The Wisdom Of The People

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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.”

Galina translated and Alexander’s eyes lit up. “Can we go there?” he asked.

I explained the obvious—that the United States, though not as big as the Soviet Union, was big enough, and not quickly traversed. “But, ” 1 said, looking over at my horses, “you can ride if you want to.”

Galina translated and Alexander eyed my horses. They were still at the pasture gate, snorting and pawing the ground nervously. He shook his head and spoke Russian to Galina. “No, he will not ride. But he will shoot and drink in a saloon.”

I went into the house and brought out a revolver, a sack of ammunition. The revolver was an old Colt that dated from the Indian Wars, but it was clean and tight and spent its days in my dresser drawer underneath my socks. I found an old cedar shake the last thunderstorm had blown off the barn, drew a small circle on it with a carpenter’s pencil, nailed it to a fence post and stepped off twenty-five paces. Then I opened the loading gate and slipped in six fat yellow cartridges. I held it out to him butt first. “You do much shooting?” I asked.

Galina translated.

Alexander dropped into a crouch and did an imitation of a man firing a submachine gun from the hip.

“In the army,” Galina said.

Alexander smiled and took the revolver. But for the grace of God, I might have once faced him in the Fulda Gap, that mined and barricaded corridor in Germany the experts had picked out for the beginning of the Third World War. Alexander caressed the Colt and squinted at the target. His first shot went wild, but he put the next five into the shingle. We took turns until we shot up all my ammunition. I picked up half a dozen empties and gave them to him for a souvenir. He rolled them around in his palm for a moment. “Vinchester,” he said reverently.

I looked at the cases. Each had the Winchester logo stamped upon it. Galina walked over to have a look. Then, in a true socialist gesture, Alexander gave half of them to her.

“You can have more,” I said.

Galina shook her head. “These are enough. All firearms and ammunition are tightly controlled in my country. Even empty cases will give cause for suspicion.”

Alexander spoke and Galina translated. “Only the police may have pistols in the Soviet Union. In your country, can any cowboy own one?”

I gave him my standard Second Amendment speech. “In the United States, the Constitution guarantees that every sane, sober, and law-abiding citizen of legal age may own and use firearms.”

Alexander seemed astonished. “That sounds like anarchy,” he said via Galina.

“Maybe,” 1 replied, “but anarchy is better than dictatorship. Besides, the writers of the Constitution had great faith in the wisdom of the people.”

We began walking back up to the house. “Great faith in wisdom of peoples,” Alexander kept repeating under his breath.

We sat in my living room. 1 passed out a round of very cold beer. The Russians sucked theirs down in short order and looked for others. They were provided. Alexander went over, turned on the TV, switched channels until he found a rerun of Gunsmoke , then sat staring at it. I turned my attention to Galina and learned about her life in Soviet Siberia.

She taught college students in the western Siberian city of Tyumen. The government wanted her to liven up her British English with Americanisms and approved her exit visa. But since they wanted to be sure she came back, they refused to let her husband and son come along. She lived in a tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a concrete high-rise that was identical to ones on both sides of it. Her husband taught history and was an amateur archeologist, spending his summer at neolithic campsites that dotted the area. The lush but fleeting Siberian summers were bountiful but winters found her spending long hours in lines to get her daily allotment of bread, butter, cheese, and, occasionally, sausages. She showed me a photo of her young son, Mikal. 1 was astounded. He looked just like my own son who was playing patiently on the floor between us. 1 scooped him up, sat him on my knee, and held Mikal’s picture next to his face.

Galina smiled. “You and I were once enemies,” she said. “Now we are friends.”

“Yes,” I replied. “Look at our children. They are so much alike. But what are we going to do about those nuclear bombs hanging over these children’s heads?”

The question took her by surprise. She had no answer, and neither did I. Each of our governments, in our names, was holding the other’s child hostage. Finally Galina said, “We are comrades. Let that be enough for now.”

We enjoyed an excellent meal, then took coffee out onto the porch in the long northern twilight. I drove them back to their host’s house, and we said our good-byes.

I was halfway down the driveway when I heard Alexander call after me, “Great faith in visdom of peoples!” I honked my horn twice in response.

A month later I sent two small packages to the Soviet Union. Each contained a pair of mittens and wool socks for the coming winter, a pound of coffee, a pound of tea, a handful of chocolate bars. Into Alexander’s I slipped a copy of the new Winchester catalogue. At Christmas I received a handwritten letter of thanks from Galina, but I never heard from Alexander again.

Then came the coup attempt. Tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets and placed themselves between the advancing tanks and the newly elected parliament. Newsreel footage showed a young man attempting to stop an armored personnel carrier by lying down in front of it. It did not stop and bystanders hauled him to safety a fraction of a second before he would have been crushed beneath twenty tons of unforgiving steel. The man looked very much like Alexander. I watched the scene several times on different networks and each time came away a little more certain, though I knew well that the odds of seeing him on TV were incalculably small. Still, I hoped that it had indeed been my friend face down on that Moscow street.

Whoever he was, he had been willing to stake his life on the wisdom of the people.