REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK : Air of Freedom Inside, Outside Kremlin
While President Bush was being greeted Tuesday inside the Kremlin, as many as 3,000 Meskhetian Turks were pumping their fists in the air and demanding that they be allowed to return to their historic homeland in the Caucasus. The demonstration, just outside the Kremlin walls, was one of many signs that the Moscow he is visiting is a very different place from the Soviet capital that other U.S. presidents have seen.
In earlier days, such a protest would have been broken up immediately by police and the offenders taken off to jail, especially if a foreign dignitary were in town. Indeed, in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev here, a far smaller demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jews was immediately broken up by hard-eyed KGB officers.
“No visitor to this country can fail to see the signs of change,” Bush said just after he was welcomed at a ceremony in St. George’s Hall at the Great Kremlin Palace. The Meskhetian Turks are among several ethnic groups that were forcibly deported from their homelands under dictator Josef Stalin. Although most of these groups have been allowed to return over the last few years, the Turks have still not been allowed to resettle in their homeland.
Two of the President’s statements in his welcoming ceremony remarks left Soviet journalists feeling disconcerted:
First, Bush referred to the hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens who died in World War II. But every child here is taught that the Soviet toll in what is known as “the Great Patriotic War” was 27 million deaths.
Bush’s political lexicon was the other point of controversy. The President said the Soviet Union had contributed the words perestroika and glasnost to the American vocabulary and that in turn, America had given the Soviet Union the word democracy.
“It seems the ancient Greeks had something to do with it,” remarked one of the reporters.
Security is one of the marked changes from President Reagan’s visit here three years ago. When Reagan toured the Kremlin, for example, police blocked access not only to the historic fortress itself, but to the entire neighborhood around it. During Bush’s talks with Gorbachev on Tuesday, however, tourists continued to trek through the Kremlin precincts. When Raisa Gorbachev took Barbara Bush on a walk to see the Kremlin treasures, an excited crowd of onlookers mobbed the two first ladies. The difference, however, may have less to do with change here than change in Washington, officials say. Reagan’s security was extraordinarily tight, a measure insisted upon by Nancy Reagan after the President was injured by John W. Hinckley Jr.'s assassination attempt in 1981.
Bush has a more relaxed attitude toward such matters.
In 1988, when a small group of American ministers came to Moscow to join Soviet church leaders in praying for a successful superpower summit, they weighed every word, fearing that their prayers, if too frank, could get their hosts in trouble. But the leader of seven American ministers holding a prayer vigil with Soviet priests at the Church of the Resurrection during the current presidential visit, said they no longer feel inhibited.
“In 1988, it was as if ice was beginning to move, but we were a bit skeptical,” said Leonid Kishkovsky, president of the National Council of Churches of Christ and leader of the delegation. This time, Kishkovsky said in his sermon that the Soviet Union still has to recover from the “painful genocide” conducted by past regimes. “I did not even see nervous glances,” he said. “In ’88, you would put people at risk if you talked like that.” Over the last three years, Soviet churches, once prevented from teaching their faith to children and from publishing Bibles, have become virtually free.
“It seems to us that we are here with Christians at a time when thanksgiving is called for,” Kishkovsky said. “This is a massive story of liberation.”
A country with an economy as shaky as the Soviet Union’s might be expected to welcome a chance to separate thousands of bored, cash-rich, souvenir-hunting Americans from their hard currency. But, perhaps as a measure of how much they have yet to learn about market economies, Soviet officials have contrived to make even casual shopping complicated.
Not far from the hotel serving as the press center for the summit is the Arbat, a pedestrian precinct that is central Moscow’s main locale for peddlers of Russian dolls, lacquered boxes, cheap artwork and trinkets. But when reporters ventured there to buy, they quickly discovered that the police were cracking down on the illegal practice of using dollars rather than rubles.
One reporter for a major East Coast newspaper decided to take a chance anyway, ducking into a phone booth for a hasty exchange of dollars for desired goods. Others, more law-abiding or less adventurous, tried to change their money, only to discover that the hotel had closed its foreign exchange counter.
Eventually, the U.S. Embassy came to the rescue, arranging to open a temporary exchange facility outside the press center. But embassy personnel were unable to get enough rubles from the state bank until late in the day--after many shops had closed and peddlers had departed.
Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this report.