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Comrade Zolotuhkin and 'The Fonz'

by Jock O'Connell

(This article appeared on the Op-Ed Page of The New York Times on August 2, 1989, under the title "Crewcuts, Carhops, and the Cold War.")

I ate lunch the other day at one of those ersatz 1950's diners where nostalgia rather than taste dictates menu selections. These aluminum and formica temples of postwar American culture and cuisine have been springing up all over the country, as entrepreneurs feed, so to speak, on America's perennial longing for a presumably simpler and saner time.

Lending to the ambiance was the inevitable sound of "golden-oldies," courtesy of yet another local radio station which steadfastly refuses to play anything recorded after Woodstock. To round off the time warp, my waitress wore her hair in a beehive, the busboy sported a crew cut, and two packs of bubble gum came with the check.

As if heartburn were not enough, I was engulfed by a deepening despair about the future of Soviet-American relations. Let me explain by recounting a remarkable encounter I had in Moscow in the summer of 1976.

The Soviet capital that summer was awash in the warm glow of detente, the season of good feelings that had erupted during Nixon's abbreviated second term. A year after the Apollo-Soyuz mission had brought Americans and Russians together in space, Moscow remained festooned with reminders of that now largely forgotten experiment in super-power harmony.

No slouches at crass commercialization, the foreign currency shops were marketing cigarettes under the Apollo-Soyuz brand. Even the Moscow Circus got into the act with high- wire aerialists decked out as Soviet cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts.

The American Embassy had arranged for me to participate in a three-hour seminar at the Institute of USA/Canada Studies. As it ended, one of the five Russians sitting opposite me, Vladimir Zolotukhin, brought up a final issue.

He had been intrigued, he said, by recent Voice of America broadcasts which told of the wave of nostalgia for the 1950's then sweeping the United States. Displaying his familiarity with U.S. popular culture, he cited the success of George Lukas's film "American Graffiti" and even noted that "Happy Days," a television show celebrating the era, was doing well in the ratings.

Mr. Zolotukhin then trotted out clouds of suspicion dark enough to have thrilled Dostoevski. "What especially troubles me about this nostalgia business is that the 1950's were not very pleasant years in the relationship between our countries. It was, after all, the time of John Foster Dulles and nuclear brinkmanship, he said.

"Do you think, Mr. O'Connell, that this current nostalgia for the 1950's means that America is reverting to a hardline attitude toward my country? Are you taking us back to the Cold War?"

I was stunned. Was this merely garden-variety paranoia or a truly conspiratorial mind at work? How could anyone read sinister motives into something as innocent, if not downright silly, as a sentimental infatuation for a bygone era?

Obviously, a Russian could.

And not just any Russian. As a prominent scholar at the Institute, Mr. Zolotukhin advised the Kremlin on how to deal with the United States. If this was any indication of how developments in America were being interpreted to an already edgy Soviet leadership, there was no telling what might happen.

I never heard from Mr. Zolotukhin again, but I did have occasion to think of him a few years ago. By then, of course, history had validated his theory. Not only had the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics and cut off wheat shipments, we had turned the White House over to Ronald Reagan with his "Evil Empire" rhetoric and burgeoning military budgets.

Mr. Zolotukhin must be feeling quite smug, I thought at the time. He foresaw all of this back in 1976.

So as I paid my check, popped the bubble gum in my mouth and dodged the roller- skating carhops in the parking lot, I could only imagine what's on Mr. Zolotukhin's mind today.

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