“Peter Ustinov’s Russia” has been making the rounds of Public Broadcasting television stations with a timely plug for Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost, and raising the hair on the back of my neck.

The British-born comedian, author, and mimic confesses, with the shrug of a sophisticated actor, that his series is not the complete story. It does not, in fact, mention the Gulag or the contribution of prisoners’ labor to the Soviet economy. Ustinov explains that there is enough unfriendly propaganda from others, so he has confined himself to a cheerful message.

Peter Ustinov’s Russia is a land of genius, especially musical and literary genius, where no one is threatened, but rather, minority groups are protected from enemies like the Turks. He selects the Georgians and Armenians as examples rather than the Ukranians, Baltic nations, Uzbeks, etc. It is a merry land of fabulous circus clowns and ballerinas, where children have their own restaurants and theaters.

He interviews the shades of Russia’s great authors, but he does not mention that today’s Tolstoys, Dostoyevskys and Chekovs have been forced out of the country, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky, and Vladimir Bukovsky (whose propaganda Ustinov is refuting).

Ustinov says his whole point is to show that “you can, really, have a Russian for a friend.” Well, what can possibly be wrong with that? Surely Ustinov is on the side of the angels.

But it is not true for everyone. Maybe you can have a Russian for a friend if you are like Ustinov and are willing to accept Lenin and Stalin as national heroes. I did not qualify.

Back in 1960 I was living in Bonn and reporting to the New York Daily News from West Germany, East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Later, when I could get visas, I added Czechoslovakia, Romania, the Middle East, and North Africa. I felt handicapped reporting from Eastern European nations without having seen Russia, which dominated and repressed them. The paper declined to pay for a trip, so I bought a two-week vacation tour to Moscow not long after Soviet tourism started.

Unlike Peter Ustinov, I felt then, as I do today, that Russian Communists had ruined the lives of generations of Eastern Europeans, stifling their cultures, depriving them of expression and imposing on them atrocious local rulers. The Communists deprived the world of the melodies Hungarians never composed and mathematical break throughs they have not discovered (a Hungarian discovered non-Euclidian geometry). Germans of the East, previously the world’s best physicians, chemists, and engineers, already were falling hopelessly behind the Japanese and no longer gave the world cures and inventions, only ice skaters and swimmers.

I met my Russian friend on a Moscow street in 1960, just after I visited Gorky Park to see the exhibit of Gary Powers’ downed U-2 spy plane and the gold coins, poison pills, pistol, and other artifacts found on the intruder. American visitors were rare in 1960, and I was regularly accosted by young Russians, some curious, some offering to buy dollars or my clothes. Ivan, who looked to be in his late 20’s, fell into step beside me and asked if I were an American. He said the lightweight suit looked American.

I thought the young Russian was a cop. At my hotel I told John Reddin of the Milwaukee Journal that I was going swimming at a lake outside Moscow with a young Soviet agent provocateur, so if a photo of me with my pants down appeared in Izvestia, he was my witness that I had been set up.

The next day, wearing no jacket and a dirty shirt as instructed, I met my Russian at the appointed spot, and climbed behind him on his motorcycle. The machine had no springs, brakes, or rearview mirror, and it slewed alarmingly on turns. Driving over cobblestones, ruts, and streetcar tracks was like riding a jackhammer. In the next days the deep bruises on my behind and inside my thighs turned green and orange.

We stopped at a lake, where Muscovites swam in their underwear, some of the ladies in bloomers. (Ustinov filmed shapely, athletic girls in string swimsuits; things have improved in that respect.) As we sat and smoked, recovering from the ride, he abruptly said: “You say you have been to Hungary. Who fired the first shot?” It was a remarkable question. The Soviets had put down the Hungarian uprising three and a half years earlier, and here was a Russian with Hungary on his mind! Other Russians I had met told me that Hungary was a hopeless nation of criminal fascists.

“The AVO, the Hungarian secret police,” I answered. “At about 8:30 in the evening, outside the Budapest radio station.”

He looked at me triumphantly. “I knew it wasn’t a Russian!”

“Well, it was the same thing as a Russian. The AVO was trained by your secret police, and the AVO wouldn’t have existed if you were not occupying Hungary. The Soviet troops came in immediately.” He deflated, not disputing me. We talked for several hours as I had not talked since college days, then jolted back into Moscow on his terrible machine.

In the next days we did a lot of walking. He showed me the “Russian hotel”—the railroad station filled with whole families camping on the floor. We watched police round up drunks with a black van. “They’re taking them to the hayshaker,” he said. He believed that was American slang for a sobering-up station, citing West Side Story.

“You know, like in the song ‘Officer Krupsky.’ They sing, ‘Take him to the hayshaker.'”

“To the head-shrinker,” I said. “To the psychiatrist.” We went through West Side Story translating lyrics. An American tourist he had met on the street had sent him the record album.

We found a local movie house showing Nikita Khrushchev’s trip to Paris, where he had broken up the last of the Big Four summits (before President Kennedy made them Big Two summits) and sent President Eisenhower home empty-handed. I had covered the summit before taking my vacation. In Paris, Hungarian refugees led by the late Bela Fabian (whom Khrushchev called Dr. Hooligan) had broken up Khrushchev’s press conference, shouting questions from the rear, enraging the Soviet boss. Fabian wrecked plans for a staged propaganda circus employing four front rows reserved for Soviet-bloc reporters. The Soviet film cut off at the disturbance, and the planned propaganda coup, intended to show Khrushchev as a hero applauded by the world press, fell flat.

My new friend was not a cop; he was an internationalist. Years before, he had been arrested for making the acquaintance on the street of an Ethiopian diplomat, fascinated by the black man who had been graduated from Oxford and who spoke impeccable English. Ivan had spent some time in jail, but had not been sent to the labor camps because his father was a Communist Party Official. But he had been thrown out of engineering school in his last year, and in 1960 worked as illustrator for an engineering magazine.

I visited his cell-sized room in a walk-up tenement, with no toilet and a cold water tap at the end of the hallway. His tiny, delicately built wife was studying English at nights at his request. His only possessions were his motorcycle and record collection.

Because I lived in Bonn and had Hungarian friends who dreamed of murdering all Russians, and because I had covered Khrushchev’s threatening visit to Hungary in 1958, I felt I was something of a danger to my new friend. I tried to avoid him, but every evening when I left my hotel he was there. He had a profound contempt for the police—”You can’t believe how stupid they are.” We had an uncanny rapport, sometimes saying the same thing simultaneously.

“You in the West will lose, you know,” he told me. “Everyone I used to know is involved in developing weapons technology, and some of them are very bright. I think everyone in the Soviet Union with any brains is working for your destruction.” As things turned out, he was right; an enormous weapons buildup started under Khrushchev.

Later that summer I covered Khrushchev’s state visit to Austria. In Vienna, my wife found a Hungarian bottler who could make a pair of size four black patent leather shoes with stiletto heels for my friend’s tiny wife. An Austrian friend. Dr. Nuering, sent them to Moscow, because mail from Bonn was unwelcome in the Adenauer era.

I would like to show Peter Ustinov the letter I got in return, sent not to me but to Dr. Nuering in Vienna. It is composed in my friend’s excellent English, but he had someone copy it in German Gothic script, making it almost indecipherable to most readers of English and probably illegible to any censors.

It was years before I went to Moscow again, and when I looked for my friend’s tenement it had been torn down. I was in Moscow a couple of times in the 70’s, but I never saw him again.

Many things have changed in the last 28 years, of course. There’s a new Khrushchev in Moscow who has made some improvements, allowing Andrei Sakharov some freedom and permitting more Russian émigrés to return for visits to their families. The Armenians are still grateful that the Soviets protect them from the Turks, only they are evidently less content than Ustinov reports. Taking advantage of the thaw, they rioted early this year with some deaths. The Seattle-Tashkent Sister Cities Committees just met in Washington, all good buddies.

Some changes have been for the worse. Far from the Soviets withdrawing troops from Hungary, they have added troops to Czechoslovakia, where I covered their invasion in 1968. Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and East Germans are not able to have Russian friends among the troops, because they are there only to keep the natives suppressed. Certainly the troops are not there to keep Austria or West Germany from invading the Soviet Union.

I’ll probably never see Ivan, an honest and patriotic Russian, or his tiny wife, if they are alive. Ustinov can have friends there, but I can’t.