When I was a child, “good Catholics” went to church every Sunday and prayed for “the conversion of Russia” after every mass. Russians didn’t believe in God, they were part of an empire that was evil and existed behind a curtain made of iron. To the faithful in Our Lady of Angels parish on Cleveland’s west side, no one needed prayers more than the Russians. Why then, in the middle of the Reagan years, was the good Catholic Phil Donahue cavorting with these godforsaken people?
Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. A new leader materialized on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. He promised a new nation, one of freedom and openness, a restructuring of old Kremlin ways that would include free speech and elections. Glasnost and Perestroika were the new words in the world dictionary, openness and restructuring. Almost none of the praying Catholics on Cleveland’s west side believed it.
The first and most visible expression of Gorbachev’s commitment to change was a project called the “Space Bridge,” a satellite conversation between Americans in Seattle and Soviets in what was then Leningrad. I accepted the invitation to host the American side, but only after pondering several questions: Would Americans consider me a dupe, a pointy-headed liberal sucked into a KGB public relations campaign? I was already thought of as a political lefty, not a popular label for an eighties TV sort. Who was Vladimir Pozner, the Communist Party member who would host the other side of the debate half way around the world? Would I be censored?
My research: Ted Koppel told me he “liked” Pozner (Vladimir first appeared on Nightline in 1980. He was the “Russian who didn’t sound Russian.”) Koppel’s positive review of Pozner eased my Commie-sympathizer anxiety although he did caution, “They might rig the interpreters.”
My “Space Bridge” co-host Vladimir Pozner was born in Paris to a French Catholic mother and a Russian Jewish father. At age five, little Volodya came to New York City with his parents, attended City & Country School in Manhattan, and was soon a student at Stuyvesant High School. In 1948, the devoutly communist Pozner Sr., who had previously worked for MGM, fled the Red Scare with his family to East Germany. In 1952 the Soviet Government provided a Moscow apartment for the new citizens who arrived shortly before Stalin died. Five years later, young Vladimir graduated from Moscow U. with a degree in biology. He was speaking four languages without an accent. Today Vladimir Pozner is the most recognized TV news face in all of Russia’s eleven time zones.
Ten minutes into our Space Bridge featuring 300 Americans in Seattle and 300 Soviets in Leningrad, all wearing headsets, I let loose with a simultaneously translated barrage of observations critical of the country to which the stunned Soviets had pledged their devotion: “Why do you allow old men behind closed doors to decide what is good for you? Why does it say ‘Jew’ on certain of your passports? Why is Sakharov in exile in Gorky?” As the camera slowly panned the faces of the Leningrad assembly the shock was palpable. These ambushed Soviets were the deer and I was the headlight. Never had so many Russians heard such harsh criticism of their own country on their own public television. What followed was a two-and-half hour candid exchange between the citizens of both countries. I am told Mr. Gorbachev reviewed the tape and commented, “This will be our gift to the 27th Congress of the Communist Party.” The Soviet TV producers started breathing again.
The program aired across eleven time zones, and Vladimir received 87,000 letters. I surely looked like a very boorish houseguest taking self-righteousness to a new lower level. (But Ted, I was not censored. Promise kept.) It’s been twenty-eight years since this career moment of my life. I’ve met hundreds of Russians here and there. Vlad and I have shared the stage at my alma mater, The University of Notre Dame. I have taken questions from Russian students in Siberia and the Gorky Palace of Culture in what is now St. Petersburg. “If you came to the United States, where would you like to visit?” I asked. Hands went up everywhere in the audience: “Las Vegas.” “Disney World.” “Oxford, Mississippi.” “Why Oxford, Mississippi?” I asked. I heard the interpreter in my earphones, “Because that is the home of your great author, William Faulkner.”
None of this could have happened without the wisdom and courage of President Gorbachev. I eagerly look forward to the September moment when Vlad and I share the stage with him at the Nantucket Project. I want to thank him personally for parting the Iron Curtain allowing me to meet a lot of very nice people. I want him to know that I saw the pictures in the paper on the day after 9/11. Less than twenty-four hours after “The Towers” the entire front of the American Embassy in Moscow was covered with flowers. Within the breast of Mother Russia beats a kind and loving heart and I will never pray for her “conversion” again.