Soviet Youths Eager to Renew Friendships

Times Staff Writer

With their first visit to the United States less than a month away, what are 32 Moscow high-school students looking forward to most eagerly during their three-week stays in San Diego homes?

Not shopping, not Padres baseball or hot dogs, not even Disneyland, says the Soviet educator whose efforts have helped bring about a flowering relationship between high schools in Moscow and San Diego.

“Rather, they’re just anticipating meeting their friends again, like Chris and Fred, with whom they fell in love with last summer,”

Nadia Burova said. “And, for me, that shows the benefit that is coming from our kid-to-kid exchanges, that of natural human interest, and something that grown-ups can learn from as well.”


The March 15 arrival of the Soviet students will mark the latest phase of the sister-school exchanges under which 20 teen-agers from La Jolla and San Diego high schools spent three weeks last summer with their peers in the Soviet Union, including a one-week home stay, rare for a foreign student to experience in that country.

The San Diego-Moscow travels are among the first wave of new private Soviet-American student arrangements that have developed as a result of agreements reached between former President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Burova, who visited San Diego earlier this week to check on final arrangements for the students, has played a key role in setting up the exchanges. She is the director of the Center for Creative Initiatives for Peace in Moscow, which invited the San Diego students to the Soviet Union as a follow to initial efforts of La Jolla High literature teacher Gloria McMillan.

McMillan, the California finalist in the NASA Teacher in Space program, set up the Spacebridge Project in 1986 among interested students to promote international understanding. It has featured extensive letter-writing between La Jolla and Moscow students and a live satellite teleconference between the schools last spring, as well as the August, 1988, trip.


‘Incredibly Excited’

“The kids are incredibly excited,” Burova said, adding that, from time to time, they reminisce while looking at pictures of the San Diego students cavorting with them at a Soviet summer camp and later in Moscow. “Seeing the photographs is a favorite pastime . . . in a way, the kids have a new global family.”

Anticipation runs high on both sides. La Jolla senior Christopher Swan, president of the Spacebridge Club, smiled broadly at news from Burova Tuesday that his host last summer, Victor Zaks, will definitely be coming as part of the Soviet contingent. Zaks had called Swan from Moscow the night before, but had said only that his selection was still up in the air.

Andy Benner, president of the International Friendship Club at San Diego High will be host to Alexey Topogrebsay, with whom he stayed in Russia. “Being with his family allowed me to see the Soviet Union different from tourists, and I hope to give him the same opportunity,” Benner said. Benner might also turn Topogrebsay “loose” in a record store because he is interested in American music.

“The (Soviet) kids have been holding bake sales and sponsoring dinners to raise money,” Burova said. Aeroflot, the Soviet national airline, has donated all the air fares between Moscow and New York, worth about $120,000.

The Spacebridge project has raised sufficient money already--more than $28,000 with several fund-raisers still to come--to pay the domestic air fares between New York and San Diego, and to carry out an extensive agenda of visits, both academic and recreational. Burova’s center paid all but the air fares last summer for the American students.

Most of the Soviet students come from two of Moscow’s better educational facilities, school No. 23 and school No. 45, where English is taught extensively. But eight students will be from vocational training schools in Russia, which take in orphaned children and teach them folk dance and other native arts. Those students performed for the San Diego group last summer and will present their dances next month.

‘Caviar for Souvenirs’


“The kids have been collecting cans of caviar for souvenirs to bring,” Burova said, “along with traditional folk crafts such as painted toys.” The parents are just as thrilled as their children, she added. “They have seen the American children as guests in their homes and know that there is nothing to fear from sending their own children to the United States,” Burova said.

Burova hopes that the Soviet students will learn of Americans’ informality and willingness to smile readily.

“I want them to see how Americans work and demand results of themselves, to view their initiative, and see a direct connection between hard work and a better life,” she said, pointing out that the exchanges benefit from the openness of Soviet President Gorbachev and his perestroika, or restructuring.

“In a way, I guess I want the students to return to Russia as ‘revolutionaries’ of a sort,” she laughed, “in the sense that Gorbachev is a revolutionary because perestroika is a revolutionary restructuring.” In the same vein, however, she does not want the Soviet students to become conceited by having been chosen for the once-in-a-lifetime trip, but rather simply to represent their native country honestly and good-naturedly.

Burova expresses concern only over the potential for exposure to drugs while the students are in America.

“We do know of the drug problem in America, " she said. “I hope that there won’t be any problem.” She asked American parents not to let the Soviet students go off on their own in dangerous urban areas.

Burova has broad plans for international cultural activities beyond the present exchanges. A group of 10 mothers and children are also coming to San Diego next month under the joint sponsorship of Burova’s group and Mothers Embracing Nuclear Disarmament (MEND), based in La Jolla. Burova expects the school exchanges to become a continuing activity and hopes that some parents and children will choose to visit the Soviet Union on their own in the future.