In the summer before his sophomore year at Princeton, Nass Trustee Leif Haase traveled to the U.S.S.R. documenting the lives of its ordinary citizens. Though the entirety of his 1984 piece titled “Public Faces, Private Dreams: Meeting the People of the U.S.S.R.” cannot fit in the margins below, his closing interaction encapsulates a profound image of the aspirations of the Soviet people despite the lack of understanding Americans and the Soviet people had of each other. In a recent email about the piece, Leif wrote: 

“Though based on personal observation, this period piece from some forty years ago engages in national stereotyping and generalizations about the United States and the Soviet Union that were more in vogue at that time. They reflect a world that in 1984 was still bipolar, organized around U.S./Soviet rivalry, and in the final stages of the Cold War, though we didn’t know it at the time. The Internet didn’t exist, personal computers were still in their infancy, and global travel was far less common than it is today. Fear of nuclear war was strong, and the sentiment prevailed that if we could just know one another as people the antagonism between states would dissolve.

This kind of liberal universalism has been battered from all sides in the interim. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rekindled, sadly, lots of the concerns about disinformation, exile, and war that are the backdrop to this piece.

Though I didn’t fully realize it then, I was making selective narrative choices to create a kind of propaganda for peace, which I don’t regret. My actual journey was far messier personally and politically, a story which remains to be told. I think that the article holds up as a report from a time gone by, with implications for the present day.”

  • Leif Haase, 2024

With the tone set, what follows is an excerpt from Leif’s piece. Though a product of its time, this firsthand documentation holds enduring relevance as we continue to grapple with mutual misunderstanding and human longing:

“I met Peter Rodenko (not his real name) in a small museum in one of the cities we visited. He asked softly if I was an American, then added, “My brother is now in the United States. I would like to speak with you outside.”

I joined him and his friends outside the museum. Peter was a large, athletic-looking man in his early thirties, with short hair and penetrating eyes which reminded me of pictures of Andrei Sakharov. He wore a loosely-woven sweater and Nike running shoes.

As we visited his friends’ flat, Peter told me his story. Several years before, he had tried to escape to the West through Finland, as did his older brother. His brother succeeded and is now living in New York; Peter was captured and spent eight months in a Soviet prison.

We talked over a meal of fried eggs, tomatoes and brown bread. My host put on a Talking Heads record (which he said cost fifty roubles on the black market) to ensure that our conversation would not be overheard. We also listened to a Schubert symphony. “Since I returned from prison,” Peter said, “I have appreciated classical music much more. Art and culture, I think, are greater than politics.”

Peter showed me pictures of his home and family. From under his bed, he brought out a notebook of pictures he had drawn on his last night of freedom. It was filled with idealized stars, rivers and mountains. I was astonished that he could divulge such personal feelings to a near-stranger. What drew us together was a shared need for freedom. While Peter intensely desired the individual liberties of the West and longed to see his brother again, I held the plane ticket to return to New York.

After a long silence, Peter said, with a kind of wry despair, “Ah, life.” I was reminded of Socrates’ lines in the Apology which begins, “[T]he hour of departure has arrived…” As I left, for the first time in my life freedom became more than an abstract notion.

Earlier that day, I had asked Peter why he wanted to come to the United States. He answered, in part, by describing his countrymen: “They like the system alright, but they are unconscious. They are without dreams, you understand.”

When I recall the looking-glass of Soviet society, though, I no longer see the immigration officer, my first impression. Instead I remember individual names, faces and aspirations: Volodya, Sasha, Irina, Others with names like Natasha, an aspiring jazz pianist; Oleg, a tennis player; Vasily, a crew member on our ship. Their dreams are not my dreams or Peter’s dreams, but my Russian friends do have dreams. – Leif Haase, 1984

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