THE sun is setting, casting lengthy shadows along the roof of my 80-year-old home. After nearly 20 years here, I know every line and corner of its turn-of-the-century spaciousness. Its pleasant comfort hardly registers on my consciousness anymore. And yet today I see this house through the eyes of Yuri Gursky, and it and so many other facets of my life will never be the same. Yuri is 60. For half his life, he and my husband have corresponded - exchanging letters, tapes, books, and photographs, sharing thoughts, major life events, and milestones in their children's lives. A 30-year correspondence might not be something to write home about, except for the fact that Yuri lives in the Soviet Union and David in the United States.
What started in 1957 as a project to promote communication between Soviet and American youth deepened into friendship and a quiet passion to understand each other - not as citizens of enemy countries but as men in a tense and troubled world.
David visited Yuri in the Soviet Union and thus could see him in his home, taste his food, and feel the warmth of his stove. For Yuri to come here proved more difficult. But patience wears a long cloak, and finally, after 30 years, tendrils of glasnost reached all the way to Novgorod in the form of a visa for Yuri to visit McFarland, Wis., and change our lives. That sounds effusive, but it is true.
Photographs of Yuri's two-room apartment look so cozy and attractive that it is hard to equate its appearance with the cold statistics: The average household in the Soviet Union has 325 square feet, in contrast to the US average of 1,463 square feet. As we showed him through our home that first evening, however, the statistics came to life. I could feel his attention as we led him upstairs to the bedroom he would have to himself for his 17-day stay. What does he think of this three-story, four-bedroom house for (now that our children are grown) two people? Will I ever take it for granted again?
When I read of incongruities in manufacturing and distribution in Yuri's country, I no longer think just of Soviet-manufactured shoes piling up because no one wants to buy such poor-quality goods. I remember Yuri asking to be photographed in front of a wall display of sports shoes. His interest in that common sight was more eloquent than a dozen paragraphs.
Then Yuri wondered how such a rich country can let people huddle over air vents on city sidewalks or camp under bridges. Now more than ever, so do I. Watching people search through trash bins for food in Washington will haunt Yuri as vividly as I am haunted by his reports of having to travel 115 miles to Leningrad to buy good meat. Trips to the supermarket will never be the same after watching him trying to select sweets to take home to his granddaughter.
One can never predict what will be most memorable from such an experience. For us, as the fatigue of being travel agent, host, tour guide, cultural interpreter, and friend fades, some memories grow sharper. The delight of a grocery clerk who is studying Russian when she discovered that her customer was himself a Russian; the patience of a crowd of fourth-graders waiting to get Yuri's autograph in Cyrillic script and his excitement as he read letters those children wrote to him after his visit to their school; Russian lessons at our kitchen table; and learning to brew strong tea to drink with brown bread and butter.
As we watched Yuri's plane take off, my head was abuzz. Yuri, an ordinary Soviet citizen, had visited in the home of an ordinary American family. How many more such visits in both directions will it take before our countries will be able to work as partners in the world community?