MAqic .

CARp ET wxlk
beyond Tl-iE REd CURTAi N
a report on the 1987 Ameri can Soviet walk
by tom j ohnson
The words ' s oviet Union, Communi sm, and Russia' instill in American
soci ety a disparity of r eactions from fear t o curiosity, host ility t o
hope, and respect to righteou s anger. We are mutual partner s in an
unspoken pact of intent to preserve a human future, yet we can't talk to
each other without misunderstanding and mistrust. As an alernativ e to
mutual acknowledgement our countries bristle with rhetoric and commi t $600
billion per year towards more powerful 'protective weaponry' . As our
representative United states government· moves us ever closer to the
cliff's edge of self extinction, responsible and concerned people b egin to
ask themselves, "What can we do?"
In January of 1987 a small but determined band of visionary
suzvivors from the nine month, Great Peace March across America, set up
office in Orange County, California to see what they could do. They
called. their organization International Peace Walk, Inc. Allan Af f eldt ,
the group leader had just returned from Moscow after successfu lly
negotiating a soviet style sequel to The Great Peace March. This project
called for a group of 200 Americans and 200 soviets to trek t og et her by
foot, by bus, and boat the 450 miles from Leningrad to Moscow. Affeldt ' s
stated premise was, ' I believe that the arms race can an d must be
reversed, and that this is most likely to take place in t he context of a
dramatic improvement of relations between the united states and the Soviet
Union. As citizens we cannot enact the legislation that will end th:::-
arms race but we c a ~ help to create a climat e in which s u ch legislation
, .
is increasingly possible.' The event would be known a s 'The Amen.can
Soviet Walk, ending an arms race nobody wants'. Its g o ~ was to promote
peace by going beyond the traditional cold . war barn.ers of human and
cultural exchange. Wa1Jcers were to pay, or raJ.SE! through sponsor s , $2,500
to partic:i.pate. Recruitment started around mi..t7-
February
• There were onl y
four months available in which to put ~ t all together.
· ths of frantic work and an unbroken
, On Mone!a:y, 15 . followmg mon 'caDS from 31. states, ranging in
cham of ozqamzational m:iIacleS, 230 from the sky in their Aeroflot
age from 8 months to 79 years d to touch the hearts and
charter flights to touch the Sovl.et soil an th next several weeks we
bodi
. 'oz' It as 'NYT1,,., For e
as of Soviet CJ: ens. w . ced disappointment
, ected d ected We expenen
saw things both exp an unexp ,. , dous cross cultural
and el ati on, physical tiredness , confUSl.On, JOY, tremen tinuously an
diffi.cultias, sadness, and endless sw:pri.se. The walk was coJ.1 e
elusive thing to try a n d interpret for both the sovl.ets th
Americans. Nothing like it had ever happened b efore. perspective was
tough to come by. ,
Minutes after being swept through customs (without insp ection) . we
were introduced to our first cheering soviet crowd waiting for u s outSJ.de
the airport lobby. Th es e rallies became daily rituals everywhere we
went. HUndreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of people would gather
to say how much they wanted peace and friendship with the United states
and its peoples. They said it officially t hrough amplified microph on e s
translated into Englis h, and they said i t unofficially in ways it was
i mp o s s i b l e to n ot understand.
Most of the American participants spoke no Rus sian. Most soviets
don't speak English. They spoke to us with radiance from their hearts and
with tears of appreciation rolling down their cheeks. " Th ank y ou for
coming
n
, they said. We communicated love and concern t hr ou g h the most
powerful eye contact I'Ve ever experienced, through our embraces and hand
grips that were anYthing but casual or merely polite. We were s howe r ed
with love, gi.fts, and cOlorful., f ragrant bouquets of freshly cut flower s .
These intensely genuine displays of emotion were repeated many times eac h
day, day after day. For most of us, it gave the word 'overwhelming' new
meaning.
As we drove away from the Leningrad airport to our first encamp ment
on the forested :banks of the Baltic Sea in what would be our mobile home
bases for the next 23 days (eleven, 40-passenger, glossy orange tou r
buses), we began to lose ourselves on the endless conveyor belt of
p] anned and unplanned activities: meals, concerts, chance encounters, all
night bonfires with locals, museums, the walking, palaces, factory tours,
meetings, subway rides, vodka bouts, parades, overnight home stays, trai D
rides, and deep, developing relationships with the Soviet walkers.
Like hosts everywhere, the Saviet:s wanted to impress us, to show us
everything :beautiful and wonder.ful about their country. Seeing or doing
one thing meant mi ssing something else. There were so many fascinating
things gmng on day and night that it w"'aS' difficult t o make choic e s
or to get enough sleep. The soviet priority seemed to be showing us their
countxy: its historical places, its indUStry, and its cultural depth. The
Ameri can priority was meeting the people and spending quality time with
them. Officially, these priorities were nearly always in confli c t
finding resolution through continuous hard bargaining and comp romise,. da;
by day. ono:ffi.cially, people and explored for thems elves to the
limits of their adventurous abl.lity.
The soviet people are pre-occupied with the notion of p e ace. When
you're there it becomes quite clear ,that t:h
ese
peopl,e know what war is and
desperately don't want it going on 111 thel.r country. For a thousand years
they'Ve be !i invaded and conquered from the East, the S01;1th and the West.
Most recen:tl , they experienced modern waged them by the
GermanS in iorJ.d War II. 20 million of dl.ed. 72,000 towns
, , 100. t to the ground and thel.r CltiZens massacred. In th
and C1.t,es were IJUIn , • .:" d Th . e
Nazi occupied areas, 99 out of 1.00 people were xa.u.e . e agneulture,
2
industry, housing, and trans ort ti
was no foreign aid or on were absolutely destroyed. There
we lost 350,000 lives and p. to help them rebuild. By comparison
Metaphorically World W severe damage at Pearl Harbour.
far as the ar n .ended Just l as t week in the soviet union as
their histo a.s concerned. During this terrible time in
ry, The states is remembered as their ally.
The dav after our . al . .
'.I arn.v III Lemngrad we were joined by thousands
of locals Who carne out to wa1k y"'; ':th • th .. .
"'oO. us III e pounng zaan to a memonal
where 200,000 were buried in common graves. Leningrad was beseiged
for 900 days WJ.thout food or fuel. People ate their shoes and burned their
homes for wanntll. 9 people out of 10 in I-eni ngrad perished but the city
never They wanted us to know how bad it was. Reminders of the
suffenng and memorials to this tragedy were everywhere we went, echoing
the message - "We want p eace because we r emember war. This mu st not
again." yet when we talked about Afghanistan, or soviet aggression
III the world outside of t heir country, we were met with contradictory
stories that justified their actions and comparisons to s i milar united
s t ates aggression. In the soviet Union, ' p eace ' means an absenc e of war
on their s oil. To t his t h e y are truly dedicated.
Thousands of Americans visit the soviet union every year. What made
this walk spedat were the unprecedented c::i.rcumstances under which it took
International Peace Walk had negotiated with Th e sovi et Peace
Committee a 'gJ asnost' reflective openness which included: an absence of
restrictions on who we could talk to, what we could phot ogr ap h, how many
journalis t s we could b r ing, or how we could ex p r e s s oursel ves
religiously. Instead of spending our time s ecluded with ot he r Americans
and a tour guide, we travelled with 2 0 0 s oviet citizens representing all
of their republics and nearly as wide a diversity of ages and occupations
as the American contingent. Over half of these soviet walkers s pok e
English and were readily willing to translat e for us as we travelled.
Except for the conclusion in Moscow, we slept in tents pi t ched in
urban and ruxal. campsites, village fields and Soviet Pioneer yout h camps.
We would spend several hours of each day walking betweeen 10 to 20
kilometers amidst forests, villages, agriCUltural areas, and citie s.
Through every populated place we passed, the streets were lined with
curious residents waiting to catch a sight or hold the hand of the first
Americans they'd ever seen. To them we were a symbol of hope, of peace,
and of friendship after 40 years of cold war rhetoric. We were heroes.
People would stand in the rain for hours just to acknowledge our passing
as we drove by in our buses. In a city called Novgorod, half of the
200 000 residents come aut for the biggest event in tha city' S 1 4 0 0 y sar
h.i.story. The soviet organizers were as astonished as we were. Nothing
like this· had been predicted or planned. A raw nerve was tapp e d and
people were responding by the millions. "Miry druzshba, miry druzshb a,"
they chanted as we passed, ''Peace .and and friendship ."
Nowhere did I detect any
The route along which we walked was the main highway from Leningrad
to Moscow the soviet onion'S two largest cities. Except where i t passes
directly thxough urban areas, it's a two lane road with wide
Think of the relative comparison to the · numerous paral l el
freeways from New York to washington. While we walked, they. shut down
traffic on the road. The drivers and passengers got out of thell' and
trucks, smiles as big as rainbows and cheered us on. It amazmg. and
unbelieVable. Nothing like this could have happened a.n the
states. We came to see the \evil empire' but couldn't locate
anyWhere. Where is the mythical enemy?
3
Exc pt for walking and sleeping in tents the trip bore little
resemblance to a camping excursion. We were treated like a high level
diplomatic delegation on a magi c red carpet ride. Three times a day we
ate the best food avail able off crystal and bone china. We were lavishly
entertained by the best performers. Saunas, Volga river boat rides, and
rece ptions we r e a r ranged for us.
For the s oviet offici al 9 we were a wild spark , an experiment. Wh at
would happen if 200 undisciplined Americans were let l oos e on a 450 mile
trek without customary controls? The soviet union seems like a cl os ed,
controlled, bureaucratic social system that is trying t o change and is
pUZZled as to how to go about it. The biggest noticeabl e simila rity
between soviets and Americans is our appearance as people. We l ook and
dress alike. You could take 50 Soviets and drop them into any place in
America. They'd blend right in. An Obvious difference i s Amer i can
spontaneity and the Soviet lack of it. In a predictable world, ou r
unpredictability was like a magnet or a sparkling toy that attracted and
drew at tention everyWhere it went. I was amazed to discover h o w
unfrightened soviets are of America and the American gc,.,crnment in light
of our rhetoric, threats, and weapon stockpiles. The American fear of the
soviet union and coIllllIWrism is not reciprocated. The Soviets fear Europe,
Asia, and the Middle East; the sources of past invasions across their
borders.
To the crowds we were a passing comet of hope. To our 2 0 0 fellow
soviet walkers we were soul brothers and sisters who forged deep b onds of
friendship. We t alked l ong into the nights about life and philosophy,
relati..ons between men and women, music and freedom, war and peace, nuclear
weapons, birth control, literature and hope, cars and money, capi t alis m
and communism, Afghanistan and Central America. We were the same and yet
we were also different. Products of our cultures, and well aware of it.
one of the surprising things we discovered in our di scussions is
that Soviets do not see themselves as communi sts. Th e soviet defini tion
of communi sm is quite different from the American defini t ion . Our
defini:t:i.on suggests that everyone who lives in a ' c ommu nis t ' count ry is a
communist. eoIllllIWrism is defined by the soviets as a distant evolution ary
ideal where everyone volllntarDy gives acx::ording to his ability and takes
only according to his needs, with all people liv ing in complete h armony.
In tbi s ideal communist state, there would be no need for governme nt s ,
bureaucrats, or a military. When soviets compare t his defini tion to the
highly imperfect system now in place, they have an impossible time c alling
their country or themselves communist. From their point of view,the
COr:l'"i1rnie:t, party is ccmprised of pecple who seek t hi s utopian goal through
the path of governmental socialism. They see this evol u t i o n taking
centuries or millenia to achieve.
Whenever we talked about the arms race, the dialogues were
re7ealing. From the soviet perspective, the arms race is a product of
capitalism and the high profi.tabili.ty of weapons produ ction by the United
states mi..l.itary-indusl rial compleX. "The soviet missiles exis t , " they say
"only to deter nuclear aggress:icn against us. lever again will the Soviet
nion be unprepared to resist an attack, nucl ,ear or conV'entional.
ll
e auld often by saying that Amencan, fear, O.f the Sovi t
onion and C'X'lITlJ:'l1mi sm was a much more patent sympt om an dnl l.ng th arm
race than efrher capita.lism or defense contractors. "How could you b
maid of U!!J', they'd as , puzzled? Or they would counter wi t h h t d
about their i n si stent desire for peace and how b adly w
-.eclia Jied about their c:ount:ry. IrperllapS it' s not ,as con tructi'l or '1
get so cau ht p n hee er e S i e UD.2.on, staz: d or p cor
as i.: is to l earn a.tn.It 7
00
are perce1.·Ted 1ll Am c a It w
sa . _ ese poin 9 of4-en see e d i p ossib e to g t a c r o , ,
"
. t. Their denials
d they' h ard been the stand
for orld p ce«, t h e ' d seQ to Change them
arcI
, party peace lines for 40
ole ly observable'
Y
say . "Why d • "The Soviet Union stands
. l.S t h t ' oes Ameri
Americans ather aren't thl.s tactic is ca want, war?" What's
what they hear Th or if they d workl.ng very well.
h • e perception of f . 0 listen, t hey don't believe
appro c • " ear 1.S not being changed by this
Treating this 'SOViet f
details begging f or seems t o be one of the most
b efore l.t ends Us. American n if we hope to end t he arms race
visiting the Soviet Union beiIJ.: COUld help to remedy this i l l n e s s by
their experiences. The an Open :"J.?t.
es s
, and then talking about
their country. This WOUld mean d1m1nl.sh this fear by opening up
l etting soviets travel abroad let,ting go of people who want to l eave,
independently and extensive1 alloW1Ilg foreigners to travel more easily,
information. short " Y, and by opening up their countJ:y to foreign
len as the Soviet ! g1v;mg up some of that immobilizing control. As
. , g ,Union lives s e :'retly behind a black mask people will
the worst: of and be afraid. I hope that the Soviet government
will that theJ.r long term security interests are best served by
applymg the 'gJasnost' principle to openi ng their country up to the rest
of the world. As Americans, we can incrementally ask f or and try to
enlarge travel opportunities for both ourselves and for soviet citizens.
This has be n a pretty positive account of the Soviet uni on. "What
about the negative side, the news reports we read, and the stories we
watch on TV"', you ask? My observation is that most of thos e r eports are
true, but they do not a c cou nt for the full picture. We t alke d with
refuseniks, .dissidents, hare kri.shnas, and independent peace gr oups who
definitely didn't like it there. We saw the control, the lack of consumer
goods and the lack of personal freedom l.iJ:lerally reported in the press.
They,::e real, but they are not a justification for the arms race we are
engaging in. In many respects, the arms race, causes or enhances , thes e
problems. What we'Ve done with our awareness l.S to focus a.l:I; attention on
a small picture of the soviet onion that represents everythJ.ng awt:u
l
and
, rythin good Of course, they'Ve done the same thl.n g t o
1.gnores eve g. .' I
A
' , th th ' r media Violent crl.me, starv1.ng and home ess
mera.ca Wl. ea • all t .... ut ;t's not a full pictu re
desti:tutes ' d AIDS It's rue, IJ ...
, , raCl.sm ., that the soviets realize this p ictu re
of Amenca. The difference 1S, :tin to believe in black and
' th Americans however, wan g ,
e whole story. . n have carelessly labelled the Sov1.et
good and bad, nqht is not in our best inter es t .
tJn:ion black, bad and Hie it t:here and wouldn1t want to le:av e
My sense lif'as, thai: mcsc SOJ.ecs st Americans want to leave the Unl.ted
the Soviet union any more than mo
States. It's home. . ort we said a sad and tear filled
On July 8 at the Mc;>SCOW with whom we had s hared s o much
gOOdbye to our soviet waJ]d..ng p . ence Returning home was a mor e
throughout this exceptional expen
t
vpopuLar' heroe s ' to ' Soviet
, We wen
l.cult task than actic lives. Confused and frustrat e,d , we
dupes' and back to our ordinaI=Y h mpari
s on,
the United States as an
saw. America with new eyes. By with the gent?-e, controlled, and
anX'lOUS, tense, and angry pla
CS
---"":ves in. Thl.s acknowledgement
d
'meLS
Soviet culture we' ]m tieed it as clearly before. We have so
hit hard because I had never no have so much to learn from us. I think
to learn f1:om. them, best instead of our worst.
1.ts time to try exchangl.ng was it a success or a failure? These
. Did the walk do any good? ad- The answers depend on the yardstick
kinds Of que I ions are always ilDpact. In some areas we were highly
Used to measure progress an not so successful. The arms race s till
SUccCSsful. and in other areas, 5
--
g oe s on. The walk itself came of f i n spite of the countless
impossibilities. 230 Americans and 200 s ov i et s have a profoundl y
different impression of each other than they did before the walk. One of
the major objectives of the walk was to c r ea t e an interesting a nd
distinctive event that would capture worldwide media interest and draw
significant attention to the issue of our collective need to end the arms
race before it ends us. We created an incredible event, but it was
largely ignored outside of the soviet Onion. An enormous amount of effort
was extended to keep the news services abreast of the walk as it was
organized and as it happened. At the national level we "received
practically no mention. Perhaps this is because nothing went wrong.
Imagine the news coverage we would have recei:Ved if even one significant
negative incident had occurred. In this aspect of big media
communication, the walk was "not successful. It was a tremendous learning
experience. The political., economic, and social momentum of the arms race
is an enormous obstacle to be overcome. In the end, the responsibility
for t elling stories like this falls on people like you and I.
The United states and The soviet Union aze r :::ti V' e
countries committed to conserving their political, ide ological and
economic systems. Unless this dedicati on to cons ervatism i s broad ene d to
include conserving the ability of our delicate pl anet to sustain life, it
won't matter a whole lot whose systems were right or wrong. 45 years ago,
Ameri cans and soviets overcame their philosophical differences to combat a
larger problem. Together we won a war against tyranny. Together we n ow
face a common enemy immensely more threatening than the Nazi domination of
earth, the total extinction of all life on our small planet by nuclear
destruction. We have 60,000 nuclear weapons pointed at each other on hair
trigger, long distance, computer; zed guidance systems. All set to go, all
of the time. We have enough explosive force to equal 4 1/2 tons of
dynamite for every person on earth, yet we continue to build 6 more
nuclear weapons as each day passes. It's time -t o come together again.
OUr common ground far exceeds our differences, it's our move • • •
If this article has stimulated any interest in the idea of visiting the
soviet union as a citizen diplomat, I recommend two resources worth
c
..... 4:-r .- ...... beck and a ... ha ge • 'w-. .... .-'-' -_ _,"-"""' ..... _. _.. ...
organization. -
read - 'citizen Diplomats', by Shuman and Warner
call or write - Center for US/USSR Initiatives
3220 Sacramento St
San Francisco, California 94115
(415) 346-1875
copyright 1987 - southern
-"I:" SUre
salt
108
permission is hereby given to re .
an
d c::i..rcuJ.a1:e this non-exclusiv
e artiCle