Part of my work from 1977 to 1988, the years I was General Secretary of the the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, was to go on annual speaking trips in the US. In 1982, one of my stops was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I had a lecture to give at the Harvard Divinity School. I was staying with my friend Robert Ellsberg, now publisher of Orbis Books, but at that time studying at Harvard. One evening Robert invited me out for a film. The one we choose was from the USSR, “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears.” Normally, even in an academic town like Cambridge, one rarely had the chance to see a Soviet movie, but this one had recently won the Oscar for best foreign film.
It was a film about economic and social classes in the allegedly “classless” society. Centering on three women who arrive in Moscow in 1960, the Brezhnev period, the film follows their struggles to build careers and families. Despite differences in temperament and ambition, they create an enduring three-way friendship. Mid-way the film jumps to the forward in time so that we see what has happened in their lives after the passage of fifteen years. The last half of the film is mainly a love story.
The stories told were comic, tragic, convincing and socially revealing. The result was that Muscovites became, for me, three-dimensional, not just cardboard figures living in the grey world of Communism.
What was so important to me at the time about this non-political film was the window it opened on ordinary Russian life. Walking out of the theater, I realized I had spent a large part of my life trying to prevent war between the US and the Soviet Union but had never been to Russia. The awful truth was that — like so many people in the peace movement at the time — I knew more about American weapons of mass destruction than about the people at whom they were aimed — and the same was true for Russians. It was a shocking realization.
I wondered how we could regard what we were doing as peace work if it mainly had to do with informing people what the apocalyptic consequences of nuclear war? If Merton’s insight about fear being the root of war was true, would it not be better if we who sought peace in the world focused on changing relationships with those we regard as enemies than trying to prevent war by selling a nightmare? After all, the weapons and missiles we knew so much about were symptoms of fear.
That night at the movies in Cambridge was a turning point for me. The years of my life that followed mainly had to do with trying to open east-west doors, doors that had long been locked on both sides. On the Russian side, there was a lot of worry about letting in people whom they knew opposed Russia’s war in Afghanistan, then in the middle of its decade-long run, and who were critical of the Soviet political system. No doubt they worried that we would demonstrate on Red Square.
It took more than a year of hard work to arrange a small conference (the theme was liberation theology) organized by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was probably the first such event in Russia since the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government in 1917– an event that was religious rather than political in content, and whose agenda came from the west. All things considered, it was quite an achievement, and much followed from it.
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