Peace Walkers Fit Fun, Friendships Into Tight Schedule

Times Staff Writer

Several days into the American/Soviet peace walk, it seems to be shaping up as something between a controlled event and a loose happening. One thing is fairly certain--a lot of compromising has been going on, with both sides appearing determined to make it work.

Although many of the Americans got off the plane Monday ready to establish instant intimacy with every Soviet they met, hoping to share a tent and their life histories and philosophies from the very first night, they have accepted not only that their counterparts have been selected by regional branches of the official Soviet Peace Committee but also that the Soviets are more comfortable, at least at first, with formality.

Still, the Soviets have made a real effort to give their offbeat guests the no-frills look at the real Soviet Union they have been asking for. And there are already countless incidents of one-on-one encounters not only between the Americans and their Soviet counterparts on the walk, but also with those seemingly "average" people they meet by chance.

'Arms Race Nobody Wants'

The walk from Leningrad to Moscow by 230 Americans and 200 Soviets "to end an arms race nobody wants" is jointly sponsored by the independent American group, International Peace Walk Inc., and the official Soviet Peace Committee. The marchers will leave Leningrad on foot and by bus today, with Tosno, a town of 50,000, scheduled for the first night on the road.

The Americans arrived here Monday unsure how they would be received or even if glasnost would apply.

Patterns have begun to emerge as the walkers have gone through several exhausting days of sightseeing and ceremonies.

They, and their Soviet counterparts, have been staying at a campsite about 25 miles outside the city in Repino, a resort town on the Finnish gulf. It is an area filled with parks, big modern hotels of little beauty that draw Soviet and Eastern bloc vacationers, and hundreds of old gingerbread cottages, one more charming than the next.

In these days of the "white nights," twilight lasts long past midnight and people act accordingly. Already the jet-lagged Americans have taken

to eating at 10 and 11, then dancing at a nearby disco or walking on the beach.

The camp is no showcase and it is doubtful that it draws many privileged bureaucrats. It is a simple place of slightly dilapidated wood structures and small metal trailers. It does have hot water in the shower house, plumbing of sorts, and more mosquitoes than most people will see in a lifetime.

The schedule the group has been following has all the aspects of a tour--a Soviet-style tour with plenty of ceremony and formality, statistics and sightseeing that emphasizes some economic and social aspects of their brand of socialism in addition to culture and history.

Some Soviets and Americans have begun to balk at the relentless pace. Andrei Bogdanov of Volgograd, a radio news manager assigned as a liaison with the American press, said at a midnight meeting with Soviet and American journalists, who were protesting the schedule, "Look, look, we (Soviets) got a taste of one day ourselves. It's too much. We can't do it either. We'll try to change it."

Facts and Factories

By Tuesday afternoon there could not have been an American on this walk who did not know this is a city of 5 million people, 65 rivers and canals, 42 islands and 300 bridges.

By then they had been driven around the city, taken a boat ride down the canals, drawn a crowd as they and the Soviets sang and played guitars on the sidewalk in front of the elegant old Hotel Europe and, having split into smaller groups, visited 10 factories to meet the workers.

At a baby clothing factory they were ushered into the director's office, seated at a U-shaped linen-covered table, given chocolates, mineral water and Russian cigarettes and told the history of the factory.

Founded in 1930, it had ceased making children's clothes during the war and instead produced uniforms. As the director completed her welcoming remarks, she struck a by-now-familiar theme, "We hope that the time will never come again when this factory has to stop making children's clothes for military clothes. Children's clothes are a peaceful product."

The Americans responded appreciatively to that. Although they had started out the day dismayed at the prospect of a factory visit, fearful this was an omen of what the entire trip would be--one stiff meeting after another, with little time for individual contacts--they were attentive throughout the whole tour. At the end they asked so many questions that the Russians among them finally were murmuring that the tour was getting hopelessly behind schedule.

Square of Manhood

Later that day the group was bused to the Square of Manhood where they were to join with local people and walk together to a war memorial. The Americans were astounded to see several thousand people waiting for them. The welcome was more reserved than tumultuous, but the Americans seemed genuinely surprised that such a big crowd had gathered.

Judith Rane, one of the walk's organizers, had her head down for a few moments and couldn't speak. Looking up, she smiled and said, "Sometimes it just gets to me. It gets me right in the throat."

If it was true that most of the 3,000 "people of Leningrad" so gathered had come not as individuals but as members of official delegations from schools, work or social committees, it was also true that most of the Americans accepted it and regarded them as people first and therefore citizens to interact with.

And there were some who were there by chance. Alex, a tall young man wearing a T-shirt with Miami emblazoned on it, walked carrying a small boy waving two little American flags. Alex said he'd heard about the peace walk, lived in the area and just came. He had finished school the year before he said, and did not work.

What did he do?

Nodding ahead at the line of walkers, he laughed and said, "I walk."

Memorial Cemetery

The crowd walked together through a light rain down a wide boulevard lined with white birches, fir trees, blooming lilacs and high grass sprinkled with Queen Anne's lace and buttercups. Their destination was Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery, a place of haunting simplicity where 470,000 people are buried in common graves, all of them civilian or military victims of the 900-day siege of the city during World War II.

What was scheduled as an "anti-war meeting" was actually a formal ceremony with speeches from members of the Peace Committee and several of the city's heroes of "the Great Patriotic War," as World War II is called here. The drenched, somber crowd listened patiently. The event ended with a wreath-laying ceremony at the base of the monument by four veterans, two Soviets and two Americans, William Lieb of Santa Monica and Joshua Stanley of Orinda, Calif.

It could not have been much more formal or organized, but the Americans afterwards reported themselves moved by the ceremony and impressed that the city's Peace Committee had done such a good job of organizing it, bringing out the people and getting the participation of high-level citizens such as the war heroes.

Witness to the Siege

David Stein, an Orange County real estate developer, stood outside the memorial. He had gone with a Soviet walker to throw coins in a fountain at the memorial, and an old woman had seen him do it, he said. With her granddaughter helping her walk, she made her way over to him. She had lived through the siege, she told him through his Soviet friend. Her family was buried there.

"She had to have been 90," Stein said. "She thanked me, and she told me, 'We don't want war. Tell Reagan we all want peace.' She gave me a kiss. That was moving."

In between these events the walkers are being taken around the city in deluxe tour buses preceded by a police escort that takes them through all lights, stops all traffic and startles all pedestrians innocently crossing with the lights. Inside the buses the Americans wonder with chagrin if this is any way to establish peace and friendship with the people of the Soviet Union.

The topic inside the buses is often of peace and friendship. Many Americans and Soviets are sitting together. Their talk ranges from life style and personal history to descriptions of the many-faceted American peace movements and protests from the Soviets about such television programs as "Amerika," which depicts American life after a Soviet takeover, and "The Day After," which showed the Soviets making the first nuclear strike, something which the Soviets on the march say could never happen.

Late-Night Informality

And so it is proceeding. It looks as if the staged events and impromptu gatherings will not cancel each other out. Just how extraordinary the encounters may be remains to be seen. Roughing it in a camp setting breaks many formal barriers. Late one night at camp for example, two men, an American and a Soviet, sat on a bench on the sidewalk leading to the showers. It was 1:30 a.m. Towels, soap and toothbrushes in hand, they talked. The American had his tape recorder out, and he was asking the Soviet what he liked least about America.

The large number of babies and children in the American delegation, about 27, also breaks the Soviet reserve. The Russians are delighted to have the children, and a few Leningraders on the march seem to have decided to bring their children along too.

Music and singing are also helping, as is the great, and greatly underestimated, game of hacky sack, where a ball-shaped beanbag is tossed among a group using any part of the body but the hands. Within an hour of arrival at the campsite on the first day, the Soviets, at least the boldest of them, had begun to play. Now people are joking that it is better to forget the summit meetings and shuttle diplomacy--that the way to end the arms race and establish peace among nations just may be hacky sack.

There are moments when it all comes together, and one such was when the group stopped along the road on the way back to Repino after a visit to a Lenin memorial. They stood in the parking lot across the road from the tree-lined beach, the sun only halfway toward the horizon although it was 9 p.m. A group started playing hacky sack, this time joined by the bus drivers, middle-aged men in suits and ties, bumping the ball around while holding lit cigarettes.

Two Americans were high up in the branches of a tree shooting pictures. A group of young women in their late teens had made their way across the road and gradually became part of a circle around Esther John of Seattle, a psychotherapist and one of the few black people on the march. John was playing her flute, and after a while she began a song they recognized. That led to an exchange of singing between the Americans and Russians. Small clusters of people were scattered all over in quiet conversation.

The children took rides on any number of shoulders. A jogger in running shorts went by on the beach. The organizers tried in vain to get people loaded on the buses. It was difficult, for the moment, to imagine there was any such thing as problems among nations.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°