idahonian proclaimed.
Next to the headline ran Yakovlev's first Idahonian column, which set out to chip away at American stereotypes of the Soviet system. "I'm only one of many Soviet journalists who see as a main idea in their work strengthening of 'glasnost,' widening of democracy and the victory of the principles of social justice," he wrote. "Today, when in my country these ideals are developing quickly and irreversibly, I, and, I believe, many other Soviet journalists want to say our lives had sense."
Editor Shelledy, writing later, questioned whether the Soviets might use exchanges such as this one as forums for propaganda.
'So Do We'
"Yes, in some ways they do. And so do we," Shelledy wrote.
When he wasn't at his Cyrillic typewriter, borrowed from the local university, Yakovlev ate pizza, drank Scotch, shot the rapids of the Snake River and tried to chat with Moscowans through his young interpreter, who excused the rough spots in the translation by saying that this was not part of his usual job at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. The pizza lunch--at the Karl Marks pizzeria--had a hint of propaganda gone awry. Yakovlev ordered a pepperoni and pineapple pizza and learned that the restaurant was named not for the philosopher but for the three founders--one named Karl and two named Mark.
"Marxism is very tasteful," Yakovlev concluded tactfully.
If he was mistaken to assume that a pizzeria's name expressed philosophy, he also overestimated American familiarity with the term glasnost, which he said was as universally understood as Sputnik.
"Glasnost? Was that his name? No, I think it was Yakosomething," said Mark Guilbeau, the 28-year-old pizzeria manager.