Prior to 1986, the only Soviet citizen I had ever met was a man on the deck of a Soviet trawler in a Danish harbor. That was 25 years ago. I was in Denmark at the time as a Mormon missionary. We gestured back and forth for a few minutes and that was the extent of it. He taught me to say goodbye in Russian and I always remembered it. I remembered the man, too; the experience made a strong impression on me. I had not considered the "Russians" as real people before, with real faces. The enemy never has a face.
Despite this new face, however, the people of the Soviet Union continued to be my enemy for many years. But then in my late '30s I began to rethink a lot of the things I had learned, believed and taken for granted in my life. I was discovering that assumptions are often inaccurate. I decided that someday I would like to visit the Soviet Union for myself, to see the enemy again face to face. The image of the man on the trawler was beginning to haunt me.In March 1986 my wish became reality when I signed up for a three-week tour of the Soviet Union. My oldest son, Mark, accompanied me. He was 21 at the time, close to the same age I had been when I had met my first "Russian." I hoped it would be a chance for us to do something special together, and it was, but only because during our three weeks together we grew to accept one another as adults - an all too often difficult thing for a parent to do. Our common experience became a binding one.
We met many people on our trip, and I was able to dispel many of my prejudices toward the Soviet people. One of the people we met was Vinnick Viatcheslev Gregorievitch (Slava for short). If Mark had not been along, I would never have met Slava. Mark struck up a conversation with him in a cafe in Kiev, and as Slava expressed later, he would never have introduced himself to Mark because he saw it impolite to impose.
Through Mark's initial meeting, we were invited to Slava's home one evening, where we met his wife, Irina, his 6-year-old son, Dimi, and his teenage daughter, Julia. Slava had been a movie director several years before but, due to a serious accident on location, had lost his job. For the past several years he had been working as an auto mechanic, but was still deeply committed to directing film. In fact, he had been waiting for several months for approval from Moscow to begin directing again, this time a film on the ancient Grecian Olympic games that focused on a theme of peace.
He had also been an Olympic rower in the early 1960s and had often been able to travel outside the Soviet Union for competitions. Like myself, he too had lived in Denmark - for six weeks, north of Copenhagen, only a few blocks from where I had lived and, coincidentally, within a few weeks of when I had been there.
Before leaving for the evening I gave Slava two of my etchings I had brought as gifts for just such an occasion. He left the room for a minute and came back with something in his hand. He held his closed fist up to my face and gesticulated intensely. Someone looking from a distance would have thought he was getting ready to hit me (he was built like a concrete piling), but on the contrary, I quickly realized that he was going through a little ceremony of sorts. He had sensed, I think, our common passion for peace, and was creating a ritual to fuse the feelings that had developed between us.
Opening his hand, he revealed a gold rowing medal with a red ribbon. He explained that it was the first national medal he had received and he wanted me to have it. I was embarrassed, but at the same time, deeply touched. I felt very awkward accepting something so special to him, but there was no way I could refuse it. It would have been out of place, somehow, to do so. So I had him pin it to my sweater, and after he did, I embraced him. It was like being crushed by a friendly vise.
We met one more time with Slava before leaving Kiev. He was very upbeat, as he had just received word of approval that day to begin working in films again, so Irina's dinner became a celebration. At the end of the evening, as we walked through the icy paths of the park near his apartment toward the trolley stop, I realized that I would probably never see Slava again. I said to him, "You have given me a piece of your heart." He seemed to be very moved by this. He had opened a window into the Soviet character that I was pleased to see through again and again in the days to come with other Soviet people. His example revitalized my commitment to this venture, not just the three-week trip, but to the longer pilgrimage toward a common voice, which still seems vague, but to which I sense an ever-growing commitment.
Over the past two years I have kept in touch with Slava. The letters are sometimes slow and sporadic, but the link persists. A year ago today I received a telegram. It read simply: HAPPY NEW YEAR YOUR BROTHER SLAVA.
Just last night I received a phone call form the city of Kiev. It was Slava. If all goes well, Vinnick Viatcheslev Greigorievitch will be coming to visit Utah in the latter part of May. If it goes very well, he will bring with him either Dimi or Irina, or possibly both of them.
Again, I will be embarrassed with open arms.