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A Small Step To a World of Reason

June 05, 1988|Yevgeny Yevtushenko | Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko's most recent book in translation is "Almost at the End of the World" (Henry Holt & Co.).

MOSCOW — An American astronaut, walking for the first time on the moon's mysterious surface, said, "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

That could also describe President Ronald Reagan's first step inside the Kremlin to meet Mikhail S. Gorbachev, as he walked on the red carpet of the historic stairway, over which hovered the shadows of Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible.

This was the man who, not so long ago, called the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire." Why did he meet with Gorbachev?

Not because he changed his views and shifted "to the left." The horror of total holocaust compels all sane people, even those on the right, to take a step to the left to save humanity--it's a step in the direction of their own heart. The same horror forces sane people on the left not to turn away from their hearts. With all the differences between Soviet and U.S. political systems, the only constant is the system of the hearts of mothers who lose children in war--be it Vietnam or Afghanistan. The zinc coffins that hold the corpses of their children do not turn into silver or gold. They remain zinc. A U.S. Republican and a Russian Communist can in fact belong to the same party--the party of common sense.

Now it's time to understand a new nuclear truth: The best policy is above politics. The first agreement signed by the two biggest nuclear powers to reduce nuclear weapons rises above mere ideology. This agreement is only a small step, but it was a beginning.

A doorbell for another people's doorway is better than the nuclear button. And it turned out that when the door opened, the people living behind it were not as horrible as supposed. The hospitality that the American people showed Gorbachev and Soviets extended to Reagan shows that the instinct of friendliness is stronger than that of mistrust.

Russians, generally speaking, have positive attitudes towards Americans. Not only have we never fought each other, we were allies during our common war against fascism. The adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are the most popular books of our children--everyone feels nostalgic for something he had in childhood but cannot find again as an adult.

Even now my taste buds can recall the flavor of the American bacon I ate in the hungry days of 1941 in Siberia. We opened the cans with a key magically soldered to the bottom, and the pink slices of bacon beckoned from their wrapping of transparent paper. I proudly wore yellow American boots, which squeaked with a decidedly foreign accent.

At our movie theater deep in Siberia, we wildly applauded the American jazz from "Sun Valley Serenade." Soviet soldiers were in love with American movie star Deanna Durbin. My personal hero was James Cagney from the "Roaring Twenties"--shown in this country under the idiotic propaganda title of "The Fate of a Soldier in America."

May, 1945, when Soviet and U.S. soldiers swam with their weapons--as well as bottles of vodka and whiskey--raised over the Elbe waters, was truly the honeymoon of our peoples.

By that time, I was back in Moscow and, like so many schoolboys, bought cigarettes by the caseload and sold them one by one to pay for movies and soccer games. But on Victory Day all the Moscow urchins rushed to Red Square and handed out cigarettes for free--just as ice cream vendors did with their wares. Red Square was inundated by celebrants, and filled with the sounds of tangos and fox trots from hundreds of record players the people had brought. Women, their hands coarse from hauling shell casings at the factories, were dancing with the soldiers. Not a single one wore shoes; all were in army boots. And yet that day all the women looked particularly beautiful.

People were kissing beneath the blue firs of the Kremlin. Drunken generals had to be carried from the Spassky Gates, their medals dangling from their tunics.

Allies--Americans, French, British--were thrown into the air in jubilation, while we kids frantically picked up the foreign change that came pouring out of their pockets. On a wing of Lenin's Mausoleum, an invalid without legs and a U.S. officer sat together, drinking a vodka toast to the common victory.

But our honeymoon was all too brief. War united us. Victory divided us.

Mikhail Kalatozov, the film producer who wrote the screenplay for "The Cranes Are Flying," once told me a sad story. Right after the war, while working as a Soviet representative in Hollywood, he decided to organize a joint Soviet-U.S. radio concert. The best American and Soviet musicians and actors were to perform in a live broadcast from the United States to the Soviet Union and from the Soviet Union to the United States. It took Kalatozov a great deal of work to assemble the American stars. But all were enthusiastic, brimming with joy over the war victory. Just before the concert began, a white-faced official from the Soviet Embassy came in and, with shaking hands, gave Kalatozov a cable, freshly decoded. It said: "Moscow won't receive on Stalin's order."

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