Ship of Fools
I never did get it, what this trip was all about. I stood at the rail of the cruise ship Alexander Pushkin staring out at the vast rolling shore of the Volga. Here or there was a patch of grain, not high enough even in late July to conceal the line of furrows plowed straight downhill in the most erosion-producing way possible. And here or there was a skinny cow in an untidy hectare of pasture. But most of the land looked empty, unsown, ungrazed, uncultivated. And all around me were minds just as fallow.
I was on something called the Volga Peace Cruise, a sixteen-day trip to the USSR featuring a nine-day boat ride from Rostov north up the Don, through the Don-Volga canal, and on up the Volga River to Kazan. The 160 passengers were all Americans. Most were antinuke activists and peace-group organizers with sixties leftover looks. Others were products of the Old Left. The peaceniks talked about peace, mostly in terms of atomic holocaust. The leftists talked about peace, mostly in terms of Soviet-American relations. The entire program of the “peace cruise” consisted in the bunch of us talking about peace. And the Soviet government had provided five Russian “peace experts” to talk about peace too.
I asked some of my fellow passengers what the point was.
“Atomic holocaust is the most important issue facing mankind,” said the peaceniks.
“Atomic holocaust and Soviet-American relations,” said the leftists.
What about dissident Russian peace activists? Was anyone interested in talking to them?
“There is no need for dissident peace organizations in the Soviet union ,” said the leftists. “The Soviet union already has the largest peace organizations in the world. In America dissident peace organizations are important because American foreign policy is prowar. But the Soviet union is propeace because twenty million Soviets died in World War II.”
“Well, if we see any . . .” said the peaceniks.
Did anyone expect the Soviet “experts” to say anything everyone hadn’t heard Soviet experts say already?
“Soviet-American relations are very important,” said the leftists.
Were we going to convince those experts that their government ought to pull its troops out of Afghanistan?
“Huh?” said everyone.
Or maybe the leftists would convince the peace activists to take a more political view of things?
“What leftists?” said the leftists.
FRIDAY, JULY 16, 1982
I was attracted to the Volga Peace Cruise by a half-page advertisement in the February 27, 1982, issue of The Nation magazine. It read, in part, “Find out for yourself what’s going on in the Soviet union capital and heartland as you join The Nation this summer on an exciting, affordable Soviet excursion.”
I have a sneaking love of the old-time left and that compendium of their snits and quarrels, The Nation. Mind you, I’m a registered Republican and consider socialism a violation of the American principle that you shouldn’t stick your nose in other people’s business except to make a buck. Still, Wobblies, Spanish Civil War veterans, the Hollywood Ten touch the heart somehow.
But, to tell the truth, I’d never met any Old Leftists. I expected them to be admirable and nasty, like Lillian Hellman, or brilliant, mysterious, denying everything, like Alger Hiss, or—best of all—hard-bitten and cynical but still willing to battle oppression, like Rick in Casablanca. I did not expect them to be the pack of thirty fussing geriatrics I met at Kennedy Airport, misplacing their hand luggage, losing their way to the ladies’ room, barking at the airline personnel, and asking two hundred times which gate we’d have to be at in three and a half hours.
They were leftists all right. In between palsies of fretting, they’d tell you how wonderful the Soviet union was: Pensions were huge, housing was cheap, and they practically paid you to get medical care. Believe me, you haven’t been bored until you’ve been buttonholed by a seventy-year-old woman who holds forth all afternoon on the perfidity of American foreign policy and shows you pictures of her grandchildren. These were people who believed everything about the Soviet union was perfect, but they were bringing their own toilet paper.
SATURDAY, JULY 17
The ad had promised excitement, and surely entering the Soviet union would be exciting. The Russians are famous for making border crossing an exciting event. But we just stood in line for four hours. “You can understand the delay,” said a lady who had complained all night about everything on the flight to Moscow. “So many reactionary forces are trying to destroy the Soviet union .” If reactionary forces are vulnerable to understaffing and inept baggage handling, they don’t stand a chance at the Moscow airport.