Peace Marchers Capture Soviets' Attention : Thousands Greet Walkers With Curiosity and Emotional Displays

Times Staff Writer

There were no brass bands, lock-step formations, ordered ranks or uniforms--none of the trappings of a victory parade. Instead, there were about 400 sunburned, foot-sore, bedraggled people straggling along the last five miles of the day's 15-mile walk.

Nonetheless, it was a triumphal entry that the American-Soviet Walk made into this ancient city. Indeed, it seemed as if the entire population of 250,000 had turned out to welcome the 230 Americans and 200 Soviets on their walk from Leningrad to Moscow as they made their way from the outskirts to the 11th-Century walls of the kremlin (fortress) last weekend. Thousands lined almost every foot of the route and inside, in the kremlin park, where the welcoming ceremonies were held, another 20,000 to 30,000 were gathered.

An earlier rain had cleared the sky to blue; the sun was dazzling and people were in a holiday mood, bringing along babies in carriages and the family dogs. They sold fruit drinks, chased after toddlers, pressed gifts of flowers, balloons, candy, pins and post cards on their visitors, asked for autographs and exchanged greetings of "peace and friendship"-- "mir y drusba." Just outside the kremlin, local organizers offered the peace walkers the traditional Russian greeting of bread and salt.

Emotionally Overwhelmed

It was an overwhelming experience for many. Old men burst into sobs; women gave way to tears they were biting back, and the Americans, in tears themselves, rushed over to embrace them.

"Look around you," Carol Colburn of Los Angeles reported one man had said to her. "Can you possibly believe we want war?"

For the most part, however, it was joyous, even playful, with town folk and visitors hugging and kissing and making jokes. During the formalities inside the kremlin, a cherry picker hoisted some American photographers high over the crowd. Among them were documentary film maker Cathy Zheutlin of Los Angeles and Fred Segal of Santa Monica. As the mayor delivered his formal speech on the platform below, the cherry picker started to descend and Segal, his voice carrying clearly, shouted: "No, no, no. Slow down, slow down. More, more, more."

No one was offended. Such was the mood of the day that the crowd roared its laughing approval and waved at the camera.

It was the largest turnout Novgorod had seen in years, residents said.

People here are not as used to seeing Americans as they are in Leningrad and Moscow. As the walk--jointly sponsored by the American group International Peace Walk Inc. and the official Soviet Peace Committee--proceeds to Moscow, it has become a major story here. It seems it has caught the public's fancy to see such a large number of Soviets and Americans walking down the highway from Leningrad to Moscow carrying Soviet and American flags, with their stated goal of "ending an arms race no one wants."

Usually Behind Schedule

Housewives drying their hands on aprons have dashed from cottages to get a glimpse of the walk. Families gather at roadsides and pose for photos with Americans. People in cars and trucks honk as they pass the walk on the highway. A few stop. They are alternately curious, thrilled and moved.

For every such spontaneous act, there is at least one planned event. Villages, towns and settlements have organized to bring out the people. And they are there in numbers--along with local dignitaries. Some come in delegations--wearing the uniform or emblems of their sports clubs, schools, committees--and wait patiently, even in the rain, for the usually running-behind-schedule peace walkers. They provide a welcome that is always cordial and polite, sometimes enthusiastic and warm. Dancers and singers in traditional folk dress perform.

"This is incredible. I've never seen so many people before--except for Woodstock," one American said, gaping at the crowd that had gathered in the City Hall courtyard of Tosno earlier this week.

Increasingly, as the peace walk catches the country's attention, the formal occasions spill over into genuine celebrations. That happened on Monday, in Proletariat, where the long wait and formal welcome and songs ended up with walkers and town folk literally dancing in the streets.

Staged or spontaneous, these public occasions are essentially superficial encounters. Some have led to invitations to stay in Soviet homes, and visitors have come to the campsite as a result.

The interaction among the Soviet and American walkers, however, are where the most wide-ranging, free-wheeling and frank discussions are likely to take place.

The bonding between the two delegations is not yet completed. The flare-ups that are bound to happen in such a close and demanding environment have yet to come. Soviets and Americans have stopped engaging each other out of politeness. They sometimes keep to their own groups, but when they do seek each other out, it seems it is because they want to.

They massage each other's backs, stop in mid-sentence to swat mosquitoes on their listeners' foreheads, drink out of the same bottles, sing on the buses, whisper together during the same public speeches. In a few instances, the camaraderie between Soviets and Americans has turned to romance.

As they walk along the highways, the conversation ranges from mosquito repellents to the arms race. They talk about soccer, singers, vagrancy laws in the Soviet Union, homelessness in the United States, drugs, the ecology, walking shoes.

The exchanges can strain communications skills, such as one American walker trying to define "hoopla" to a non-fluent speaker of English. And how to respond to a question on unemployment posed as follows: "How can people be fired from jobs and cause so much unemployment when the unions are so strong?"

The Soviets are coping with vegetarianism--an oddity to them, and the diet of choice for one-third of the American delegation. And the Americans are coping with the Soviets' interpretation of that diet--and their tendency to segregate the vegetarians in separate dining areas.

An Unsettling Difference

The two groups are, in many ways, well matched. Both delegations consist, for the most part, of what would be called in American terms middle-class professionals--although class is not a term Soviets accept. Whether it is a matter of wealth or privilege, however, the majority of both groups enjoy some things of the good life in their respective countries. The Americans have more children and retired people in their delegation; the Soviets have more World War II veterans.

One difference that is only beginning to surface is the definition of "peace" on this Peace Walk. Other than an absence of war, there is no complete agreement, even among the Americans. Can there be peace without justice? Peace without human rights?

That the Soviets clearly do not want a war is beyond question for the Americans on the walk. Yet this is, in many ways, a militaristic feat--and among Soviet peace activists, the concept of a strong military presence is not a contradiction to a peace movement.

For the Americans, especially the pacifists among them, it is unsettling. And it starts with something as elementary as language, with Soviets saying, for example: "We are fighting for peace."

The differences, however, pale before a common determination from both delegations to make this unique experience work.

Early in the walk, one Soviet sociologist, Seva Marinov from the Institute of Social Research in Moscow, who is on the walk and surveying both delegations for attitudes and information about the other, commented on that determination:

Probably there would be differences and quarrels, he acknowledged. But, he said, the Soviet Peace Committee was determined to carry it off, and some of the Americans were almost "starry-eyed in their sense of a peace mission.

"Anyhow," he said, "I think we are doomed for success."

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