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A Life in History : Can a good Russian and a good American marry and remain true to their countries? : BREAKING FREE: A Memoir of Love and Revolution, By Susan Eisenhower (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $23; 295 pp.)

June 18, 1995|Carolyn See | Carolyn See's most recent book is "Dreaming" (Random House)

Historical writing is often hypnotically boring. This may be because the historian starts out like most smart people: "I think, therefore I am," but then he gets sidetracked: "I am, I am, I am !" By writing about the lives of great men, the historian becomes "greater" than they are--at least in his own eyes.

How incredibly refreshing it is, then, to read Susan Eisenhower so modestly writing about the Soviet Union: "It was my rare privilege to see," she says, "with my own eyes, the awakening of an entire nation as its people create change one small step at a time. . . . Although I was not a 'player' in a direct sense during those years of tremendous turmoil, I fell in love with a man who was, Roald Sagdeev, a radical reformer and an early Gorbachev adviser."

From the instant the book begins, the reader is treated to the most amazing information--primarily what it's like to live as a very competent supporting actor in a world drama starring great men. Susan Eisenhower is President Eisenhower's granddaughter. She remembers walking through the house as a kid and getting her shoulders tweaked back by him along with mock-stern reminders of West Point posture.

Later, as an adult, she's invited as a house guest to spend the weekend with then Vice President Bush: "I couldn't help feeling that I was witnessing the dying rituals of a family life that exist for almost no one anymore: where the still-married grandparents play host to the still-married children, who have come to stay with the beautiful healthy grandchildren, well-behaved and knowledgeable of their place."

In her mid-30s, Susan Eisenhower already knows that kind of family life has escaped from her forever. She's been married and divorced twice, and must support their daughters on her own. In 1986 she takes a position as interim president of the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute to earn a living. In that same year the Institute gets involved in a "Chautauqua Town Meeting" to be held in the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower makes it clear that she's been born and bred with a strong distrust of the Soviets. She's held strong beliefs in the dynamic of the ongoing cold War, but her first sight of Leningrad comes as a bracing reality check: " . . . dust and decay, a wreck of crumbling facades, rusting street cars, empty shops. This was the communism we were frightened of? This was what the U.S. government touted as a threat to the American way of life?" As the plane heads home, American conferees burst into applause when they leave Soviet airspace. Susan refrains: " . . . I tried to suppress the profound sadness I felt for the Soviet people, who had so little to show for their suffering and sacrifice; and for us, who spent so much of our national wealth and energy competing with an empty ideology. I hated," she writes, "to hear them clap."

A year later, Susan attends another Soviet-American town meeting, this time on the grounds of the actual Chautauqua resort. Then, because life is wonderfully full of good surprises, she meets "a rumpled professorial-looking man" who asks if she knew her grandfather well, if she thinks America really does have a "military industrial complex," and if she would like to dance. Her answers are yes, yes, and yes.

Roald Sagdeev is director of the Soviet Space Research Institute. He's funny, he's nice, he speaks impressive English, and before long he and Susan are exchanging confidences about their fears of atomic destruction--not in the generalities of officialdom, but specific memories of real days when each thought they might not live to see nightfall. Within hours, they're talking to each other, not just like human beings, but human beings who are falling in love.

But the author has a lot of rectitude and a great deal of personal anxiety. First of all, she's attached to the Eisenhower name and has responsibilities toward it. She can't just go gallivanting off with some Russian (except he's a Tatar). But Roald keeps saying things that single mothers pine to hear; he wants to take care of her, he says, and Susan reflects that no man, capitalist or Communist, has ever said that to her before. During one memorable sleepless night of soul searching, the author goes ahead and decides to roll the dice, to risk "everything," because--as anyone who's fallen in love knows it's worth everything, and it conquers all.

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