MOSCOW — There used to be only one question on arriving in February in Moscow: How cold is the weather? There was not much other news, unless the nation's leader had suddenly departed the workers' paradise.
The last three years have changed all that. In the Mikhail S. Gorbachev era, hardly a week goes by without significant developments.
At age 13, in 1960, I lived here for six months while my father worked on a book about the great ballerina, Galina Ulanova. I met a poor nation and warm people. I made friends in Moscow streets. Those Soviet kids were naive, idealistic and hoped for a better world. So did I. Back in the States, I studied Russian language and literature; in college I majored in comparative politics, including communist and capitalist political theory.
Then, last December at the Washington summit, I interviewed Yegor Yakovlev, editor of the Moscow News. I asked about criticism in the Soviet press. He lectured on American intervention in Vietnam. But at the end of an hour, he invited me to become a guest columnist and see for myself.
The ground rules are simple: I can write anything I wish about Soviet society or Soviet-American relations. The editor reserves the right to respond.
So, on arriving at Sheremetevo Airport, I was eager for the latest news. Two young Soviet journalists met the flight. They carried a letter saying I was a guest journalist. The customs official read it slowly, then waived me through. I usually travel light; not this time: winter clothes, research material, a personal computer and printer--five bags in all.
By the time we managed to squeeze them into the waiting car, I knew the answer to the traditional February question. Very, very cold.
I began to ask questions. Any changes in the leadership? Any new press exposes? Any news about Nikolai I. Bukharin? (A few days after my arrival, a commission announced that the old 1938 Stalinist charges were fabricated; the condemned, innocent).
One thing prevented me from focusing fully on my companions' answers: fear. Moscow drivers should be either competing in international racing or locked up. Young ones are the worst. Ours looked to be 25. Our Volga careened down the highway, its four-cylinders roaring. At the outskirts of town, traffic thickened; instead of slowing, the driver began weaving among cars and trucks. Wincing from a near-collision, I asked, "Where are we going in such a hurry?" He answered enthusiastically, "To your apartment."
Finally we turned onto side streets and the pace slowed. Focus regained, I asked about Boris N. Yeltsin, Gorbachev's close ally who had been demoted in November from his post as head of the party apparatus in Moscow. In the West, the Yeltsin affair had been widely reported as a major blow to both Gorbachev and perestroika --rebuilding. One of my escorts was Yevgeny Novikov, a writer from Novosti Press Agency. I had met him on a previous visit, a nice guy not particularly interested in politics. "Was there much talk here about Yeltsin?" I asked. He thought a moment: "No. It was covered in the press but more so in the West. We didn't discuss it much."
Alexei Bandersky, a reporter from Moscow News, cut in: "Well we did. My friends--mainly journalists--had a lot to say."
And what did they think?
"Most supported Yeltsin," he said. "But not all." And everyday people? Yevgeny shrugged, Alexei said, "I can't really say, because my friends are in the press. Let's ask the driver." He translated the question. The driver spoke rapidly, with feeling. "Yes we talked about it a lot. People were all for Yeltsin and they were furious." (Late last week, Yeltsin was removed from the Politburo.)
We stopped in front of a large apartment house. For a month or two, this would be home. Inside, the place was warm and smelled of fresh paint. "Yes," Alexei said, "it was just finished today. I hope everything is in order. There is no food, but there are several stores around the corner. And we've left you the last few editions of Moscow News."
The Moscow News. I had first tried to read it as a teen-ager. It had been so bad, so filled with crude propaganda, that I had given up.
Now, the conservative Times of London calls it "the flagship of glasnost ." The newspaper is read avidly by both Moscovites and Westerners. Last year the New York Times reported an incident that illuminated the change in the paper. At a meeting of media officials, Yegor K. Ligachev, number-two man in the party leadership, singled out the Moscow News for criticism. The paper, he said, had printed a sympathetic obituary of the exiled Soviet writer, Nekrasov.
The paper's editor stood up to disagree. The story was appropriate, he said; as editor, the decision was his to make, not the party leadership's. The editor still has his job.