Friday, September 18, 2009

Moscow 1987/1988

I started studying Sukhomlinsky's work after purchasing a 5 volume set of his selected works in a bookshop in Melbourne. I soon realised that in order to take my studies further, I would need to travel to the Soviet Union. I explored various options, and eventually accepted a scholarship to study for ten months at the Pushkin Institute of Russian Language in Moscow, where I arrived in late August, 1987.

In 1987 the Soviet Union was going through a period of great change under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. Freedom of speech was at a level unprecedented in Soviet times, and Moscow was seeking much more friendly relations with the Western world. Gorbachev had stunned Reagan by offering major unilateral concessions at a summit in Iceland, and preparations were being made for a summit in Washington in December. A further summit was held in Moscow the following year. It was a fascinating time to be in Russia.

It was a condition of my scholarship that I should attend Russian language classes at the Institute from 9 am to 2 pm, 4 days a week, and that I should conduct Russian language classes for the Australia-USSR Society in Brisbane on completion of the course. In return, all my tuition and accommodation was paid for, and I was given a living allowance of 140 roubles a month - enough to cover food, transport and other essential expenses. After classes each day I had a meal and then headed off for the Lenin Library in the centre of Moscow, where I read and collected material for my study of Sukhomlinsky.

The Pushkin Institute allocated a supervisor, Vera Sergeevna Deviataikina, to help me with my research. She provided valuable assistance, organising a meeting with Sukhomlinsky's daughter, with the publicist Simon Soloveichik, and with another researcher, Mikhail Boguslavsky, who had recently completed a dissertation on Sukhomlinsky. She also arranged for me to attend a progressive Moscow school headed by Evgeny Yamburg, where for several months I assisted with English language classes. I subsequently exchanged numerous letters with Sukhomlinsky's daughter, who supplied me with much useful material. She still continues to support my efforts to make her father's work better known in English speaking countries.

In May and June of 1988, shortly before I returned to Australia, President Reagan came to Moscow for a summit with President Gorbachev. The word got around that CBS was looking for interpreters, and about thirty English-speaking students from the Institute found employment for the duration of the summit. I was allocated to Charles Kuralt, who was supporting Dan Rathers' news coverage with background stories. Charles Kuralt was a legendary figure on American television, known for his Sunday morning program "On the Road", in which he travelled the back roads of America interviewing local people.

One of the most interesting experiences of my life happened while I was working for CBS. The largest hotel in Moscow, the Hotel Rossiya on Red Square, had been turned into a huge media centre for the summit. Most of its 3200 rooms were occupied by journalists and television crews, and some sections had been converted to television studios. All press staff and interpreters had passes to enter, but security was high, and most Soviet citizens were excluded. As the summit was concluding, an old Russian war veteran came to the hotel, insisting that he meet with someone from American television. The following day Charles Kuralt took an interview with him, at which I interpreted.

It was a moving experience, which has been described in Charles Kuralt's book A Life On the Road, in a chapter entitled "The Dentist". The veteran described how he and many other Russian prisoners of war owed their lives to American POWs who were held in the same German camp. The Germans were allowing Red Cross food parcels into the American compound, but not into the Russian compound. The Russian prisoners were starving. Under cover of darkness the American soldiers started hurling thousands of food parcels over the fences that separated the two compounds, saving the lives of many Russians. The veteran was in tears as he remembered those who had helped him, and he vowed that Russians would never go to war against America. The interview was broadcast as the closing item on the CBS evening news on June 3, 1988. I felt as if I had been in the right place at the right time.

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