H. Brandt Ayers: Our Russian friends in a jam
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It was shortly before Thanksgiving, 1975, and the mood in my Moscow hotel room couldn’t have been more bleak.

Clouds so low, almost level with my fifth floor room, were spitting a light snow as I transcribed a taped recording of the Soviet nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov.

He was pondering whether Soviet authorities would allow him to go to Oslo to accept the Nobel Prize for Peace, awarded for his advocacy of nuclear arms control, weapons he had helped develop for the USSR.

Communist authorities thought his contrarian views were political and feared he would defect, an illogical fear, he thought, because his voice would be lost among a host of Western scientists with similar views.

He saw his stand as moral and ethical. “Surely from this point of view,” his taped voice said in the spare hotel room, “it is better for me to remain in the country to which your life and your struggle are devoted and whose problems concern you.”

His wife was permitted to go to Norway, where she read his speech to the Nobel Committee and invited dignitaries from around the world.

How distant and incongruent those heavy last hours in Russia seem in light of the “60 Minutes” segment last Sunday on the attractive, young Russian billionaire Michael Prokhorov, new owner of the (bad) New Jersey Nets basketball team and good friend to a bevy of Slavic Playboy bunnies.

Recollections of Russia past were also pushed to the front of my mind by an essay in The New Yorker about the fuming nerve-wracking glacier of steel Moscow traffic has become — unimaginable from my long-ago perspective.

My diary of that time recorded these first impressions on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 1975: “We’re flying into Moscow at night, about 8:15 — very dark, only a sprinkling of lights over a city of seven million people. An odd sensation ... Thursday morning, it is gray.”

Memories of my first view of Russia are atonal: gray buildings framed virtually empty streets whose sidewalks were filled with gray, unsmiling people.

Streets of the other great so-called Communist power, China, were not empty in 1975; they were filled with wave after wave of bicycles, but the nation was on the cusp of dramatic change. President Nixon had gone to China in 1972.

China would leave Russia far behind because its economy and the vitality of its people were choked by socialist ideology for only 25 years, and it remembered how a market economy worked, something Russia had forgotten in 70 years of Communist rule.

Russia’s stumbling entry into market economics didn’t begin until Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary and didn’t show obvious signs of capitalism until after he had dismantled Communism, ending the Cold War.

Change was very apparent by 1998 at a conference Josephine and I attended, after which I wrote:

“The gray is gone: The gray buildings, gray people, and worn, gray ideology — all gone. In their place is a hustling, bustling, traffic-choked city where even the Communists aren’t Communists and ambitious young people are doing deals, out to make a buck.

“From the cocoon of colorless ‘babushkas’ has sprung lovely, leggy young women — beautifully coifed and made-up. New churches and shops and hotels and outrageously expensive restaurants … are everywhere.

“Disco music, once denounced as decadent, blares from Planet Hollywood, but swelling underneath are melancholy cellos, the moan of structural stress, and the angry skittering of violins signaling psychic distress.”

Boris Yeltsin had allowed the economy to fall off the cliff. He would resign within a year in favor of the iron-fisted Vladimir Putin, who steadied the economy, stifled dissent and restored Russia’s fragile self-esteem.

If capitalism brought color to the streets of Moscow, it also brought choking, maddening traffic. An ambulance driver was seen aimlessly throwing snowballs in the river. Traffic was stalled so long that his patient had died.

On a return trip for a friend’s wedding, Josephine said the traffic was so bad that the wedding party missed its appointment at the wedding bureau.

She was called on, and did perform an Episcopal wedding ceremony for a Russian Orthodox couple in a limousine stuck in traffic.

With typical Russian ingenuity, the notoriously corrupt Mayor Yuri Luzkhov ignored the obvious solution of mass transit and kept building more roads for more cars. The Third Ring Road is now the most clogged in the city.

From then to now, change in formerly socialist powers has been epic.

The one constant in my memory: a great scientist speaking out in dissent, for morality and ethics is a value not always honored in morally ambiguous Russia.

H. Brandt Ayers is chairman of Consolidated Publishing and publisher of The Anniston Star.
comments (1)
« YellowHammerFlicker wrote on Saturday, Sep 04 at 10:53 AM »
Interesting article! Thank you!