Chatting with ordinary citizens in Latvia
For five days, well-heeled citizens of the Soviet Union and the United States talked past each other in the Latvian resort town of Jurmala, temporarily emerging from, then quickly relapsing into, their partisan positions. But daily question-and-answer sessions in the street outside the conference center -- totally unplanned and unscheduled -- were more interesting and illuminating.
At the end of each day's official session, a steadily growing crowd of local people engaged the few Russian-speaking Americans in conversation. They were less sophisticated than those in the meetings, organized on the US side by the Chautauqua Institute and the Eisenhower Institute and on the Soviet side by the US-USSR Committee, but more revealing. The informal exchanges showed how deeply curious both sides are about each other.
In one street session, a young man started off by asking a US official: Is it true that the US Central Intelligence Agency engineered former President Nixon's disgrace because they didn't like d'etente? (Mr. Nixon is still well-remembered here.)
Does the US have free health care, another asked.
Then the conversation turned to the Soviet moratorium on nuclear testing -- definitely one of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's most popular policy moves.
After that came Afghanistan: ``Will you keep supporting the rebels for long?'' one man asked politely. The American official answered with a question of his own: Why did you go into Afghanistan? ``Well, they requested our help,'' said one person tentatively. ``And it was just over our border, added another, ``not like you in Vietnam.''
Then one of the crowd decided to make a speech. He moved closer to the US official. ``Don't crowd him,'' someone chided him. The speaker stepped back slightly, then started to talk. ``It is well known that in the United States,'' he began, lapsing into the jargon of official speeches and articles.
``How come you know so much about the United States?'' someone asked, and he shut up.
The street talks continued without incident until last Thursday. Then someone became nervous.
In the middle of the afternoon, plainclothes security men appeared on the street a block away from the conference center. People approaching the center who were not immediately recognizable as part of the delegation were stopped and asked for their tickets.
One officer stopped two Russian-speaking journalists, and explained that the meeting was a ``closed'' one. When the two reporters said they had been able to walk down the street the previous day, they were told to come back ``tomorrow or the day after.''
After a protest by Chautauqua organizer John Wallach, the plainclothes men disappeared.
``The Soviet Embassy guy from Washington pulled me off the stage and took me outside to see that the [police] men had gone and that people were congregating,'' Mr. Wallach said later. The talks resumed as usual that evening.
On the whole, the official sessions generated more heat, but less light. The discussions, which were intended to continue dialogue between the two superpowers, demonstrated that many Americans and Soviets have more in common than they realize -- notably a strong sense of national pride and a certain unwillingness to admit that their side is wrong. Those tendencies seemed to be reinforced, rather than eroded, as the week went on.
With a couple of exceptions, the official Americans were very much drawn from the right side of the spectrum. And the unofficial members seemed to be little different. One member of the unofficial US delegation described his associates as mostly ``neo-conservatives.''
They were largely middle-aged and middle class. There were few young people and no blacks, other than the jazz musicians who accompanied the delegation. And many of their questions indicated that they were not terribly well-informed about the Soviet Union.
The Soviet group had more young people, but was otherwise a mirror image of the Americans -- well-heeled and mostly professionals and university lecturers drawn largely from the Friendship Society, an official group.
This did not prevent one critical question from a Soviet member about Afghanistan. But with that exception, their support for the official line was unqualified.
The Soviets seethed for much of the week over a tough opening speech by the US delegation leader, Jim Matlock, President Reagan's adviser on Soviet affairs. They were equally angered by a later presentation by Ben Wattenberg, editor of Public Opinion.
``Perhaps it's good for our people to see the real enemy,'' one angry Soviet party official said after Mr. Wattenberg's talk.
The discussions were overshadowed by the case of Nicholas Daniloff, the American journalist charged with spying, which led several senior US officials, including Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle and former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, to drop out. The atmosphere was further complicated midweek by the US announcement of its intention to expel 25 members of the Soviet Union's UN mission.
Soviet speakers, such as Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky, emphasized that the root problem of US-Soviet relations was a ``deficit of trust.'' But Mr. Petrovsky himself failed to win the confidence of the American group when he carefully avoided answering a questioner who invited him to give three examples of Soviet mistakes in foreign policy.
Perhaps the one thing that both sides did agree on was the need to keep talking. As one of the Soviet speakers put it: ``Even if we are the evil empire, you need us to make you look good.''