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A Glasnost Moment in Moscow : Storied City Yields a Mix of Old Habits, Fragile Hopes

February 14, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Visiting Moscow for the first time in your life in AD 1988 is like reading a difficult novel for a lit course. You are tensely alert to spot meaningful images, signs, symbols and portents.

You deplane in early evening and walk through an airport that seems eerily quiet and deserted in comparison with LAX or J.F.K. The brightest items in view are the illuminated posters for Camels and American credit cards.

The pair of boyish soldiers patroling through the terminal with machine pistols slung on their shoulders are the big activity, and they do appear as a meaningful symbol that this is not Kansas.

On the other hand, coming to Moscow is also like being in a novel. You're walking into all the fictions and all the reportage you've ever read, from "War and Peace" and "Darkness at Noon" to all the espionage thrillers in which Moscow was both a place and a force.

(It becomes particularly fascinating later to drive past KGB headquarters, a whole square's worth of buildings, interrupted only by a children's store, the buildings themselves looking as blandly anonymous as the headquarters of a conservative insurance company.)

Reality, seen from the airport bus, looks rather mundane--apartment blocks that could be Queens and the snow-crusted trees glistening under the street lights--except for the absence of commercial signs. Moscow is not without neon (there is a huge sign in midtown for Aeroflot reservations) or billboards, but they are scarce. After the garish babble of American public advertising, the absence of it gives the city an eerie kind of muteness, a visual quiet that should be restful but is unsettling, as if something had expired.

You are moved to wonder if there isn't a compromise to be located somewhere the eyesore cacophony of American business sections and the silent austerity of much of this city.

Differences from other European cities assert themselves quickly in the Cyrillic letterings. Deeper differences also assert themselves quickly, although a little more slowly.

Guards prevent anyone but registered guests from entering the lobby of the Ukraina Hotel. Visitors must register at a window outside the lobby and many Soviet citizens, not yet comfortable with or entirely trusting of glasnost , choose not to be on the record as having come to see foreign visitors. They arrange meetings elsewhere.

In the hotel, there are concierges on each floor, women evidently chosen for their formidable and no-nonsense presences. They place your long-distance calls (fiercely expensive; about $10 a minute to the United States), dispense your keys if you can prove you are you and properly registered, and give you a wake-up call. I got one at 4 a.m., only half as welcome as the one I'd hoped for at 8.

Accurate or not, and perhaps reflecting only the paranoia that has become part of 20th-Century baggage, you begin to feel that every move you make is somehow noted.

The hotel, a huge, 26-story structure with a sand castle's worth of towers and turrets, is one of Moscow's seven architectural monuments to the Stalin era and his ideas of grandeur. It now seems characteristic of a whole infrastructure that needs refurbishing. Threadbare carpets, worn floors, crumbling plaster in the stairwells (used frequently because the overladen elevators are so slow) all suggest a wartime austerity.

What you realize instantly is that you are at the mercy of translators. If you are very lucky, they are miracle workers with a command of the nuances, slang, obscure idioms and catch phrases of not one but two languages or more.

The Hollywood delegation of which I was a member in Moscow was very lucky. Accompanying us was an Estonian emigre, Ilmar Taska, now a staffer with the American-Soviet Film Initiative here in Los Angeles, who is comfortably bi- or trilingual and negotiated many a tricky verbal intersection. We were joined in Moscow by perhaps half a dozen young translators, recruited from various film organizations, who seemed to know as much about American films as any of us. During one of our sessions, a Soviet film maker said, "You can't put an awlin a sack, of course." What it meant, one of the translators quickly advised us, was, "Truth will out."

The spirit of glasnost gave us remarkable opportunities to talk privately with Soviet film makers, writers, actors and critics, who in turn spoke with considerable candor about the openness they feel in their creative lives now, as against the bureaucratic pressures and controls they experienced in the recent past.

What seemed clear was that here as elsewhere the arts try to exist as a world within the world. Even when, as in the Soviet Union, they are state-run, state-financed and seen as serving the state, the arts and those who make them aspire to a kind of timeless, stateless identification with artists elsewhere.

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