MORNING sun lights up our room at Eaglet Youth Complex, a 15-story hotel exclusively for young people and situated in suburban Moscow. I lie in bed watching a cockroach forage on my night table. Hesitantly, it enters a ``Roach Motel,'' brought by my roommate from New York. He cheers. ``Works better than at home,'' he announces. Beyond the window sprawls the city, surprisingly huge, gray, and dusty-looking, with row upon row of prefab apartment blocks, their concrete facings badly weathered. Many factories belch smoke into the sky. Moscow appears raw and recently built, its urban landscape punctuated by overgrown greenery and garish propaganda signs. A crimson banner above Kosygin Street, which fronts our complex, announces: ``GLASNOST WIDENS THE SCOPE OF DEMOCRACY FOR THE 70TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE REVOLUTION.''
In the elevator en route to breakfast, I fall into conversation with several Ukrainian high-school students on vacation from Kiev. One of them, Sasha, sidles up to me. ``Will you let us see your weapons?'' he asks.
``Come on, we're not so naive. We know what goes on in America. Did you bring your guns?''
I reply that ``Roach Motels'' do the job in Moscow.
We walk around the lobby and converse on a variety of topics, or rather we talk at one another. Americans and Ukrainians firmly hold to their initial convictions. We part amicably, but I'm disturbed. I have come to the Soviet Union with nine teammates. We range in age from 15 to 18, high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors. We're here to compete in a 50-nation Russian language and literature contest held only once every three years: the Olympiada. This is the sixth such event, and our group, winners in a runoff series across the United States, is sponsored and paid for by the Association of American Teachers of Russian.
Surely, I tell myself, the real goal to our being here is to foster understanding. Now, I wonder if that's possible. Russian we share as the common language with everyone we encounter; but words in different cultures take on different, even opposite, meanings.
My roommates and I find that on this noncompetition day we're free to go where we wish, unescorted. We decide to explore the city center, especially Red Square. Maybe at her center of gravity we'll hear, and understand, ``Mother Russia's'' heartbeat.
Outside the complex, we're accosted by two tough-looking 20-year-olds in Levis, Reeboks, and muscle shirts.
``You Americans?'' asks the taller one in English. He introduces himself as Dimitri. Before we can answer, his companion eyes my feet and says they wish to speak to us of friendship. We stroll toward the subway station at Lenin Prospect, and talk turns to my New Balance sneakers.
``What you want for shoes?'' asks Dimitri, who sticks to English. ``How you say, to improve myself, yes? I got flags, lacquer boxes, football jerseys - I used to be on Dynamo soccer team [unlikely, this being the most prestigious of Soviet sports teams] - military hats....'' To emphasize the last, he opens a plastic bag and reveals a blue and gold Navy officer's hat. I catch the whiff of a cologne Russian men love to douse on themselves: ``Red Moscow for Men.''
Inside the station, the woman in charge of watching the escalators slumps in her booth, peaked red cap covering her eyes: the face of ``100 percent employment,'' as propaganda proclaims? The subway itself runs very smoothly. A noiseless blue train whisks us the 10 or so miles to the Kremlin in 15 minutes.
Red Square is full of soldiers and large signs, like ``HERE WE DON'T SMOKE!'' We manage, finally, to shed our Russians, my sneakers still on my feet, and decide to try one of the large hotels for lunch, surely better fare than at Eaglet. The Intourist hotel lobby is filled with globe-trotters in Hawaiian shirts and shorts. They chat loudly, in English, about their touristic forays. A few yuppie types in jackets and bow ties sit on comfortable maroon couches. Upstairs, at the restaurant, the hostess shakes her head at the three of us while yelling into the telephone: ``Tell the Germans not before 3:30.''
At the Hotel Moscow we can't eat because it's ``sanitary hour.'' Nevertheless, a Supreme Soviet delegate brushes past us to a table. In the beautifully set dining room of the National Hotel, the waiters are busy serving themselves. They expect a group next day, we are told, so cannot possibly serve us. Up against a true Iron Curtain that crashes down whenever service is involved in a land without incentives, we haggle with a reluctant cabdriver for the trip back to Kosygin Street. There, we face greasy meat bits afloat in broth. We smile at the Mongolian team sitting nearby. They avoid our eyes.
In contrast, as I finish dessert, excellent ice cream (Soviet ice cream, vanilla, is good and seems readily available), I am engaged in conversation by a Chinese girl who eagerly exchanges addresses. I ask what she thinks of Moscow. She says she finds it very green. She wants to know if I wear braces on my teeth for fashion's sake.
As the northern sun disappears in a pale, drawn-out twilight, I find myself unexpectedly at Zagorsk, a country village 50 miles north of Moscow. Here the most beautiful and important Russian monastery still functions. On its grounds, beneath blue and gold onion domes, peasant women collect holy water from an outdoor fountain. Orthodox monks in flowing black capes sweep along the walkways, occasionally stopping to offer advice to devout parishioners. We're with our regular guide, assigned to us for our 12-day stay. She looks at the monks with suspicion and chidingly asks: ``Are they really so innocent?'' That leads me to think about a question on our competition briefing sheet: ``What does the Soviet Union mean for you?''
In the contest itself, for which I've been preparing through my first three high school years and with a stint at Harvard summer school, I mention cultural achievements, territorial vastness, and the need for mutual comprehension for mutual survival. But my last day in Moscow I get a more personal answer while exploring near Yaroslavl train station, gateway to Siberia and Central Asia.
I watch an old Uzbek try crossing the wide avenue leading to the station. With his walking stick, white turban, flowing beard, and indigo robe he is out of ``The Thousand and One Nights.'' After several attempts, and ignoring the underground pedestrian passage marked ``TO STATION,'' he finally hobbles across - and immediately is swallowed by the milling crowd of the terminus. Try as I will, I can't spot him again.
Was he a vision, some sort of illusion? Is the Soviet Union so diverse and contradictory that its union is illusory? At home, I begin to wonder if my whole trip wasn't a dream.
No, a few kopecks rustle in my pocket, a gold medal and diploma lie on my bed, and also the offer of a five-year scholarship to Moscow University. My gaze lingers on a miniature icon of Semiofan, a miracle worker and former monk at Zagorsk. Our guide - so hostile while showing us the monastery - gave it to me as a farewell gift. How Russian in its generosity, and in the implied paradox. How long an undertaking to answer what the Soviet Union truly means for me.