Soviet Visitors Bring Glasnost With Them
Five years ago, hardly anyone might have imagined that George Kessinger, a Santa Ana businessman who grew up fearing the Russians, would be lunching poolside in Newport Beach with Sergey Plekchanov, a Soviet authority on the United States who grew up afraid of “American imperialism.”
That was before Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev turned the Soviet Union inside out. Monday, the two spoke of glasnost , or openess, and perestroika, or restructuring of Soviet society, and before long Kessinger was promising to find Plekchanov some Vitamin C for his cold.
The lunch was part of an unusual dialogue between 25 ordinary U.S. citizens and 20 high Soviet officials.
The leaders, including Georgy Arbatov, director of the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies in Moscow, were delegates to the Dartmouth Conferences, ongoing private meetings between U.S. and Soviet leaders and specialists, this year held in Austin, Tex.
Side by Side
This year, for the first time, leaders took extra time to meet with citizens, invited by the National Issues Forum, a private organization devoted to improving civic participation. The meetings continued Monday in Orange County.
Glasnost was evident at a morning panel where Soviets and Americans sat side by side.
Raising questions posed by Gorbachev’s restructuring, Plekchanov, deputy director of Moscow’s Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies, noted that Soviet authorities are considering strengthening the nation’s judiciary.
“Russia has not traditionally been ruled by the legal tradition,” he said. “Do we want to turn into a litigious society? A government run by lawyers?”
“Don’t forget,” chided his fellow panelist Vitaly Zhurkin, director, Institute of Western Europe, U.S.S.R. Academy of Science, “Gorbachev is a lawyer.”
“Good point,” Plekchanov said laughing with the audience. “But I don’t retract my question.”
Plekchanov went further in his what-if scenario of a democratized Soviet Union with more open elections. “Do we want to create a class of professional politicians with public relations wizards and direct mail operators?”
The Americans were impressed. “It does a lot to erase your skepticism,” said Jay Plum, executive director of the American Assn. of University Students. Hearing Gorbachev’s enthusiasm for openness and restructuring mirrored by so many other leaders “gives you the sense the entire county is putting itself through the wringer to end up with a more open society.”
In the local discussions, held Monday at the Newporter Resort, Zhurkin, director of the Institute of Western Europe, U.S.S.R. Academy of Science, described a new “law of free conscience” to be adopted soon which would legitimize existing religious practices in the Soviet Union and allow the publication of religious literature such as the Bible, the Koran and “Jewish literature.”
Plekchanov added: “Why not have a mosque in Moscow? We have a synagogue.”
Nikolai Shmelev, another official with the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies, even hinted at the possibility of a two-party system in the Soviet Union. “Secretly for myself, I think, I kept in my brains, if I had to answer in one year, yes there will be one party. In two years, surely. But five, seven, 10? I’ll answer I don’t know.”
Plekchanov said he would oppose a second party because it might attack perestroika, or the restructuring of Soviet society.
“We want to see how Americans react to changes in the Soviet Union,” Plekchanov said later, in the buffet lunch line as he filled his plate with cold cuts. “We think we’re on the threshold of new relations in the U.S. It’s in our grasp to scrap the cold war model.”
The Soviet leader and Communist Party member sat down to eat under the arbor with a student, a government consultant, a businessman and a marketing director. A microphone placed by a documentary crew hung over his head. A panel discussion of Soviet leaders and U.S. citizens, moderated by Hodding Carter, State Department spokesman in the Carter Administration, was taped by PBS Monday night. It will be telecast at 10 p.m. May 22 on the eve of the U.S.-Soviet summit in Moscow.
Friendly and accessible, Plekchanov, 42, easily answered questions on subjects ranging from Soviet consumption of alcohol and educational restructuring to ethnic diversity in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists and his affection for American jazz.
Wearing a pinstripe suit and thick spectacles, he spoke simply, in nearly unaccented American English, using stories and jokes to make his points.
Kessinger, president of Goodwill Industries in Santa Ana, asked Plekchanov about figures he had cited earlier: that of the Soviet Union’s 270 million citizens (with 100 nationalities), only 20 million belong to the Communist Party and that only 1% of party members have official duties.
“I thought no one could be in authority in the Soviet Union unless you were a member of the party,” Kessinger said.
“That’s not right,” Plekchanov said. “Only half the Supreme Soviet are party members.”
He observed that Americans have a “fixation” that a one-party system is anathema to democracy. “The fact is, it is the party that came up with the idea of perestroika, " he said. One of the new goals is to reduce the bureaucracy and introduce more non-party members into leadership roles, he said.
Delegates, some with translators, met for round-table talks in the afternoon. Stanislav Kondrashov asked the Americans for the source of their persistent mistrust of Soviets.
“We’re afraid for our own security,” Richard Sneed, chancellor of Saddleback Community College District, told Kondrashov. Sneed said he heard the same sort of enthusiastic talk about reopening the society from Czechs at the University of Prague in 1968. “It ended when (replaced Communist Party leader Alexander) Dubcek ended. It makes me distrustful. I fear someone inside your country will change your plan.”
Many Soviets still haven’t yet heard of glasnost or perestroika, Plekchanov said. “You come to a place, and you don’t know if it’s the early ‘80s, or the late ‘80s,” he said. “In 1985, we never dreamed we’d come so far so fast. Some people think we’re moving much faster than we should.”