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On the road in the Soviet Union: four hours with a Russian hitchhiker

Nikolai shifted the rucksack on his powerful back, stole another look at my license plates as if to wonder whether Russians should really hitch rides with foreigners, and asked: ''You heading to Moscow?''

''No,'' I lied. I'd been up since dawn, heading south from Finland over bumpy Soviet roads. I was exhausted, with that special driver's fatigue that craves Beatles oldies on the tape player over 10 hours' chatter with a stranger.

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''I mean, 'yes,' '' I corrected myself. ''Hop in.'' Hitchhikers, after all, aren't exactly commonplace here. Seven hours of talk with an ordinary Russian is even rarer. And I felt suddenly small about condemning Nikolai to a day's rumble in some truck cab. His laughing blue eyes seemed to forgive the lie. He got in, balancing rucksack on knee, running his fingers through thick blond hair, and we were off.

''Thanks very much. . . . My brother was going to pick me up, but he couldn't make it. I'm heading just four hours south of here, to my parents' village.''

Then we talked - for four hours punctuated by comfortable silences. About Russia, America. Yuri Andropov, Ronald Reagan. And the past: Khrushchev, and ''good, strong'' Joseph Stalin. About making ends meet, about work, about home.

''It used to be people still lived in the countryside. No wonder we Russians have less food nowadays. We do OK where I live, no rationing or anything like that. But 20 years ago or so, when I moved there, supplies were better.

''In Stalin's time, if you were born on the farm like I was, you stayed. You weren't allowed to leave. Then Khrushchev came. . . . By the way, where are you from?''

''America. . . .''

''From what we can tell here, the difference between Russia and America is that some Americans, of course, live much better than we do. But some others live worse. And you have all that unemployment. I mean, if you're an artist or a writer or something, sure, you live well. But what if you're just an ordinary person?''

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For 25 years Nikolai has lived in Vyborg, a town that belonged to Finland until World War II. He is a teacher. Like his two brothers and sister, he got a college-level education his parents would not have dreamed of. He left his home village. He speaks only Russian but, like most in Vyborg, enjoys watching the pictures on Finnish television - American movies often - or clips of rock singers.

''Do you think Reagan would ever attack us?''

''No,'' I say, and he nods. ''Yes, Andropov has given assurances, too, that we will never attack. . . . Nowadays, with such terrible weapons, I guess neither side could do so. . . .''

The thought takes him back in time, to World War II: ''I remember that awful war. I was seven. I heard somewhere that about 1 in 5 Americans has a relative who was lost in the war. I guess your country has less of an idea of how terrible war can really be. Almost every one of us lost someone.''

An export version of a Soviet-manufactured Fiat, the kind that Moscow has energetically moved to sell in the West for welcome hard currency, whirs by in the other direction. ''I have a friend,'' Nikolai muses, ''who worked in Finland for a bit. . . . He came back with stories of how much cheaper we sell those cars in capitalist countries.

''I suppose the government figures if we have extra money it is better off being spent on things like that car. . . . That makes sense.

''We have a lot more cars than before. Have you noticed? Sure, it's nothing like the number you have in your country. But more and more.

''How's work in your country?'' he asks. ''In factories, for example, from what we can tell here, there's less physical labor. And the workers have a higher technical level.

''I guess on the farm, too, there are more machines. But we have moved in that direction, too.''

The comparisons turn political as we pass a routine Soviet traffic checkpoint. ''For a long time, since Khrushchev, such people have gotten away with a lot.''

I venture: ''Andropov sounds like he may change that. What do you think?''

''Yes, he does seem tougher. And it's high time. You know, back in Stalin's time, that's when things were really good. There was order!''

''But there were also camps.''

''Yes. But that was a mistake. Besides, it wasn't even Stalin's own mistake. It was a lack of vigilance, really. It was the people around him who made these mistakes.

''But things were tough, in a good way. . . . The Russian people,'' Nikolai says, twisting an imaginary neck for emphasis, ''they need a tough hand.

''Andropov's speech the other day, for instance. I heard about it on television. It was a good speech.''

''The one about economic reform?'' I ask, relying on the BBC radio report I had heard while still in Finland.

''It was about discipline,'' Nikolai corrects me, choosing to stress Andropov's parallel mention of that theme.

We are nearing my hitchhiker's home village, and we begin talking of ourselves. ''It's rare,'' he says with some wonder, ''that Americans come here to live - certainly, to live permanently. Lots of our people leave. But rarely the other way around. . . . I do remember not too long ago there was an article in one of our newspapers about a young American girl who came here to live. But that doesn't happen very much.''

He suddenly unbuckles his knapsack, which turns out to be filled largely with produce from the small garden plots he and many others in Vyborg keep next to their homes.

''What's your first name?'' He asks while rummaging.

''Edward. But 'Ned,' for short.''

''Mine is Nikolai. 'Kolya,' for short.''

He extracts an enormous home-grown tomato as we reach the turnoff for his parents' village. He refuses my protests that he save it for his family, offers to convey my warmest regards instead, shakes my hand warmly, and walks homeward.

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