The Wisdom Of The People


I had a hand in kicking the Communists out of the Kremlin. 1 did not run guns, disseminate propaganda, play soccer in the street with a bust of Lenin. But I helped precipitate the fall of Communism, nevertheless. No doubt events would have played themselves out without my meager efforts. But I retain the immense satisfaction of knowing that I helped.

It started in 1988 with something called “Soviets Meet Middle America.” The Physicians for Social Responsibility, vigorous antinuclear activists, planned a massive citizen exchange where four hundred average Soviets, as they were then called, would tour the American heartland. The following year, as many Americans would visit Mother Russia.

Now I am no doctor, possibly not even socially responsible. But I live in a log cabin, sleep under a buffalo robe, shoot antique guns, raise my children on venison and home-grown potatoes. Local tour organizers thought my way of life might be of interest to visiting Soviets, and so I was awarded the honor of entertaining them one afternoon in September. I fired up my old pickup and drove the ten miles over to their host’s house.

They met me in the yard. There was a woman about my age, a man somewhat younger. She was an English teacher from Siberia, he, a robotics technician from Moscow. She held out her hand and introduced herself in an accent worthy of the BBC.

“My name is Galina. I am a teacher.”

I shook her hand, then took his. He spoke to me fully half of the English words he knew. “My name is Alexander. I am a worker. How do you do?” His eyes met mine briefly, then flashed over my shoulder to lie lustfully on my truck. He dropped my hand, walked over. Galina followed and translated his questions.

“What kind of vehicle is this? We have nothing like it at home.”

“It’s a pickup truck.”

He looked into the cab and rattled off another question via Galina. “Only two foot pushers. How does it shift?”

“It is an automatic. It shifts itself.”

He looked confused. “How does this happen?”

“Hydraulic pressure and engine vacuum,” I said, guessing.

We went up front, and I opened the hood. Alexander’s eyes widened when he saw the big V-8. I watched as he counted the cylinders on his fingers. Then he locked his hands together, brought a forearm up under his rib cage, stuck out his chest, grunted, and said something in Russian.

“Strong,” Galina said.

Alexander reached for his wallet and passed me a picture. It showed a beautiful but very stern young woman holding a child and leaning on the fender of what looked like a twenty-year-old Fiat.

“My family—my car,” he said.

Galina explained. “Alexander works in the Lada plant south of Moscow. This entitles him to purchase an automobile. Very few Soviets have this privilege.”

Alexander continued to gaze at the oil-soaked engine.

“You drive it to my house,” I said.

Galina translated and Alexander rubbed his hands together. We got into the cab. I sat between them, close enough to grab the wheel to avoid an international incident.

Alexander may have known how to drive a Lada, but he was unfamiliar with the handling qualities of the average American truck. He drove like a madman, spinning the tires after every stop, sliding around the curves on our winding gravel roads. Several times I had to reach for his leg and pull his foot off the gas. “ Nyet! Nyet!

As we cleared the hill above my south pasture, my horses saw us coming and galloped to the gate.

Alexander pointed, grinned, and yelled, “Arabsky!” and then said something in Russian I did not understand.

“He says Arab horses. You must be rich.”

I grinned back and shook my head, remembering a nasty letter I got from my banker the week before. “Not rich,” 1 said, “just foolish.”

We parked in the yard, and I took them up to the house to meet my family. We shook hands all around. Galina had left a young son back in Siberia and immediately took a liking to my six-year-old boy. He tagged along as we walked around the farm.

“How many hectares in this farm?”

I had no idea. “I have ninety acres—about one-half mile by one-quarter mile.”

“How many kilometers in a mile?”

Once again, I was stumped.

“Do you own your land?”

“Yes,” I said. But after thinking a moment, I modified my answer. “Yes, I guess I own it. But there is this American tradition called a mortgage …”

“We have none of these mortgages in the Soviet Union.”

“Well, God bless you,” I said. “But we have them here. If I want to buy land, I go get money from a bank.”

Alexander requested a translation. When he got it, he asked, “Why would the bank give you money?”

“Maybe right now, they are asking themselves the same question. But mostly they do it for an investment.”

Galina did not understand and could not translate it. I tried to explain again, but Alexander moved on to more interesting subjects. He pulled Galina aside and spoke long and earnestly.

She turned to me. “He says on Soviet television we see pictures of Americans shooting pistols, riding horses, drinking in saloons. Oh tell me, Roger, do they still do this in your country?” I thought for a minute. “Yes, I suppose they do, out in Wyoming and Montana.”