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Letter to World Leader Brings Close Encounter of Lasting Kind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and President Bush met in Malta last weekend for an East-West dialogue of international import, a Russian-American summit of a more personal sort occurred in the San Gabriel Valley.

Vladimir Naumov, a 41-year-old engineer from Tiraspol, a town of 200,000 people near the Black Sea in the republic of Moldavia, was welcomed into the home of Nancy Scherberth, a 38-year-old real estate agent from La Verne.

“Tell him I’m overwhelmed and very nervous,” Scherberth said to Russian translator Stan Nalywaiko as Naumov alighted Sunday from his plane at Ontario Airport.

Naumov, wearing an American flag pin, replied via Nalywaiko, “This is a day that will always be in my memory.”

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The meeting was the result of a letter Scherberth wrote two years ago to Gorbachev thanking him for signing the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Reduction Treaty.

“You have single-handedly changed our country’s view of Russians as warmongers to the realization of your wanting peace as much as we do,” Scherberth had written in a simple, heartfelt letter.

The missive was among 100 published in the Soviet Union in a paperback book titled, “Americans Write to Gorbachev.” It generated a flood of equally emotional responses from the Soviet people. Scherberth received 35 letters, dozens of family photographs and gifts of a doll, a tablecloth, place mats, a jewelry box and a banner proclaiming “Gorbachev and Peace” in 15 languages.

Among her correspondents was Naumov, whose 10-year-old daughter, Olga, began writing to Scherberth’s 10-year-old daughter, Ellen. The children exchanged gifts of candy and sent drawings to each other.

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Naumov also corresponded with Richard Fuller of Pleasanton in Northern California, whose letter to Gorbachev had also been included in the book. Fuller invited Naumov to spend Thanksgiving with him at his mother’s home in Long Beach. While on a visit to Disneyland with Fuller, Naumov pulled out his address book and pointed to Scherberth’s address.

“I got a call from Richard, who said, ‘Guess who I have with me?’ ” Scherberth said.

A three-day visit with Scherberth, her husband and two children was hastily arranged. Naumov was to tour Universal Studios, visit La Verne Heights Elementary School and view everyday American life.

On Sunday, Scherberth and her husband, Jay, tried to make their visitor feel at ease. “We’re prepared,” Jay Scherberth said, brandishing a bottle of vodka. But Naumov declined, saying he doesn’t drink vodka or even eat much Russian black bread. Naumov was also puzzled by a plate of cut vegetables and dip placed on the coffee table.

“There are things I haven’t eaten before,” he said in Russian. “Like this, I don’t know how to eat it.”

He was likewise amazed that Americans simply poured themselves wine during dinner and drank it without toasting. By the time he left Northern California, he said he had taught his hosts to say na zdorov’ja, which means, good health.

He was overwhelmed by the Scherberth’s 2,600-square-foot home with a pool. In Tiraspol, Naumov and his wife, Tania, an attorney, are considered well off, living in a two-room apartment on the fifth floor of a large apartment building.

Naumov told the Scherberths his home is “a lot smaller, a lot smaller.” But he added, “If you come to visit, you will be greeted with open hearts. Everything we have we will give away, even our hearts.”

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Naumov said he began writing to Scherberth because of a desire to communicate with Americans. His generation, he felt, no longer needs to continue the post World War II hostility that characterized Soviet-American relations. He wrote to President Reagan but received no reply. Then he stumbled on the book of letters and was pleased to find Scherberth’s address included.

“I hope the American and Russian people will come together and not be afraid of each other,” Naumov said Sunday of his hopes for the visit.

Then, opening his arms in a gesture to the Scherberth family, he said, “I can truly say now we are all brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters who will never have to fight.”


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