Thanks to air travel, the young Russian visitor saw a few oddly assorted bits of the United States: New York City, plus some towns in Oklahoma: Tulsa, Norman, Stillwater. He was Vladimir Sinyavsky, one of the eight Soviet wrestlers who visited this country last year under a sports exchange agreement sponsored in this country by the U.S. State Department. Writing for Pravda Ukrainy, which, interestingly enough, means Ukrainian Truth, Vladimir offered glimpses of a U.S. which any American would recognize—and some right out of never-never land.
Vladimir, a factory worker at home, was one of the shyest and quietest of the visiting wrestlers—a blond boy who smiled often but paid, careful, solemn attention to everything that was shown him. Like his teammates, he was astonished by the size and clamor of New York, delighted by volleyball, which the Russians played for the first time in the Tulsa YMCA, and puzzled by chewing gum. He liked most of the sports facilities he saw, and "the American wrestlers—those cheerful, simple fellows—left a very good impression." Furthermore, said Vladimir, "in every city, on every street, we were approached by unknown people who shook hands with us and smiled, pronouncing badly such Russian words as 'peace,' 'friendship' and 'good.' "
But could the folks back home in the Ukraine be left with such an amiable account of the U.S.? Apparently Vladimir—or conceivably someone who took Vladimir's pencil out of his hand—thought not. For Vladimir's description of New York interrupts itself in tone and spirit for what might be called a message from the sponsor:
"Somehow we felt sorry for these simple American people at the thought that at the same time, several blocks away in Wall Street, their countrymen were sitting and concocting vicious plans against the Soviet people.... We were struck by the accumulation of cars on the New York streets and the lines of big fellows carrying placards reading 'I Seek Work' on their backs; by giant sky-scrapers and the homeless who sleep in the parks.
April 13, 1959
"The Port of New York had a very depressing effect upon us, after it was explained to us that its territory is considered international and that, therefore, women who have no dollars with which to pay the tax collected in New York for the birth of a child come here to give birth."
Vladimir, you (or was it your sponsor?) got a few things badly wrong. Even Robert Wagner, New York's tax-desperate mayor, has not thought of a birth tax. But you got a good many things right.
The bits of incomprehension and hostility in Vladimir's report are hardly surprising—they are the very things these U.S.-Soviet athletic exchanges are meant to eliminate. In June, American wrestlers are due to return the visit of the Russians. (Just which American wrestlers will be decided this month in Stillwater, Okla.) We offer Vladimir's curious report on the U.S. as a reminder to these young men and to the country that sends them that in Russia they, too, may find some things they will fail to comprehend. And we offer it in the hope that they will reach a final estimate like that with which Vladimir Sinyavsky signs off in his little piece in Ukrainian Truth, after the sponsor's message has been dutifully disposed of. On boarding the plane for home, Vladimir related, he asked himself what was the best thing he was taking back: "For some reason the prizes won on the mat and the gifts received in Oklahoma were forgotten. Before my eyes, instead, were the smiling faces of Americans."