What’s a Fun L.A. Day to Soviets? It’s Debatable

Times Staff Writer

They set out to sample the best of Los Angeles’ popular culture. They ended up at a 24-hour supermarket.

Yawning and bleary-eyed as the clock approached midnight, it finally occurred to Igor Sarapin, one of the three students from the Soviet Union’s National Debate Team, that they had missed out on a unique American experience: an opportunity to shop around the clock.

“They’ve never seen a supermarket. They want to go to a supermarket,” their hosts buzzed. And off to the supermarket they went.

It was a fitting end to a tour top-heavy with consumerism, laden with Yankee good will and wrapped in a G-rated package of Christian ethics, espoused by their hosts from Pepperdine University in Malibu.


Forensics Tour

The Soviet team of Sarapin, Vadim Volos, Sabina Modelevskaya and their adviser, Alexander Nikitin, are visiting Los Angeles as part of a tour in which they are competing against forensic squads from universities throughout the country.

The Soviets took on Pepperdine University Thursday night and, after the mandatory stopover in Disneyland, engaged in a war of words with the debate team from Cal State Fullerton Friday evening. Neither of the debates was scored.

The Soviets, who will leave Los Angeles today, also got a chance to ride the waves at Malibu’s Surfrider Beach. Modelevskaya surfed so well that her Pepperdine hosts started referring to her as “Gidget.”


The tour is a semiannual event, sponsored by the Speech Communication Assn. and the U.S. Committee on International Discussion and Debate, with a U.S. team visiting the Soviet Union every other year.

Members of the committee say that the Soviets are known as a serious bunch when it comes to forensics. The team members, picked for their debating skills and for their proficiency in English, argued during the two forums that the media works best when it is highly regulated.

“The Soviets generally tend to be pretty humorless, not at all like the British, who use a great deal of wit and humor when they debate,” said Pat Ganer, a speech communication professor at Cypress College. “But the whole notion of debate is fairly new to the Soviets. When we go over there, we didn’t even call them debates. They were known as discussions.”

Despite the Soviet squad’s obvious skill with the English language, certain aspects of modern U.S. culture proved more elusive.

At one point, during the team’s designated “shopping stop” in Westwood Wednesday night, Pepperdine student Kimberly West tried to explain the inexplicable popularity of horror film star Freddie Krueger to the Soviets.

“Freddie, like, has these long nails and he scratches people,” West said. “But he only does it in your dreams.”

Volos kept staring. “We don’t have anything like this Halloween,” he said later. “You have this once a year? Why?”

The tour of Los Angeles began in the elite haven of Malibu, passed through the western corridor of the San Fernando Valley and touched down in front of Mann’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.


Although two of the debate team members had never been to the United States, all have traveled extensively, revealing a knowledge of Western ways that far exceeded their hosts’ understanding of life in the Soviet Union. Their hosts were impressed.

A suggestion to visit the more raucous spots in Hollywood was nixed by Chris DiBattista, the ebullient student body president from Pepperdine, who led the seven-member host contingent.

“Having a tour of Frederick’s of Hollywood led by students of a Christian university wouldn’t look too good,” she explained.

Instead, they cruised through the million-dollar neighborhoods of Beverly Hills, rolling down Rodeo Drive on the way to Westwood. A stop at a big shopping mall was voted down.

“I know these malls,” Sarapin said. “Every city in the United States has these malls.”

The tour peaked in Westwood, where the Soviets showed their music appreciation during a stop at a record store, where they shopped feverishly. Later they retired to a frozen yogurt shop.

Being Followed

That’s where the only bizarre incident of the evening occurred. It was revealed that Pepperdine officials had sent an undercover security guard to follow the group on the tour. As one member of the group said, “It seemed more like something that would happen in Russia.”


The man was standing across the street, leaning against a doughnut shop when his familiar face was spotted by one of the students. They waved. The man disappeared.

“Even though they’re 99.9% sure that nothing would happen, they just wanted to make absolutely sure,” West explained.

By the time they reached the supermarket, it was after midnight and the store in Malibu was nearly deserted.

They proceeded en masse up and down the aisles, pointing out various items. They looked in the bakery section, stared at the fruit. Sarapin bought a whole pineapple. Nikitin purchased five pounds of coffee. All agreed it was “convenient.”

“The only thing we have open 24 hours,” Sarapin said, “is the railway station.”