Red Square Meets Harvard Square

The room is uncomfortably small, located in an unlikely back comer of the same building that houses the University squash courts...

The room is uncomfortably small, located in an unlikely back comer of the same building that houses the University squash courts. On the wall hangs a proud collection of colorful postcards, reminders not of vacations past but of random encounters on the airwaves. The members of the Harvard Wireless Club, the oldest amateur radio club in America, are proud of these cards, for each one is proof of contact with another, usually distant, ham operator. 

But there is one card that is sure to elicit a particularly proud response from any Harvard ham. It depicts a statue of Peter the Great and an American and a Soviet flag and reads, "US1A: Leningrad, USSR." It is a special issue, commemorating the historic trip last May by Wireless Club members to participate in the first joint U.S.-Soviet ham radio operation. Eight members of the Harvard club joined a group of Soviet hams from a Leningrad technical college in an event that shook the ham world and caused at least a minor ripple in the grand scheme of U.S.-Soviet cultural relations. 

Harvard hams, like Wireless Club President J. Gunnar Trumbull '91, can't help but get excited when they recall their ten days in Leningrad, working the airwaves with their Soviet counterparts. "As the week went on," says Trumbull, "the momentum built." 

Although one might have expected such a joint project to be easily arranged, given thawing superpower relations, Trumbull says it was extremely difficult to obtain permission to set up an American station in the heart of the Soviet Union. In fact, the group's visas were not approved until two days before the trip was to begin, and even then the operating license was good for only ten days. 

Club members say that up until a few years ago, it was hard to talk to Soviet hams on the radio; the prospect of working together on a joint station was virtually inconceivable. "There had always been restrictions on what we could say on the airwaves," says Trumbull. "This was sort of a breaking down of barriers. It was amazing that something like this could have happened." 

In October Harvard hams reciprocated the hospitality when they hosted their Leningrad counterparts for a similar ten-day ham expedition in Cambridge. While they were here, the Soviets enjoyed the pleasures of factory-made radio equipment, a luxury they don't always share in Leningrad. 

"We have all this technology and ham gear," says Jack Porter '91, another Wireless Club member who traveled to the Soviet Union. "When we break something, we just go down to our ham radio store. They don't have a ham radio store. They have to make their own equipment." The result, Porter concludes, is that Soviet hams know a whole lot more about radio technology than their Harvard counterparts do. 

Club members point to their exchanges as a metaphor for world cooperation. "It's really in little ways like this that relations will become more and more open," says Trumbull. 

* * *

Glasnost has indeed trickled down from the corridors of the Kremlin ro the Harvard Houses, and its influence has not been limited to the airwaves. Gorbachev's doings and undoings inspired at least one Harvard student, David Saef '91, to bring glasnost to the printed page. Saef has recruited an eager staff of fifteen undergraduates to produce a joint U.S.-Soviet student magazine to be called Voices of a New Generation. 

Together with the students of Moscow State University, which Saef visited last year, the Eliot House senior will compile a bilingual collection of academic essays and insights into student life that will be distributed to students in both the East and the West. But Saef says that it was not easy to decide what sort of magazine would please both Soviet and American students. The Americans, he says, "would read both the day-to-day articles [about student life] and the political articles. But the Soviet students were more interested in what bars we go to and how we date." 

As a compromise, says Saef, the magazine's content will be divided between "hard" academic articles and softer pieces about student life. And in an arrangement that might confuse even the most competent translator, articles written in English by American students will appear only in Russian, articles by Soviet students only in English. The translating operation Saef describes sounds as if it might require the full-time efforts of several linguists and a high-speed fax machine. 

Saef stresses that the magazine— scheduled to appear early in 1991—will not necessarily be written by, or intended for, the bilingual student with a particular interest in Soviet affairs. "We have a lot of people who are not Slavic Studies [concentrators] but are interested in writing articles," says Saef. "I want it to hit the readers at Moscow State whether they're government, journalism, or chemistry concentrators." 

Saef's desire to produce a general interest magazine is certainly reflected in his choice of topics for a section in which both Soviet and American students will write on the same topics. The four articles slated for this section are "Problems Facing Gorbachev," "An Open Letter to Presidents Bush and Gorbachev," "How to Improve Conditions in the Third World," and that universal constant, "Dating, Love, and Sex." 

* * *

Undergraduate organizations need not produce a written or a spoken product to respond to global change. The once nearly defunct Slavic Club—recently reorganized under the name Friends of Eastern Europe (FEE)—will take advantage of the newly revived interest in that region to sponsor a host of events designed to disseminate information about the changing face of Europe. Club chair Robert Siedlecki '91 says his goal is to keep students informed about Eastern Europe even after the glamour of the recent revolutions has faded. "The struggles of 1989 were a direct factor leading to [the club's] founding," Siedlecki says. "But right now, with the Persian Gulf, the debt crisis, and all, people have forgotten what happened in Eastern Europe. It's on the back burner, but the problems still linger." Siedlecki says the group plans to sponsor films and frequent lectures by scholars of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The club will also publish a monthly newsletter and establish a link with a Czech student newspaper. Like Saef, Siedlecki emphasizes that interest in Eastern Europe is not limited to those concentrating in Slavic affairs. "Most people [in the club] are not Slavic Studies concentrators," Siedlecki asserts. While Gorbachev is in constant fear of a political apocalypse in the Soviet Union, the interest he has sparked in students such as Siedlecki, Saef, and Trumbull is cause for optimism. It is not often that Harvard students respond to world events in such varied and enthusiastic ways, leading to the conclusion that Gorbachev's reforms are probably more popular with the Harvard student body than they are with the Soviet populace. And if things don't work out for Gorbachev over in Moscow, the Undergraduate understands that Mikhail might be more than welcome in Massachusetts Hall. 

Brian Hecht, an intern at Harvard Magazine, will soon begin as managing editor of the Crimson.

Read more articles by: Brian Hecht
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