BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Christopher Wren, author of the new book "The End of the Line: The Failure of Communism in the Soviet Union and China." Why the title?
SCHRISTOPHER WREN, AUTHOR, "THE END OF THE LINE: THE FAILURE OF COMMUNISM IN THE SOVIET UNION AND CHINA": Well, the title was, it's interesting -- initially my title was "The Revolution Has Been Canceled for Lack of Interest," and then my publisher, Simon & Schuster, said, "This is a more serious book. We don't want a flip title." And so we worked it out and we decided on "The End of the Line" because basically it's the end of the party line, it's the end of the road that Marxism has traveled in the Soviet Union and China. They've gone this far, now suddenly they realize that they're on a wrong track and they have to find a way to move off it.
So I think the title, in that sense, gives a sense of what the book is about -- that they have gone as far as they can, and here are the problems they had when this whole Marxist experiment was unfolding and here is why it could not work.
LAMB: What years were you stationed in the Soviet Union and in China?
WREN: I spent four years in the Soviet Union, from late '73 to late '77; I was three years in mainland China, '81 to '84; as well as a year of intensive Chinese preparation in the British Foreign Office Course of Cambridge. I've also been back three other times to the Soviet Union on working visits between 1969 and 1988, two years ago.
LAMB: When was the last ...
WREN: So I'm trying to keep up with it.
LAMB: When was the last time you were in China?
WREN: I haven't been back since 1984, but I have a number of Chinese friends, Chinese exiles, and I subscribe to the China Daily and other Chinese publications. So I've been able to track what's happening in these countries, to say, "All right. Here's what's happened. How is it playing out?" And so I've been able to keep up with that. I'm now based in Johannesburg in South Africa, but before I went over there, in September '88, I was assistant foreign editor at The New York Times for two years, so I ended up sort of tracking China and keeping track of our Chinese coverage and Soviet coverage. So I've had no trouble keeping up.
LAMB: Where are you from here in the States?
WREN: I was born in Los Angeles and raised in Los Angeles. My family were actors, so then we moved to New York. I was born in Hollywood, we moved to New York. I went back, my parents retired. I lived in New Hampshire some. My wife always says whenever anybody asks where I'm from, I just say, "Wherever I want to be from." Right now we have a house in Vermont and we come back when we can for three or four weeks every year.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
WREN: I went to Dartmouth. I got my BA at Dartmouth and then I got my masters at Columbia. And I've also done graduate work at Stanford and the University of Edinburgh, where I did Russian, and at Cambridge, in England, where I did my Chinese.
LAMB: You took a couple of kids with you wherever you went?
WREN: Yes. We have two kids who went around with us. It's very interesting growing up that way. I mention them in the book and some of the experiences they had. My daughter Celia, who graduated from Harvard, is now starting as a teaching assistant at Johns Hopkins and getting her masters degree. And my son has been at Pomona College in California. He wanted to get away from the East Coast and go out to where I was born. So that's where he was.
LAMB: Do you think your kids got a better deal by being with you in all these places?
WREN: Yes, I think so. It's interesting, when we talk at home with my wife and kids, we almost have our own jargon where we throw in words from different places. We say, "Well, you know, don't do (Russian spoken)." Arasverad is Russian for turning around. Or something goes wrong, my son will say (Chinese spoken), and "it doesn't matter" in Chinese. And we use all these expressions. They grew up having a real sense of what it was like to live in a communist country, and they grew up in kind of a special environment.
My son used to go out on his bike in Beijing and just go all over. He learned to speak very good street Chinese as a kid. He would go out on his bike and people would look out for him. I'd never worry about him. I wouldn't, you know ... in New York City, he went out on a bike, I'd get nervous. But he'd go out and he'd come back, and he was collecting stamps from the cultural revolution and precultural revolution phases, which are impossible to get. He has one of the finest collections of post-revolutionary Chinese stamps, and he'd go out and do this. It was terrific for him. My daughter speaks beautiful Russian as a result of having grown up -- and we had Russian friends and she learned to just speak it that way. I think that's been very good for them, to grow up abroad and to see what other societies look like.
I think coming back, they both had some adjustment problem. The reason is that they were -- I don't want to be critical, but they felt that American kids did not appreciate what it was like to live in the United States, because they had lived seven years in communist countries and they knew it was like. And so some of them -- both my kids at one phase or another, have gotten impatient with their American peers, and that's been a hard adjustment.
LAMB: What do your kids think of communism, if it's fair to put words in their mouth? I mean, from that experience of living it.
WREN: Well, my son would be blunter. I don't think I could give his opinion on the air here. Both of them think that it was an interesting thing that failed, basically what the book was about. And they contributed their own experiences. There's my son going out -- I mentioned we lived in a compound in Moscow that was surrounded by the KGB guards, and my son would go out as a kid -- he was 7, 8 years old -- and he would trade chewing gum with the KGB guards that watched our building. And he got on a very good term with them, and then they would give him Soviet badges if he gave them chewing gum. When I went in and out they would watch me, they'd have a car follow me, they'd get very suspicious. But when my kids went out, they also treated them quite differently from me. But my children, I think, have no illusions. They have not joined the radical left, if that's what you're thinking. If anything, my son is perhaps more conservative.
LAMB: What happened to you and your thoughts on government and the way we run our government compared to the way those other governments were run?
WREN: Well, I grew up as a liberal and a regular voter for the Democratic Party. I went over to the Soviet Union. I read Marx. I was never emotionally caught up with Marxism, but I read Marx and Lenin in school and, actually, on my own because I was very curious about it. And I went over there prepared to see the system work within the parameters of being a journalist, prepared to say, all right, that this is a system that is hostile to the American way of life, putting it in simplistic terms, but that it has its advantages. It does take care of its people. It does provide education, it does provide health, it does provide a safety net of welfare benefits. And, in fact, I got over there and I found this did not exist and there was a certain disillusionment set in that I had to worry about in my reporting, because I said, "Is this system really so shoddy?" And it's very hard when you get overprepared as a reporter and suddenly you find that things are changing. Then do you react even more negatively? And I fear that maybe for a period in the Soviet Union I did react more negatively.
But you're basically dealing with people. The thing that really helped me in the Soviet Union and China was the language. I had taken three years of Russian at Dartmouth and then I got a graduate fellowship in Russian philology at the University of Edinburgh. Then after I got in -- actually, when I was in the Army, I had a chance to use some Russian. Then when I went over to China, The Times gave me a year sabbatical anywhere I wanted to go in the world, so I went off to Cambridge University and did the first year of the British Foreign Office Course. And being able to go out in the street and talk to people and say, "What is it like?" and, particularly in China, they're so surprised that a foreigner can speak their language that you get an amazing amount of candor that you could never get. And so this really opened up the system.
LAMB: Hate to spoil it for someone who is going to buy your book, but tell the opening story about the train.
WREN: Oh, yes. This is very typical of China. I was traveling with an Australian journalist friend and we were going up to Hufai in central China, in one of the poorest, back areas of China. And we took the ferry boat across the Yellowet River, and we went in and we got in the train and we pushed ahead. Being foreigners, you're allowed to jump queues, which I think is outrageous, but I did it.
LAMB: "Queue" meaning a line?
WREN: Yeah, a line. And so we got on the train. This is the only train from Wuhu to Hufai that night. We'd eaten the food we were carrying with us. We were traveling what we call hard-class. And we got on the train and then all the Chinese passengers piled on. We were just jammed in this train. But the train didn't move. These Chinese trains are quite punctilious, as punctual as Russian trains are. But we sat and we sat and we sat, and everybody got nervous. This is really unheard of. And these two men came in and they said, "We're terribly sorry, but as you're foreign guests" -- they always called you foreign friends or foreign guests -- "(Chinese spoken) You're foreign friends, foreign guests and we would like to find you something more suitable. This is (Chinese spoken) unsuitable for our foreign guests."
We were jammed in there. I said, "No, it is fine."And then they said, "No, we insist on finding you something." And I suddenly realized that the train was sitting there because we were sitting with, surrounded by Chinese, and I was beginning to strike up conversations and such, and that the train would not leave until we vacated that coach. And I said, "We have to be in Hufai." So they said, "More accommodations have been found for you." So we went off and they moved us to the car ahead, and what they had done was to throw everybody else out of that car. They were putting them out windows, and we found ourselves the only occupants of an entire railway car, and everybody else who they'd thrown off was running to find another place. And the train pulled out. It was a cold evening and I remember being very cold because it was a rainy day and I got cold. And I looked back and they were at least warm in the car back there. So I said, "Maybe we'll sneak back." And I tried to and we'd been locked in. The door had been locked.
And this became, as I mentioned it in the book, a metaphor traveling through China because you're simultaneously coddled and isolated. But if you have certain tools, if you have a reporter's skills, if you have the language, it gives you a vantage point from which you can see what is happening without being really caught up in it. I describe it in the book as standing on a rock in the middle of a torrent as the floodgates open and it washes away. And I see it happening around me, but I'm not swept away by it. So I think in that sense it was these sort of experiences, They're amusing in retrospect, but they're also instructive.
Another one, if I can mention it, was when I was in Canton. I was flying back to Beijing. I'd had some interviews down in southern China. I was sitting in the departure lounge waiting for the flight and suddenly I noticed that these CAAC -- the Chinese Airways officials -- came out, ran in front of me, and one of them said, there's a foreign friend, or foreign guest. And they ran up and they pulled the curtains in front of me. I was facing the runway. And just as they were pulling it, I could see a plane coming in, and so I didn't know what was happening, but they obviously were trying to hide something.
So finally the plane landed and the people came off and were talking in an animated fashion, filing off the flight. And I ran over to talk, but I speak Putonhua, which is northern Mandarin Chinese, and they were speaking Cantonese. So I finally found somebody who spoke Mandarin and I said, "What's happening?" And she told me, "Well, we were up there and there was engine problems, and so we had to make an emergency return, emergency landing, but nothing happened." But what was interesting was that the first reaction of the Chinese officials in the terminal was to pull the curtain so that a foreign friend couldn't see the crash if it happened. And I thought this was a very revealing incident, that they were less concerned -- they seemed to me,and maybe this is being unkind -- they were less concerned about the crash itself than about the foreign perceptions of what it meant if a Chinese plane crashed.
LAMB: What other parts of the world have you lived in besides Soviet Union and China and South Africa?
WREN: Oh, my gosh, I've worked in about 50 countries. I have lived in the Soviet Union four years; China, three years; the Middle East, three years; Canada, two years. Now I've been in South Africa two years. I'm briefly back on a holiday. But as a younger reporter, I also worked and covered the war in Vietnam and Cambodia. And during the Iranian hostage crisis I was in Iran. I went into the Philippines after the Philippine Revolution. So I've been very lucky, and I'm very fortunate to be able to travel around and satisfy my curiosity and get paid for it.
LAMB: Is there any job that you can imagine that would be better than the job you have?
WREN: No, I think I have the best of all possible jobs. Being a foreign correspondent, I can't think of anything better. In fact, I worry a little bit that my son says, "Gee, that looks like an interesting way to make a living."
You asked about our children. One of the problems with our kids growing up abroad is it's kind of a junkie's life and you get excited about being a foreign correspondent. And our kids -- we went back to New York and I was very well-treated by The New York Times and I had a very good job in New York, but I was surprised to find my kids got restless, too, which was interesting.
LAMB: How does this country look to you? You're in South Africa right now, and you look back at it. Rate us. Ratethe United States. The system -- does it work?
WREN: Well, I think this goes back to your earlier question. I think I feel more quintessentially American than I did when I was living -- before I went abroad because having seen the alternatives around the world, you then understand what kind of privileges you enjoy in the United States. I don't want to wax too emotional about it, but I've been very proud to be an American. And I've frequently been asked -- or sometimes have been asked, "What is it that the United States should do to hasten change in the Soviet Union and China, to sweep away the remnants of Marxism?" And I said my point is we really should -- you can argue that, yes, maybe you could consider giving credits to, to have foreign businesses go over for joint ventures, to open up a mixed economy, but I think the best thing we can do is set an example for the rest of the world.
Mencius, the Chinese philosopher, had this theory that you don't have to impose your will on other countries, you just set an example. In the ideal society, according to Mencius, one could drop a wallet by the side of the road and come back six months later and it would be there. So you have to set this kind of tone. I think this would be a very valuable role for the United States and around the world. I'd like to see less muscle and more intellect use in our approach to foreign affairs.
LAMB: So how are you tracking with the Iraqi experience?
WREN: I don't know our alternatives are in Iraq. You have somebody flagrantly invade another country, the United States has to do something. I'd like to make sure it's not just an American role. I think where I would credit Bush is in his efforts to pull in as many countries as possible.
And I think the Iraqi experience -- the Iraqi invasion -- if there's one good thing that's come out of it, it's the fact that it has perhaps been a confirmation of the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and China. The fact is that are other problem areas in the world that do not have the East-West ideological dimension. I think it was very significant when the secretary of State stood up with Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, and they issued a joint declaration denouncing the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. I think that the fact that this is being discussed in the United Nations, that the Soviet Union and China have, as we talk now at least, if not altogether signed aboard, at least they are not resisting. They are not seeing a capacity for mischief in this, which they would have five years ago, and I think that's significant.
LAMB: Speaking of the Soviets, tell us the chipped tooth story.
WREN: Oh, well, this was a big art exhibit. It was actually one of those great flukes. I was in Moscow and it was a Sunday -- a quiet Sunday and I really didn't feel like working in the office. So I decided to go out to an art show. I had some dissident artist friends and they were setting up some pictures in a vacant lot. So I drove out to the show and I said, "I really shouldn't be playing hooky from the office," because I had work to do, but I went out to see my friends and to look at this show. And I went out there and I got there and I was looking at the pictures and these young thugs arrived. They were all in plainclothes -- they turned out to be police -- and proceeded to demolish the art show and demolish the pictures. They had a bulldozer, they were setting fire to pictures. I couldn't believe it.
LAMB: Just 15 years ago?
WREN: Yeah. This was in the mid '70s. And suddenly I realized that there was -a major story, that having played hooky from the office, I was suddenly surrounded by a story. So we were ordered away but I rose my camera. There was a water truck that was chasing people up a small incline, spraying them with water cannon -- and I tried to take a picture. And before I knew it, three guys had me, and one guy -- hree guys were holding me and one guy was hitting me. And they smashed the camera in my face, and then began punching me in the kidneys. So I got my tooth chipped out of this, fortunately nothing worse, although I was a little bit winded from the punches.
But then, they were luckless enough to do this on a very, very slow news day. There was nothing else happening in the world, so this became the lead story -- not only in The New York Times but in virtually every other news medium around the world, how they had demolished this art show, because it was done so crudely.
LAMB: Were you the only reporter there?
WREN: There was several other reporters. There was one young woman from Associate Press, Lynn Olson, who protested when they were beating me and they turned around -- and this guy turned around and just decked her. I've never seen a woman decked before with a punch. And then there was -- Mike Parks got knocked around a bit -- who is now with the Los Angeles Times. But it was just so heavy- handed in the way it was done.
And then some of my artist friends were taken into the police station as hooligans because they had tried to resist. One man was hanging on the bulldozer. The other man had his arms around the pictures. And they saw these guys who had beaten us come in and change into Soviet police uniforms. So the Soviet government was very embarrassed by this and they had to schedule a new show, which, of course, because it was mentioned on BBC and VOA, everybody in Moscow went to the show. It was a roaring success, whereas the initial show had not been successful at all. I was in Helsinki having my teeth fixed, so I missed it, but I heard it was a very good show.
LAMB: We see from time to time on television the pictures of the South African police doing some pretty violent things to ... any connection here with the kind of mentality that you saw in the Soviet Union during that period and what you see in South Africa today, or is it changing in South Africa?
WREN: That's a very good question, and I have been struck by certain parallels between the Soviet Union and South Africa. I'm not -- I'm sure this will not endear me to South African authorities when my visa comes up for renewal -- but I think you're, in both countries -- let me just step back a bit. I think in both countries you've seen an ideology that is bankrupt, an ideology that does not work -- Marxism in the Soviet Union and China and apartheid in South Africa. Now I don't mean to suggest that pure Marxism is as corrupt as pure apartheid, because apartheid is based on skin color, texture of hair and such. But I think there have certainly been abuses -- I mean, flagrant abuses of human rights in both countries.
But I think now we're seeing a kind of change. In South Africa we call it "Praetoria-stroika" as modeled after Perestroika, in which they realize the system doesn't work. They're trying to roll back, they're trying to find an alternative. They, too, have gone to the end of the line. The old leadership, which was sort of peasant mentality -- people distinguished more by the thickness of their wrists than the breadth of their minds -- as I've said, have been pushed to the side and you have younger technocrats who are trying to salvage what can be salvaged out of a lifestyle in which they've profited. I think this is what you're seeing there, and I think, in having watched Gorbachev and having interview de Klerk, I think there's remarkable parallels between between these two men.
LAMB: How does Mr. de Klerk look at your newspaper and your ability to write about what he's doing? Is it important to him?
WREN: I think that South Africans are very anxious to be wanted in the world, just as the Russians were. I have not had any real problem with the South African government, except that I'm on a six-month visa, and every six months they look at me and decide what they want to do with me. And there's large gaps while they wait. I went ...
LAMB: How long you been there now?
WREN: I've been there two years. I went once five weeks between visas and once nine weeks between visas, although the last time they just gave me one. I don't know what happened. But yeah, they watch what we do. You know, in countries where you've had authoritarian regimes, reporters are always suspect. I had this in the Soviet Union, I had it in China, I had it when I worked in the Middle East and I have it in South Africa. But you have to decide that you just go ahead and you report as best you can. You can't do it any other way.
When I was in the Soviet Union, as I mention in the book, I was accused of being a spy by one of the major papers that was a front for the KGB. And after they accused me of being a spy I said, "Is there something in my coverage that I'm doing that could let them think that I'm really spying?" And then I realized that, no, this was just a way to smear you to make you submit to self-censorship. And I learned from that experience that if you try to decide what they're going to like in the country you're working, then it's just not worth it, that you can never decide what they will like and so you have to call the shots as best you can and let the chips fall where they may.
LAMB: Our guest is Christopher Wren. This is the book, "The End of the Line." He's talking about his experience both in the Soviet Union and in China. What kind of reception are you getting around the United States? And how long are you going to be on a book tour?
WREN: Well, I'm doing bits and pieces. I think there's been a lot of curiosity and interest about this book because it's the first book of its -- I flatter myself -- or my publisher tells me it's the first book of its kind because it looks at the Soviet Union and China in somewhat different ways from what has been done before. It's not a direct comparison between the Soviet Union and China. Although there's lots of examples and comparisons in there, it's basically looking at how each of these countries embrace Marxism and what happens, and it finds remarkable parallels in what's happened.
The second thing is it's a journalist's view. It's a view of somebody who considers myself a street reporter, that I'm out on the street. I don't like sitting in an office. On my tombstone I think it's going to say, "He should have spent more time in the office." But I like to be out and moving around. And I got perceptions that I think academics, for all their qualifications -- and I'm not putting them down -- perhaps might not have had the opportunity to have. I would hope that this book would complement more serious studies of the collapse of communism, of which we're going to see some, I think.
LAMB: Because you wrote about it, you mentioned the Voice of America and the ability of people in those countries to hear it. How often did you run into people in China and the Soviet Union that listened to the Voice of America?
WREN: I was amazed at the number of people who listened to the Voice of America in both the Soviet Union and China. I went down to a small town called Kaluga, south of Moscow, and got into an argument with a local newspaper editor over a lunch they had in which he was baiting me with various things that had happened in the United States -- the scandal -- it may have even been the Watergate scandal. And he was reciting things to me that did not even -- that I had not read in the Soviet press. And I said, "But how can you know this? You did not read it in Izvestia or Pravda." He said, "Well, I listen to Voice of America."
Another example was another commentator I knew for, I believe, Izvestia who said every morning as he shaved he'd turn on the Voice of America to find out what was happening in the world so when he sat down to write his commentaries he'd know where he was. He couldn't do this by using the Soviet press as a benchmark.
Now if you translate this to the feeling -- to smaller, to ordinary people in the street, a lot of them listen because they want to know what's happening. And I think this is one of the chinks in the armor of the communist society, that they have not been able to cut everybody out, they've not been able to seal off the system as they did in earlier Chinese dynasties, for instance, or the early years of the Soviet Union or even in the czar period.
LAMB: You also wrote about the Chinese that live in Guangdong ... their antennas facing toward Hong Kong.
WREN: Oh, yeah, the Guangdong Province. What they would do is they'd pick up what is called "spiritual pollution." Spiritual pollution is unwelcome Western values that create problems for the ideologists. So we'd always have periodic campaigns for spiritual pollution. And the peasants in Guangdong Province would put up their fishtail antennas, sort of UHF antennas, facing Hong Kong so they could pull in American sitcoms and American detective stories and disco dancing and all of this.
I remember when I was there, one of the big shows was the ancient reruns of Angie Dickinson on "Police Woman," and she'd come out in her bikini speaking perfect dubbed Cantonese, and they'd all sit there after a hard day in the fields and watch it. Well, they were told to take the antennas down, so they'd take them down. Then after the spiritual pollution campaign had reached its peak, they'd hoist them back up. And some people were clever enough, they'd put them on little swivels so they'd be down in the day and then just hoist them up at night and just do it like this, and they continued to watch. And I talked to a young man who was in charge of combatting spiritual pollution in Xinjin special economic zone, which abuts Hong Kong, and he admitted that it was a disastrous job, it was a no-win job that he had. He couldn't keep out this spiritual pollution.
LAMB: What are the similarities between China and the Soviet Union, from what you saw?
WREN: Gosh, that's what the book is about. It's a hard question to ask.
LAMB: How about just people alone? Let's just take a subject -- how about medicine? Under the communist way of life, what happened to medicine, hospitalization -- all that -- in China and in the Soviet Union?
WREN: Well, I think when you're dealing with social welfare, this has been one of the strengths of communist governments when they came into power, to open up schooling, to open up medical care. I talked in the book about visiting a leper colony in Hainan and talking to an old woman who had been forced to live in the woods after she contracted leprosy, and people would throw stones at her. After the communists took over in China, they went in and they found her, they brought her back and they treated her. She'd lost a leg, but they were able to give her some kind of treatment. So there was this great period after the communists took over where they tried to create a safety net. They tried to create social benefits of health, education, welfare. And they did this.
But then you run into the same problems that you have in the Soviet Union and China, in both societies, which is that the system does not deliver on material benefits, so you move into a society of chronic shortage. So if there's limited services, if there's limited goods, who gets them? The party elite get them. So the party elite had first-class medical treatment. The party elite could get their kids into special schools. The party elite could get their kids into university, even if through the back door, as they call it in China. But the average person was only marginally better off. And instead of placating people's needs, they created greater discontent because people who were only -- who would have to stand on line three hours to see a doctor knew that the party official could just drive to a special clinic that had been set aside for him and get far better medical care. So then they created a resentment here.
One of the great capacities -- what I thought was one of the great phenomena that I saw in both the Soviet Union and China -- addressing your broader question -- was the ability of Marxism to do what would seem impossible, and that is to create within a classless society, as Marx envisioned it, two distinct classes, which is a party and the people with all of the class resentments and the class antagonisms of which Marx had written. And if you go back and if you read "The Communist Manifesto" that Marx and Engels put together in 1848 and read it from that perspective of the party and the people, you would see that a lot of the things they say are right on but that the exploiters, the exploiting class is the Communist Party, and the exploited people, the wretched of the Earth are still the common people.
LAMB: What do they do about justice and court systems and lawyers and, you know, your own individual rights?
WREN: Well, there's several levels of justice. There's one level for common crime; there's one level for political crime for dissidents. And shortly after I left the Soviet Union, one out of every five political dissidents who had been arrested saw the inside of a psychiatric hospital with mind-numbing drugs. If, and even as we speak now, there are students who participated in the democracy movement that was crushed last year who are still out breaking rocks or digging coal with their bare hands in labor camps in Qinghai and other parts of China.
I think when you get into the question of justice, there are a couple of points I'd make. One is I think justice moves faster, but not necessarily more equitably. I was in China during an anti-crime campaign where I -- we don't know what triggered it. There were some reports that maybe one of Deng Xiaoping's subordinate's family had been mugged or something. And they set out to arrest everybody who was a lawbreaker. And we think there was a quota that was put down so that they had to find X number of rapists and murderers. They found them. They just went out and they grabbed people.
In one case I remember, it took six days from when a man -- one man was arrested for rape and he was executed, even though there should be a right of appeal built into the system. There is, ostensibly, a right of appeal. So they move very fast, and they killed thousands of people in these anti-crime campaigns. Now for a while what it did do was to make it safer on the streets at night, but at what price? I think this is one of the problems. The other thing is that there's corruptions. Corruption is so built into the system that if you commit a crime and you have party connections, you can probably beat the system.
LAMB: Both societies?
WREN: Well, I know in the Soviet Union you can, and I think in China. One case in China was at Zhu De, the famous Red Army general. His grandson was executed for multiple rape when I was there, but only after he was involved in so many rape cases that they could no longer cover it up. And finally a policeman, the police went to his grandmother, to Zhu De's widow, and said, "Look, here's what we have on your son," and she refused to -- "your grandson" -- She refused to appeal for his life. But he had gotten away with most of these cases.
In the Soviet Union -- I talk about a case in Latvia where a paralegal or a man working in a legal office who had party connections hit somebody on a road, and instead of taking him to the hospital, they drove this guy to the morgue and just let him die. And the government kept trying to get after him. He was finally prosecuted and convicted of manslaughter, but he kept popping up in good jobs thereafter because he'd had his party connections.
LAMB: Numbers are kind of interesting. You said that 39 -- whatever year you used -- 39,000 people were killed on the highways in the Soviet Union. We have something like 55,000 killed here. They have 200 and 90 million people?
WREN: Well, they have well over a quarter of a billion people. They have more people than we do, certainly.
LAMB: But not that much more. But they don't nearly as many cars, do they?
WREN: No, they have far fewer cars, but there's several reasons for that. One is the roads are so bad and the driving is so bad that you have a higher rate. But the other is that here if you're hit in an auto accident, you have a chance at being picked up by an ambulance and getting to the hospital. There are no phones, for instance, when you're driving across the Ukraine in these villages. So you have an accident ...
LAMB: No phones?
WREN: Well, it's very hard to find them. A village may have a phone, but if you get hit by the side of the road, it's very hard to get you to a hospital. So they have a much higher rate of fatalities per accident than we do. And this is also true in China, particularly because a lot of people drive bicycles, ride bicycles. And I remember being down near Cheng-du in Sichuan Province and a young man was hit and he just lay there in the road and a big crowd of people -- he died surrounded by strangers because there was no ambulance to get him. And yet, when the Soviet ambulance system works, for instance, it works very well, they just don't have the infrastructure to support good medical care.
LAMB: which country builds a better car?
WREN: The Chinese do. I've driven both. The Chinese had a Shanghai and they also began producing some foreign cars, Volkswagens and Toyotas, when I was there. I drove a Volga when I was there and I told a vacation friend of mine, a fellow correspondent who came in to spell me when I went off to Central Asia on an extended trip, that it drove like a tank. When I came back he said, "You're wrong. I've driven a tank and this is worse." But they're reliable. The Chinese, I think, are perhaps a little bit defter at mechanical details. The Soviets do it all on volume. They'll turn out a lot of cars, but most of them won't be very good.
LAMB: Which society drinks more?
WREN: Oh, the drinking is very heavy in the Soviet Union. I mentioned a case where I went off to Moldavia and -- I don't drink, I just drink beer -- and I went off to visit, to do a story on collective, they were making some significant changes in collectivization and collective farms. And I went off, stayed up one night drinking the local brandy with the local farmers and the next day I had a terrible hangover because I really am not used to drinking.
So I went to the next farm that night in this collective. They sat down, all the cognac glasses, the brandy glasses were full to the brim for dinner and the deputy, head of the collective farms, said, "Let us first drink a toast that my house will not be struck by lightning." And I said, "I'm sorry, I just am not in a position to drink." And he says, "You want my house struck by lightning?" And the others were saying, "Please, you must drink. You know we must cement the friendship between our two peoples." And I said, "I just can't. I had a very bad night." And so finally he said, "United States of America wants my house struck by lightning." And it got to -- this sounds ludicrous here -- but it got to be a big issue, and I refused to drink and this was a great, great insult.
On another case I was visiting in--in Minsk, in Byelorussia, doing a story on what had happened to the old Byelorussian peasants who had driven out of the Byelorussian partisans, the guerrillas. And I sat down with a bunch of foreign guerrillas and they produced a bottle of the local vodka and we had to down a bottle each or whatever. And I prided myself of outlasting my handler from the Byelorussian Foreign Ministry, who before he slid under the table said, "Who do you report to in the FBI?" And then he just dropped. But eventually I carried a piece of paper with me that I wrote up myself, but it was ostensibly a doctor's certificate saying that if I had to take a drink, consume alcohol, I would die, and this always worked because nobody wanted a dying foreigner in their hands.
LAMB: Which country has the better food?
WREN: China. China has the best food, although it's interesting, both countries, both Russia and China have what is a very good cuisine. Chinese cuisine we all know, but the best Russian restaurant I've been to was in Helsinki and the best Chinese food I've had was in Hong Kong. I think the quality of cuisine suffered. It was one of the first things to go because the cooks were all sent off to do something else. They have continued to integrate some of the pleasures they built into society in China in a way that they have not in the Soviet Union. There still is food there, but it's not as good as it was.
LAMB: Which country has better roads?
WREN: Well, that's a toss-up. I would guess perhaps China, but once you get out of the cities, the roads fall apart. In China, we had a problem when we were driving that you were not allowed to use headlights at night, only parking lights, and the roads were totally unlit. And when I would go to the airport for whatever reason at night, to pick up my family was flying in or something, I would always turn on my lights. And I kept being pulled over by the Chinese police and warned they'd stop me from driving if I continued to use my lights. But you couldn't see anything, you had cyclists going in and out.
Finally they had an experiment where somebody told the deputy mayor of Beijing, "Look, headlights at night really help." And he went out and they did an experiment on the road outside Beijing and they found that headlights at night really did make safer driving. This is, again, a ludicrous story, but it was the bureaucratic mentality that said, "You may not use headlights at night." And there were a number of examples of this where they would just make totally arbitrary decisions that made no sense at all.
Driving across the Soviet Union, when I drove from Leningrad down to Tbilisi, which is the length of the Soviet Union, we had to stop and wash our car every day because it's illegal to drive a dirty car. And I said, "Well, why is it illegal to drive a dirty car? Because it's not allowed? Why is it not allowed? Because it's against the law?" And I never got an answer, but we'd always stop and wash our car.
LAMB: Did you really travel to 15 of 15 republics in the Soviet Union and 21 of 23 provinces in China?
WREN: Yeah, 29 of 31 provinces.
LAMB: Twenty-nine of 31?
WREN: Provinces and municipalities in China.
LAMB: Which two did you miss?
WREN: I missed Guizhou and Guangxi, which are two of the more rural, remote provinces. And I meant to go there, but then something else came up and I went elsewhere. It was very interesting. They put restrictions on you, but you kind of learn how to work around the restrictions and get around, and so I did visit every Soviet republic and the Soviet Far East, which is hard to get to, and Siberia a few times.
LAMB: Did you fly to all those places or did you drive to them?
WREN: You had to fly. If you drive, you were restricted in both cities to 40 kilometers, 25 miles, around Beijing, 25 miles around Moscow, and if you went out that, then you were subject to arrest. And occasionally I would if I was visiting friends who lived in a closed area, but I was not supposed to do it. There was one exception in Beijing where you could drive to Tianjin, which is an industrial city, which is about 70, 80 kilometers, but they had a corridor that you would drive there. And you'd have to stop in and you'd have to be logged and they'd have to write down your vehicle and your passport number and they'd check your documents. And then you'd drive this little stretch in which there was nothing worth seeing, except farms, and then you'd get to the other end.
And once, first time I had my first translator with me, the office translator, and we went through this roadblock. And he turned around -- my wife was with me -- and he turned around and he said, "Is this how you run your checkpoints for foreigners in the United States?" And my wife Jacqueline said, "Oh, we don't have any checkpoints for foreigners." And he looked at us and sniffed and he thought we were obviously feeding him a line. "How could you have foreigners running amok in your country?" And he refused to talk for the rest of the trip because he thought we were clearly lying, that you could never have foreigners running around in your country unwatched.
LAMB: What about the airlines? Which airline would you rather travel?
WREN: It's a real toss-up between Aeroflot and -- I've had bad experiences on both. It basically goes to the heart of the problem, that in both the Soviet Union and China you have state monopolies. And the facilities are run for the benefit of the state and the employees, not for the benefit of the consumer.
I was flying from Yarev, from Baku in Azerbaijan to Yarevan, in Armenia. I got on the flight. I was boarding the flight and the captain threw me and my wife and a few other people off the flight because he wanted to take some soccer buddies off to watch a soccer game in, or playing a soccer game in Yarevan. So we were left standing on the runway. This also happened in China, where you could always book a ticket out to a place, but you could never book a round-trip. And then you'd have to go in and grovel to get a round-trip back. And they were were very happy to throw people off flights if they needed to, although the Chinese had a rather endearing quality of setting up little sort of camp stools in the aisles, so that if there were too many people, then people would sit in the aisles.
But one of the cases, I remembered flying -- it was not me but a friend of mine who was flying, a businessman who was flying from Hong Kong to Beijing on CAAC, the Chinese Airways. And he had an engine problem. And rather than have it solved it there for hard currency, he decided to jump over to Canton, which is about a half-hour flight, and have the local mechanics do it for free. So he took off and then he began dropping down to this new place, suddenly very sharply. They land like they're doing bombing runs. And the stewardess came on and said in her limited English, "We are going down," and then disappeared, and there was panic in the plane. Everybody thought it was crashing into the China Sea. And, in fact, they'd landed and they spent five hours getting the plane fixed. But it was never apologized, never explained -- that was the attitude. Now I've since heard that Aeroflot has agreed to start paying compensation if you're bumped from a flight and sit around for a couple of days.
LAMB: The name of the book is "The End of the Line." Christopher Wren is our
guest. We have about 10 minutes left. When did you first meet Andrei Sakharov?
WREN: Well, I used to go over to his house. He had a small apartment in Moscow, and he was going on a hunger strike, I think, when I first arrived. He would periodically do hunger strikes. He was a marvelous man.
LAMB: What year?
WREN: That would be late '73. And then I would see him periodically, and sometime I'd just go over and chat. You could always knock on his door. You just show up at night. You never call because we never used telephones. But you could go over and knock on his door and sit there in his kitchen. And the first time I went over Yelena Bonner said, "Well, if you sit ..."
LAMB: His wife.
WREN: Yes, his wife. "... if you sit by the window, the KGB is going to photograph you." I said, "Well, that's all right." Once they know you're there, they know you're there. So we used to go over there. And I used to go over and talk to him not just about ideological, political issues but sometimes about just the problems of living. And as I mentioned in the book, once I went over there and they were trying to move up to a better apartment. And they had this deal -- they had their daughter and son-in-law, the Yankeleviches, who now live Boston, wanted to move in with the parents. They had their aging mother. And so what they were going to do was to trade the two apartments that they had for one larger apartment. And then the people who were in a communal apartment with them -- it was so complicated that Yelena Sakharov drew a map on the table. She got a pencil and she drew this sketch about who would move where. And it took them over a year to set up. And then the government said, "No, you can't do it," because somebody was going to end up with more than their allotted 10 square meters of living space. So the bureaucracy completely canceled this.
And I said to myself, if the Sakharovs have to go through this, you can imagine what happens to common, ordinary people, because the apartment situation is so bad that people marry people they don't love, they have children they don't want, they take jobs they don't like so that they can live in a specific area. And this is another part where the system has not delivered, that the gap in housing, the shortage of housing in both the Soviet Union and China is such that the people who get the good housing have been the party officials and other people wait in line for five or 10 years.
LAMB: You once made a pilgrimage to Mao Tse-tung's home?
WREN: Yeah, Mao Tse-tung's home in Xaoxan. And that was rather interesting because I was curious to see who was coming, who was going there, and I went down and talked to the people who lived in the village. And I went over to the next farm and there was this very nice lady named Miss Tang who talked about the Red Guards coming through, and we went into her home and we chatted. And she talked about how things had changed and what they thought of Chairman Mao. And it turned out that she was hiring local laborers, that she had some of the old Mao homestead in her rice paddies that she was farming -- tilling land, rice paddies that belonged to the Mao family, and that she was hiring local workers to bring in her crop because she couldn't do it all herself.
Well, this was against Mao's classic principles. You don't exploit other people by hiring them. You don't have employees in that sense. People work for the state, which is to say for the people, but not for other citizens. But she saw nothing wrong with it. She says, "I'll give them a yuan a day" -- that was about 40 cents, I guess. "I give them a yuan a day. I give them a pack of cigarettes. I give them a meal. What's wrong? They're perfectly happy to work for me." And that was where I saw the system breaking down.
I think one of the things that struck me about working in both the Soviet Union and China was this whole problem of the gap between rhetoric and reality; what they say they're doing and what they really are doing; what they say they think and what they really think. And so we saw places where the whole Marxist ideology was breaking down and was just being ignored even as it was being officially affirmed.
LAMB: In the beginning of the book you talk about, or you list the other books by Christopher Wren.
WREN: Oh, gosh, yeah.
LAMB: "Quotations from Chairman LBJ," with Jack Shepard, "Almanac for Richard Nixon," with Jack Shepard. "The Super Summer of Jamie McBride: A Novel," with Jack Shepard. Who's Jack Shepard?
WREN: Jack Shepard is a very good friend of mine, who is a former journalist with me at Look and Newsweek and who is now teaching at Dartmouth College. He got his doctorate and has gone to a very academic life, but is also a very successful author. He's done books ranging from "The Adams Chronicles," which was a bestseller, to "The Runner's Handbook" -- he's a runner -- which was also is a bestseller. And "Forest Killers." He's done a number of books. And I just thought -- got a choice: Should I list these books or should I not? And I thought, well, I've written them. I mean, one of my friends at The New York Times commented that to say that you write a serious book on the collapse of communism and then having written a book 20 years ago, whenever it is, oncountry music and Johnny Cash. I did it because I like country music. I write about what I like and what I enjoy.
LAMB: Well, I should name it. It's "Winners Got Scars, Too: The Life and Legends of Johnny Cash." And that was your first book?
WREN: That was about my third book, yeah. But I did that because I like -- I'm a country music fan. I like folk music and country music, and so I just thought it was fun to hang around for a year with country musicians and travel around. But this is quite different.
LAMB: Before we run out of time, I want to ask you about some other names in the introduction because you often see these names and you never know who they are.
Who's Martin Goldman?
WREN: Martin Goldman was a former managing editor of Look magazine and editor of Intellectual Digest, and he is the person who I credit with having taught me how to write. He's one of the finest writers I know and he's now in Long Island writing his own book.
LAMB: "Sterling Lord saw the potential of my subject." Who's he?
WREN: He's my agent. He's very good, and a very, very civilized man. And I mentioned this -- I said, "I'd like to do this kind of book," and he said "Well, it could work." I mean, I was talking to him not just commercially but artistically. He says well, this is a kind of book ... and he encouraged me. And these are people who helped me along.
LAMB: "I'm grateful to McDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire."
WREN: The McDowell Colony is a writers colony, and I wrote this book basically on company -- I won't say on company time, on my off hours. I didn't take a leave of absence, which made it hard to write. But I needed time to sit somewhere and think it out. And they have this marvelous writers colony and so I would go up there and I was given a little cottage, and I just sat there for several weeks and decided what I was trying to do.
LAMB: Who else goes there?
WREN: Oh, well, it was it was named after Edward McDowell, the composer, and I guess it would be a Who's Who of -- I was lucky to get in there as a journalist. It's a Who's Who of artists, writers and composers. I think Aaron Copland wrote part of his works up there and William Styron has been there. I mean, a lot of people have done it. It's a marvelous place to write. You sit in the woods and you have no distractions. And every day about 11:00 they come -- or 1:00 or 12:00 they come, and they leave a basket at your door, but they never disturb you. So when you're ready to eat, you open the door and there sitting there is your lunch.
LAMB: Is this all paid for?
WREN: Well, I contributed something. Some people who are totally broke -- some artists, they do it free, but I insisted on paying virtually all of mine.
LAMB: You also named some people, especially Roz Putnam and Chris Barnes, "for the pine-scented solitude given me to work on this book."
WREN: That's right. Well, they were the ones who set it up, Roz and -- Chris Barnes was then the director of the colony and Roz Putnam was an old friend who was on the board of the McDowell Colony, who when I had a dinner with her and said I was going to write the book said, "Look, why don't you apply?" And I said, "Oh, they'd never take me. They'd never take an ordinary journalist. They deal with a much classier clientele than battered-shoe reporters," but she got me in.
LAMB: If you had to choose between writing books and writing daily journalism, what would you do?
WREN: That's another hard ... I guess, intellectually, I'd like to write books full time, but from the gut I enjoy daily journalism. I enjoy history on the run. And then maybe if you have a chance to pull it together, like I was able to do with my seven years in the Soviet Union and China here, perhaps you produce a better product.
LAMB: This is a $22.95 book and let's see, you have 352 pages, with a lot of index stuff. Was it hard to fill that many pages or could you have doubled the size?
WREN: No, I had the ,,, well, in fact, I wrote 180,000 words. This is about 110,000, 115,000 words. So the book is half what I originally wrote. And I wrote -- I just wrote too much. I mean, for every story in there I had two more. But it just had to come down. If the book was to be readable, if the book was to be interesting, it had to be tighter. It was the most painful part of the whole process, was just to bleed it down to that size.
LAMB: We're about out of time. I have one final question for you. If you had to choose between living in China or the Soviet Union, which one would you choose and why?
WREN: Right now I think I'd live in the Soviet Union in terms of ideology or political events. As far as material benefits, I think they're still better in China. But ...
LAMB: What about people?
WREN: I got very fond of both people. I got very fond of the Russians, I got very fond of the Chinese. And having the skill of the languages made it much, much easier. But I have a great fondness in my heart for both people.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like. Our guest has been Christopher Wren. He's currently stationed in South Africa. He writes for The New York Times and this book is about the failure of communism in the Soviet Union and China. Thank you very much.
WREN: Thank you.
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