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Led by 2 L.A. Men : Capitalists Show Soviets How to Do It

June 26, 1989|JONATHAN PETERSON | Times Staff Writer

A Soviet colonel spoke into the microphone as the capitalists from Los Angeles looked on, surely the strangest of visitors to an army base 60 miles southwest of Leningrad.

Before him, Soviet journalists took pictures. Behind him, the Americans stood proudly. All around was the heady feeling of long-frozen attitudes thawing into something new and unknown.

"I could not have ever imagined," Col. Victor Makarov was saying as the March wind blustered, "that I would witness what is taking place here today."

In part, he meant his base's imminent transformation into a children's clothing factory. But that conversion--one of 300 under way in the Soviet Union--was not the oddest thing going on that windy day in Kingisepp.

California Chutzpah

The real twist was the role of Wesley Bilson and Harold Willens, two self-described "card-carrying capitalists" from Southern California, embarked on a quest that seemed to combine quixotic idealism, careful calculation and more than a little chutzpah.

In an open letter to Soviet newspaper readers late last year, the wealthy entrepreneurs had offered Western-style consulting help, free of charge, to struggling consumer enterprises. Americans, they declared, have a vital self-interest in President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's wish to steer his economy onto a more peaceful path.

"This historic economic restructuring can go a long way toward reducing--perhaps even eliminating--all possibility of military conflict between our two countries," Willens predicted at the time.

Dramatic Response

The dramatic gesture paid off. Thousands of Soviets--from factory managers to physicians to ordinary citizens--poured out their wishes by the mail load. Totally outside the bounds of normal diplomacy, a citizens' collaboration was forming.

And what a strange collaboration it was, drawing in an unlikely cast of characters ranging from veteran U.S. peace activists and retired industrialists to Soviet journalists and workers at a Moscow bra factory.

There was Sophia Lansky, a Soviet emigre and actress who had worked in Hollywood (once teaching "a French actor playing a Russian villain how to speak English with a Russian accent in a Rambo movie"), who was so moved by the effort that she signed on as project director and interpreter.

There was Harry Froehlich, 68, a third-generation brassiere manufacturer who lives in Pacific Palisades, recruited to help a Moscow factory. ("I said, 'Moscow in January? You've got to be kidding,' " he recalled of his first meeting with Bilson. But days after his retirement, Froehlich was en route to the Soviet Union.)

And there was Ilya Baskin, the 32-year-old chief of Leningrad's Garant cooperative (a Soviet-style private firm), who proved so enterprising and energetic about taking over the Kingisepp base that Willens dubbed him Horatio Algersky.

For the Americans, the mission would provide a rare close-up of the hard realities that make up of every day Soviet life--realities that even Yankee know-how would not be able to budge. For the Soviets, it promised an unexpected source of expertise--and hope--at a time when household shortages and economic malaise seemed stubborn as ever.

"I'm dealing with people that want that tube of toothpaste from me," Bilson mused at one point. "They're embarrassed, but they want it."

By early 1989, Willens and Bilson had committed themselves to three projects: a Leningrad apparel cooperative that wished to take over the Kingisepp base, a brassiere manufacturer in Moscow and a clothing factory in Moldavia. Each faced the stifling edicts of bureaucrats in matters ranging from price tags to allowable materials to time for tasks on the factory floor.

Championed by Magazine

American enterprise would challenge Communist bureaucracy as never before. Editors from the influential Soviet weekly Arguments and Facts, sensing not just a good story but a chance to help Gorbachev by publicizing consumer gains, became champions of the capitalists' effort.

In a series of trips, letters and telephone calls, the Americans personally lobbied Soviet bureaucrats to ease restrictions. They interviewed Soviet consumers and workers. And they linked Soviet managers and U.S. experts in relationships that continue today.

By early this year, the mission had been featured in Soviet newspapers, television and radio. Bilson's name was familiar to many ordinary Muscovites (some even asked for his autograph).

Surprise Victories

And there were unplanned victories: Last month, the city of Odessa granted a local military base to a clothing cooperative that one of the Americans had visited.

While it's hard to predict what the lasting benefits will be, on that spring day in Kingisepp near the Gulf of Finland, it became obvious that the unique effort had at least been noticed at the highest levels. In a message read by Arguments and Facts Editor Vladislav A. Starkov, Raisa Gorbachev sent her "warmest wishes."

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