The American-Soviet peace march ended here Tuesday after a dramatic meeting with refuseniks, dissidents and others out of favor in Soviet society. Like much of the two-week trek from Leningrad to Moscow, the final day's events pointed up that this is an exciting and upredictable moment in Soviet history.
Over the quietly stated protest of the official Soviet co-sponsor and with the tacit consent of the American sponsors, individual walkers invited the unexpected guests.
Refuseniks Show Up
A dozen Jewish refuseniks showed up, as did three Hare Krishna members and 16 members of an unofficial Moscow peace group that the Soviets view with suspicion.
The meeting took place only hours before the Americans were to fly back to Washington.
The 230 Americans--who had walked and been bused nearly 400 miles with about 200 Soviets in an effort to "end an arms race no one wants"--would be leaving Wednesday morning.
They had started their joint venture outside of Leningrad on June 15, set out for Moscow three days later, and had spent 14 nights sleeping in tents, cots and occasional beds in a variety of camps, hotels, school dormitories, a few private homes and even a sanitarium.
They had been greeted by hundreds of thousands of Soviets, stood and sat through what seemed like countless welcoming ceremonies, had any number of unplanned and emotional personal encounters.
And now it was over. Almost.
Full of Surprises
Right to the end, this walk proved full of surprises, unprecedented events and countless defeats of the impossible and can't-be-dones.
Some of the American participants had already met privately with Soviet Jews who have applied to emigrate to Israel and been refused, with Soviets married to Americans who have likewise been refused and now refer to themselves as "divided spouses," and with dissidents, especially those people who disagree with certain aspects of Soviet foreign policy, such as its actions in Afghanistan, and who insist on linking peacemaking policies to human rights.
Indeed, one young man, Andrei Marinov, had attached himself to the peace walk two weeks earlier, saying he was a dissident who had been imprisoned and tortured in Siberia for having distributed protest literature about Afghanistan. The Soviets protested his presence, at times picked him up and held him elsewhere, questioned him, but he always made it back to the marchers.
Some Americans bought his story wholesale. Others thought he was a "set-up," as one disgruntled Soviet, herself a divided spouse, suggested to several Americans, a person provided by the Soviets "so that the Americans would have their dissident and not go looking for others." Some thought he was deranged and others wavered, simply describing themselves as not able to draw any conclusions.
What Marinov's mysterious presence indicated more than anything else to the Americans was that this first ever joint peace walk of Soviets and Americans was happening during an unpredictable time, a time when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost , or openness, and peristroika , or reconstruction, of society are in the air, but up in the air also. There was not a day on the march that did not indicate some of the uncertainty, promise and turmoil brewing as people try to guess which way the wind blows.
Nothing brought this home more than Tuesday. Those who attended the session with the dissidents were present at a rare few hours of Soviet life. Contrary to predictions of several knowledgeable people, the invited guests showed up.
Surprised by Cameras
First came 12 Jewish refuseniks. They were escorted into an auditorium where not only Americans, but several Soviet participants of the walk, and a documentary film crew of Soviets and Americans awaited them. The refuseniks were surprised by the cameras but after an initial protest they decided to stay.
Two hours later they left with several Americans to split up into small group discussions in hotel rooms. Next on the agenda were three Hare Krishna members who told of their group's persecution by the Soviet government. And finally, 16 dissidents, all members of an independent and unofficial peace group, the Moscow Trust Group, arrived.
The exchanges were frank and often heated. The refuseniks, who said they were all traditional but not religious Jews, told of being denied emigration because of "secret" (or classified) jobs held by themselves or a family member as long as 25 years ago. Once having applied to emigrate they became pariahs, either losing jobs or getting demoted and socially ostracized.
Attributing their status to "pure bureaucratic cruelty," one woman said, "such kind of a meeting for us is the first . . .. Maybe you will convince our authorities to finally let us leave."
For the American and Soviet walkers, who had spent the better part of the morning hugging each other at little final evaluation meetings, it was a different and painful look at each other. Several Soviets said they were familiar with the refuseniks story, but were meeting such people for the first time. They acted stung, one man looking furious and getting tight in the throat as he said, "I am against the people who want to leave our country." They got in a contradictory bind, sounding the Soviet equivalent to "America: Love it or leave it," while at the same time defending the "secrecy policy."
Situation Heats Up
The afternoon grew even more heated with the arrival of the Trust Group members. By then the audience had filled up, and large numbers of Soviets had come in, including several bus drivers from the trip, and several walkers whom the Americans had noted to be leaders, often speculating they were KGB agents. (At other times the Americans would speculate all the Soviets among them, right down to the children, were KGB agents--and so what ). Regardless of who the walkers, all carefully selected by the co-sponsoring Soviet Peace Committee, were, one thing was clear. Neither they nor the Peace Committee staff were dissidents. It was startling, therefore, when one young woman, an interpreter from the Peace Committee, agreed to translate.
There she stood, a government official, unflappable as she translated a Trust member's condemnation of Soviet foreign policy in Afghanistan, "the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, in Hungary in 1956," of its influence in Nicaragua and Angola. The Trust member's overall criticism was that "Soviet people have no control of our foreign policy yet" while, she said, American policy expresses the opinion of all American people.
The Soviets in the audience were incensed and shocked, yelling out and shouting each other down, getting red in the face, not waiting for translations, while the Americans increasingly let themselves be drowned out.
The near free-for-all ended with Soviets and Americans saying they regretted these encounters had taken place on the last day, since they wanted to sort things out with each other. They decided to get together one last time after dinner to try to bring things down.
A Fitting End
In many ways though, Tuesday's final volley was a fitting end. As described by the organizers numerous times, one main goal of the three-week experience was to put Soviets and Americans in close and taxing situations. The gloves must come off when people are pitching a tent in the rain together, or standing before the same makeshift, troughlike sink in a field, brushing teeth and spitting out toothpaste, 20 Soviets and Americans at a time.
A few days outside of Moscow, Martie Olson of Iowa City had stood with a mike in her hand as the bus went down the highway, tears rolling down her face, telling her companions of an experience she had had with a Soviet marcher and what she had learned.
"While Natasha and I were walking, carrying a banner together, we solved the arms race. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev have to make this walk, carry the banner and then, they have to go sit in a tent while it pours. They may not come out until the peace treaty is signed." Not a bad idea, the peace walkers agreed.
On Tuesday afternoon, shortly before the dissidents arrived, Allan Affeldt of Irvine, organizer of the walk and president of the American sponsor group, International Peace Walk, Inc. sat in the lobby at the Solnechny hotel, the remnants of the march swirling around him as people tried to cram everything into their last hours together.
"As a precedent, it's been enormously successful. The concert (held July 4 featuring American and Soviet rock artists) was a nightmare to put together, but being the first step, the next time will be easier. The walk itself was a first. At a minimum, it exposed hundreds of thousands of Soviets to us, in places where Americans have not been. They will never ever be able to feel the same way again. It set the stage for further ventures. We extended ourselves a lot. We took risks. There was lots of uncertainty. And the Soviets had to do the same. It's paid off. There's been so much beautiful stuff going on."
The beautiful moments were often simple ones, and there was not a day on the walk without them. It was a walk that happened at a certain moment in Soviet history that allowed for such precedents as the open meetings with refuseniks and dissidents. And it was an experience perhaps most characterized by quiet occasions that were wholly unremarkable, except for the fact they brought home to everyone the commonalities that exist between the two peoples.