Wednesday, March 12, 2014

High Road From Moscow

Shortly after brother Jeff headed back to the ‘world’ via the Army’s labyrinthine bureaucracy – late spring ’64 – I was departing Moscow, metropolis of the mighty Soviet Empire, to return home by way of the Continent. During the ‘50s, I had served in the military in West Europe, but those carefree days as a Cold War soldier were well behind me.†

Jeff’s return began from a remote American base about 60 miles below the 17th parallel, the line then nominally dividing North and South Vietnam. He had been dispatched to Vietnam in August ’63; I had reached Moscow a month later.

He was soldiering, I was studying. We were both preoccupied with Communism – he with the North Vietnamese military across the border, I with the Marxian legacy of its patron, the USSR.

Each of us had gone abroad with some political baggage, but as a result of our respective experiences – mine with the ‘enemy’, Jeff’s with our Vietnamese allies – on return, we were traveling much lighter, more enlightened.

For Jeff – a Vietnamese linguist – becoming familiar with the country’s culture and seeing the war up close tended to blur the US image of saving South Vietnam from what would become its ultimate fate. He found that the average soldier or simple peasant had far less enthusiasm for Saigon’s war and the US effort to help them ‘win’ it, than reflected through the prism of Washington policy.
As for me, a year of studying with Soviet professors and living among their students had begun to subtly alter my image of the great East-West divide. Few of the Soviets I got to know well were as hard core Cold War as portrayed in American media. Then meeting Communist East Europeans on my journey homeward changed my perceptions even more.

My closest Soviet friend, the late Avgust Alexievich Mishin, the USSR’s leading specialist on ‘bourgeois constitutional law’, saw me off from Moscow with the better part of a bottle of scotch.

Avgust had lost an arm fighting outside Moscow in the late ’41 counter-offensive that saved the capital. His empty left sleeve (Soviet prosthetics were primitive), was a vivid reminder that WWII was still living memory for millions of Soviet citizens.

Professor Mishin (l) at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Moscow, 1991

My journey west, first to Poland, began from the Belorussky railroad station. Nina, the department secretary at Moscow Law School; Valery, a Russian grad student friend; and my Soviet academic adviser came to see me off. Nina brought a bouquet, Valery, a box of chocolates. We exchanged farewells on the platform.

At the conductor’s signal, the professor helped me aboard with my luggage. Once in my private compartment, he quietly asked if I had enough Soviet currency for the long train ride across the steppe – he knew foreigners weren’t permitted to leave the USSR with rubles.

I had held back a ten-spot, which Anatoly Grigorevich didn’t feel was sufficient. To my astonishment, he reached into his pocket and discreetly handed me more rubles. I was deeply touched – not merely by his generosity, but by the trust and courage it took to pass money to an American in the middle of Cold War Moscow. If anyone had witnessed him, he would have been in serious trouble.

Belorussky Station, Moscow

Reaching Warsaw, I momentarily had the crazy illusion I was back in the West – the atmosphere was ‘lighter’, more open – it was a livelier place, more on a human scale than Moscow. But in fact, I was in the capital of the USSR’s largest and most important East European satellite.

The Ford Foundation of New York had given me funds to head home via Communist East Europe. I would be interviewing legal scholars in several countries starting in Poland.

Arriving at my hotel, I thought perhaps I had stepped through a looking glass into West Europe. Though of course a state-run concern, the lobby was inviting with many stylish people coming and going, but the biggest surprise was an inviting, well-stocked bar with polished mahogany paneling.

The barkeep was an attractive young blonde with a décolletage that would have shocked puritanical Moscow. Stepping up to the bar, I ordered a beer not knowing what to expect. With a flourish she pulled a tap and set before me a cold beer with a nice head. I marveled – I hadn’t been served a cold beer in a year.

Sure, they had beer in Russia – pivo – but it was not readily available. In what passed for cafés in Moscow, the main beverages on offer were Russian vodka, Armenian cognac, or Georgian wine. Once in a blue moon I’d see an announcement at the university that beer would go on sale, two warm bottles per person until they ran out, so I’d arrive early, and then let Russian winter chill the beer on my window ledge.

I bore letters of introduction from Moscow, and my first interview the next day was with the top Polish legal theorist, a law prof at Warsaw University. Professor Ehrlich, a tall, slender man in his late 40s, received me at the Journalist’s Club located in an elegant 19th century palace.

Before going in for an excellent lunch, we sat in the garden having an aperitif – a small stemmed crystal glass of Polish vodka. I waited to see how he would drink it – in Russia vodka was downed by the tumblerful – but to my relief my host sipped his drink.

Over the next few hours Professor Ehrlich took all my questions, answering each fully and with refreshing candor. I was accustomed to Soviet academics responding cautiously, especially with a foreign scholar asking questions and taking notes.

Soviet academics never uttered criticism of a fellow scholar. Ehrlich quite freely evaluated his colleagues as well as my Soviet interlocutors. He didn’t have a high opinion of the legal philosophers to the east.

While in town, I wanted to meet other Polish jurists, and it just happened that the leading jurisprudence professors from Poland’s major law schools were in the capital for a conference. The Warsaw law faculty was conference host, so I was invited to an informal gathering the following day – a picnic on the sandy banks of the Vistula, Poland’s main river.

It was a great opportunity since I couldn’t otherwise have met jurists from far corners of the country during my limited stay there. The conference was wrapping up, and one of the best-known of the group invited me to visit him at his law school where he also happened to be rector of the university.

I took a train to Lublin and spent a fascinating day and a half with Grzegorz Leopold Seidler, a prolific scholar of Polish legal thought as well as the history of political ideas. We became good friends and later had occasion to collaborate.

Portrait of Rector Seidler of Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin, Poland

A Communist patriot, the rector insisted on showing me an important historical site before I left. His chauffeur drove us to what looked like a small, well-tended park in a birch forest. We entered, and I soon realized I was in a cemetery, a very special military burial ground.

There was an obelisk in the middle but no tombstones, just raised markers inscribed in Russian at the center of dozens of grassy mounds, each framed by low stone borders.

Lublin was the region where the Soviet Army had first crossed into Poland in pursuit of the Germans forces. Total Soviet losses on that front had been staggering, far too many for a fast-moving army to set individual markers. So unit by unit, the dead were buried in large graves.

Accordingly, markers, for instance, read, here lie with eternal honor men of the 1st battalion, 8th Guards Army, or troops of the 5th squadron, 7th Cavalry, and on and on. I felt the emotion of the place, and as we left Rector Seidler said, “You understand now how much we owe the Soviet Union.”

I took a train south to Prague. I had written my Master’s thesis on Czechoslovakia and knew a good deal about the country, but wasn’t prepared for an encounter at the main railway terminal. Until the Communist coup in ‘48, Czechoslovakia had been the only democracy in interwar Eastern Europe.

A line of porters identifiable by their caps was awaiting my train; one took my bags. As we walked toward the taxis, we talked – he spoke English well and told me that up to ‘48 he’d been a successful Prague lawyer pleading before the Constitutional Court. After the coup, the new regime had sent all the ‘bourgeois’ judges and lawyers packing.

Since then, working as a porter was the best job he could hope for. Learning of his background and misfortune, I felt somewhat abashed that this distinguished-looking older man was carrying my luggage.

Meeting the senior Czech legal philosophers, I found that I was something of an anomaly, the rare American not on the left who came to Prague. Other than the off-limits diplomats at the US Embassy, the only Americans resident in the city were Communists on the run from McCarthyism and the FBI. Prague, a strikingly beautiful and livable European city, was their favored place of exile.

One of many bridges in Prague, Czech Republic

The scholars who received me were politically and theoretically divided. Those at the Law Faculty of Charles University, the Harvard of Czechoslovakia, tended to be uncritically pro-regime and conservative in their intellectual tastes.

Other jurists, research scholars at the Czech Academy of Sciences, were less enthusiastic about the prevailing neo-Stalinist status quo, and far more venturesome. They read any foreign books on democratic political theory they could get their hands on, and discussed Western ideas.

Of the latter group, most memorable were Zdenek Mlynar and his wife Rita along with their interesting and lively circle of academic friends. They took me to dinner at Prague’s French restaurant, and afterward we strolled the city center. I was shown where a monumental statue of Stalin had once stood.

Following Stalin’s death in ’53, and especially after Khrushchev’s public denunciation of the tyrant in ’56, the East European satellites were expected to eliminate Stalinist excesses. Removing offending statuary was the symbolic first step.

By ’64, the former site of the statue in Prague was marked only by a very large empty plinth, although beyond that the regime had dragged its feet on more significant changes.

Zdenek and his wife, an economist, were interested in Western ideas about government, particularly the role of interest groups in politics, discreetly suggesting that permitting them could provide a more pluralistic direction to the hidebound Czech Communist system. I silently reflected that such a change would be a radical departure from the centralized Soviet model.

Zdenek Mlynar during the Prague Spring, 1968

I didn’t realize at the time, but what I was hearing was part of the sub rosa ferment that would lead to the dramatic emergence of the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’, a major reform program led by the new Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek.

Under Dubcek, Mlynar rose rapidly in the party hierarchy, becoming a high official and one of the leader’s principal advisers. He became the key idea man behind the startling reforms, including the emergence of non-communist interest groups.

The Soviet leadership, ever watchful of their satellites, had become increasingly uneasy with Prague’s political direction. In August ’68, Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia, shutting down the reform movement.

Dubcek and his chief advisers, including Mlynar, were arrested by Soviet troops and hustled off to Moscow for political ‘re-education’. When Mlynar was allowed to return to Czechoslovakia, he had no choice but to fall back on his avocation, entomology, to earn a living  working at a Prague museum.

By 1970, he had been expelled from the Communist Party, and in ‘77, after co-organizing ‘Charter 77’, an emerging dissident group, Mlynar was forced into exile.

A few pleasant weeks in the company of sophisticated, urbane East Europeans had had a lulling effect on me. But enroute to my last stop, Yugoslavia, a minor encounter jolted me back to reality. When I politely questioned a border guard’s order on the train passing through Hungary, his hand immediately went to his holster, reminding me what part of the world I was still in.

Crossing the Yugoslav frontier, I had entered an independent Communist country – the USSR and Yugoslavia had broken off relations in ‘48, and, although ties had later been renewed, the Yugoslavs continued their separate ways.

The US even provided foreign aid to encourage the country’s independence from Moscow’s orbit. I was headed for Belgrade, the capital, for the final leg of my three-week swing through East Europe.

My credentials again opened many doors: a letter from the chair of Jurisprudence at Moscow University, travel under Ford Foundation auspices, and that I had been a former student of Jerome Hall, a premier American philosopher of law.

The academic legal elite of Belgrade were more open to the West.
A number of research institutes had intellectual ties to West European institutions, while several were closely associated with Strasbourg in northeastern France, the international center for the study of comparative law, a subject not welcome in Moscow.

The Yugoslav capital was a relatively relaxed city compared to where I’d been living the past year. There were a number of nice looking restaurants where service and food were a departure from the Soviet culinary model. Like all large cities, there were many movie theaters, but it was refreshing to see quite a number of good foreign films on offer, including several well-regarded American feature films.

Three of the jurists with whom I spoke – Tadic, Pasic, and Lukic – reflected the intellectual diversity of the Yugoslav theory establishment as well as its generational structure. Tadic, the youngest, had been a Marxist since boyhood and was philosophically closest to the utopian aspects of the Marxian tradition.

Pasic, who was middle-aged, had completed his legal education in the late ‘40s and, at the time of the Soviet-Yugoslav split, became a principal critic of the Soviet system. By the time I met him, he was quite interested in American political and legal theory. He was fairly well read.

The grand old man of the Yugoslav scene was Lukic, who had earned a PhD in the Sociology of Law in Paris during the interwar period. He was head of the jurisprudence section at the University of Belgrade Law School.

I found Professor Lukic, who resembled the older Mark Twain, in his well-appointed office behind a massive desk. After I introduced myself, his secretary brought in demitasses of Turkish coffee, as black and thick as anything I’d ever seen. 

Faculty of Law, University of Belgrade, Yugoslavia

We discussed the new Yugoslav Constitution – he had been a draftsman. Although a far cry from constitutional charters in the West, the document was light years ahead of Soviet Bloc constitutions.

However, I noted a puzzling paradox in a key clause. In its basic law, Yugoslavia repudiated the use of force in international relations, but with a major caveat – except for ‘wars of national liberation’. Professor Lukic merely nodded without comment.

It was a familiar Soviet concept that included the war in Vietnam Jeff had just left behind. So while Yugoslavia was beyond the pale of the Soviet Bloc, there was still clearly ambivalence about the country’s independent path.

It was time for me to move on, so I booked a sleeper train, a descendant of the old Orient Express, and awoke the next morning in Paris where I had spent a leisurely week during my army days in ’58. I stayed a few days with a French girl, a fellow grad student I’d met in Moscow, before flying home to New York.

I came away from my long sojourn in the East with a more nuanced and subtle sense of the Cold War than the prevailing black & white view in the US. At Moscow University, a great many of my fellow Soviet students never knew their fathers who had died in the war. Most of the law profs were veterans, and several were missing limbs. None of those people were anxious to see international tensions heat up.

By the time I left Moscow, the well-defined shape of the Cold War had begun to soften. My travels through Communist East Europe left the notion of a monolithic Soviet Bloc somewhat tattered. Compared to the ideological certainties in the USSR, East Europe was relatively alive with diversity in the realm of ideas.

The region may have been subject to Soviet control, but it was not marching in lockstep with Moscow. On the contrary, the tolerance of a strong Catholic Church, the repository of nationalism, clearly set Poland apart. In Czechoslovakia, just below the surface, critical intellectual ferment which subsequently surfaced in the Prague Spring, was bubbling. Then there was Yugoslavia, the outlier astraddle the Cold War frontiers between East and West.

Finally, Communist East Europe in no way reflected Soviet ideological rigidity. In fact, I found much admiration for America.  Yes, I of course heard the de rigueur criticism of ‘capitalism’, but I also noted appreciation for our open society.

I was headed for my first college teaching position. There would be much to talk about. For me, the Cold War had become a diverse and multi-hued phenomenon. Détente lay ahead.
† For the relaxed atmosphere of my military tour in West Germany of the ‘50s, see

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