Politics Red Square

Texas scientist Arnold Lockshin defected to Russia to find a new life. Has the collapse of communism shattered his dreams?

July 1992By Comments

In the fall of 1986 biochemist Arnold Lockshin suddenly disappeared from his brick ranch house in Houston. Two days later, he turned up in Moscow. A very left-wing Jewish scientist, Lockshin was frustrated with the prospect of bringing about social change in his own country. His solution was to flee—with his wife and three children—to the Soviet Union. At the time, he insisted that he had been forced to leave the United States because he and his family were being harassed by the FBI for his past association with the Communist party. I couldn’t help wondering, however, if the scientist was a sincere social reformer or merely someone on the lunatic fringe.

Almost six years later I found myself visiting Moscow and more curious than ever about Lockshin. The Iron Curtain had fallen since he left. I wanted to know what his life was like and whether he had ever regretted his decision to defect. I especially wanted to know how he felt about living in the postrevolutionary ruins of his ideals.

A few minutes after settling into my hotel room in Moscow, I began searching for a telephone book to find a number for Lockshin, only to learn that my room had no telephone book. I could live without a Gideon Bible. I could live without a morning wake-up call and good strong coffee. I could even live with Moscow’s musty, faintly green tap water. But a hotel room without a telephone book is isolated and solitary, cut off from civilization.

Just when I was on the verge of despair, the telephone rang. The person calling was Elena Morozova, an English-speaking Russian woman who had befriended me, and she was calling to ask if I needed anything. “A telephone book,” I answered immediately. She just laughed. That a city of 10 million people had no readily available telephone books seemed inconceivable to me, but Elena insisted that it was true. I had two options: to go to one of the little information kiosks around Moscow that are manned by operators who have access to stacks of phone directories or to know someone in a high place who could get the number through channels.

The first option sounded logical, but it turned out to be difficult. I went to an octagonal kiosk near Red Square and waited for about two hours in a long line made up primarily of Americans who were as confused as I was. When I finally got to the front of the line, I told the attendant that I wanted the telephone number of the All-Union Cancer Research Center of the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences, where Lockshin works as a cancer researcher. The attendant asked what section of Moscow the center was located in. I told him. Then he asked me for Lockshin’s first, middle, and last name. His middle name? I had no idea. The attendant idly thumbed through several volumes, then told me in a flat voice that he couldn’t help. I paid him a couple of kopecks and left, pondering the greatness of the American experiment: a telephone book in every home, business, and hotel room.

The first option hadn’t worked, so I turned to Elena to see if she could help with option number two. Through friends in a government ministry, she located the elusive telephone number and triumphantly dialed it. But just when I thought the ordeal was over, I was met with yet another obstacle: Lockshin’s hostile English-speaking secretary.

“She speaks better English than I do,” said Elena, grimly handing me the telephone. “I think you better deal with her.” The voice on the other end of the telephone roared like a thunderstorm. “Dr. Lockshin will not speak to you,” it boomed. I asked how she could be so sure, since he hadn’t yet been asked.

“He isn’t giving any interviews,” she said with the note of authority I had come to recognize as peculiar to Russian bureaucrats—an authority that seems final but begs to be challenged. So I did what I thought was expected: I pleaded, explaining how far I had come and how disappointed I would be if I didn’t see Dr. Lockshin. “Life,” retorted the secretary dismissively, “is filled with disappointments.”

My heart sank. I had come seven thousand miles to see a fellow Texan, and now I was getting the brush-off from his Russian secretary. Could life be loonier, I wondered.

As I continued stalking Lockshin around Moscow, I discovered that he and his family are well known as celebrity dissidents from America. I did meet one Russian woman who was not impressed. “What kind of people are they,” she asked, “trading an American life for a Russian one? They must be crazy.” But most Russians seemed proud of them. They told me that considering how many Russians had defected to the United States and Israel, it was comforting that at least one American family had cast its lot with the Soviets.

So felicitous was Lockshin’s decision, in fact, that from the moment he and his family set foot in Moscow, they were tools of the Soviet government’s PR machine. Eduard A. Shevardnadze, then the Soviet foreign minister, held a news conference at the United Nations, citing the Lockshins as a shining example of reverse emigration. Just as Soviet dissidents sought asylum in the U.S., so an American family had found a haven in Soviet Russia, Shevardnadze explained, casually neglecting to mention that Russian defections outnumbered American ones by several orders of magnitude.

In Moscow the Lockshins were greeted as heroes. As television cameras rolled, Lockshin told the world that he had been fired from his more-than-$50,000-a-year job in Houston at the Stehlin Foundation for Cancer Research because of his political beliefs. Back in Houston, officials at the foundation where Lockshin had worked since 1980 said politics had nothing to do with his dismissal. They said he had been fired in August 1986 because he had been inattentive in his job and had become increasingly withdrawn. Lockshin told Russian viewers that his telephone calls in Houston had been tapped, his mail opened, and his children threatened. The FBI denied any sort of harassment. Even though he insisted he was not a Communist, Lockshin told the press on his first day in the Soviet Union that he “understood that we could feel at peace only in a socialist country.” The Lockshins arrived just before summit talks in Iceland between U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, not long after Soviet dissident Yuri Orlov had moved to the U.S. The family’s defection to Moscow was a nice public relations send-off for Gorbachev.

Here in Texas their story seemed absurd, beyond comprehension. Their lives had been totally ordinary, hardly the stuff of spy novels. Lockshin was a well-paid cancer researcher who commuted from his suburban house in southwest Houston to his lab, which was affiliated with St. Joseph Hospital. His wife, Lauren, walked their three children to the bus stop every morning, complained about ragweed to her neighbors, and ran a small marketing company from their home that distributed food samples to grocery stores. The three Lockshin children—Jennifer, then 15, Jeffrey, 11, and Michael, 5—did what most American children do: They went to school, rode bicycles, played basketball, and were ferried to various activities in the family’s Chevrolet. Why would anyone trade that life for long food lines, bitter winters, and a cramped apartment? Moreover, why would a Jewish family move to a country whose own Jewish dissidents were desperate to emigrate? Lockshin himself provided an answer of sorts in one of his earliest Moscow television appearances. He said that he would rather wait in line five hours a day for bread and milk in Russia than face political harassment in the United States.

As my search for Lockshin went on, I learned that he and his family now enjoy lives of relative ease, at least by Moscow standards. They live in a section of Moscow called Lenin Hills, which isn’t exactly Highland Park or River Oaks but is still Moscow’s nicest neighborhood, situated on a bluff overlooking the Moscow River and surrounded by several large parks. The apartment complexes are large brick-and-concrete high rises, but they were not built as close together as the massive older apartment buildings in the center of the city. Most of the city’s intellectuals and ranking government officials live in Lenin Hills, and on Saturdays and Sundays newlyweds come from all over Moscow to have their pictures taken at a scenic overlook. The best medical facilities in the city are nearby.

Still, life in Lenin Hills is hard when compared with life in any middle-class neighborhood in Texas. There are no lush green back yards, grocery stores are empty of fruits and vegetables in winter, and stylish, well-stocked retail shops are nonexistent. Few people in Lenin Hills or any part of Moscow drive cars; they use the always-crowded subway. And they stand in line for everything from medical care to the latest museum exhibit. After all, how privileged can life be in a city without telephone books?

I took a taxi to the All-Union Cancer Research Center, on the outskirts of Lenin Hills. The center is in a new white concrete skyscraper, comparable in scale to the buildings at Houston’s Texas Medical Center. I knew that somewhere inside, Lockshin presides over a large cancer-research laboratory, but even though I was within a few hundred yards of him, I couldn’t find him, because I couldn’t make myself understood. Frustrated, I returned to the hotel and continued telephoning him daily. Each time, I got stiffed by his secretary. Finally, on my last day in Moscow, I called, and miraculously, Lockshin himself answered. His deep voice sounded rushed and impatient. “I don’t have time to talk to you,” he barked.

I had one chance, so quickly I asked Lockshin about his book. “It’s called Silent Terror,” he answered, “but you can’t read it because the FBI keeps blocking it from being published in America.” (A few weeks later I asked a spokesman for the FBI if this was indeed true. “It is not the policy of the FBI to review books,” said the spokesman, a bit amused by my question. “People write books about the FBI all the time, even our own people. We couldn’t stop it even if we wanted to.”) Apparently Lockshin’s book, which was published in the Soviet Union in 1989, tells the story of how he and his family lost everything when they were forced to leave America. “We were in fear for our lives,” Lockshin told me, “and they still won’t leave us alone.” I next tried to ask Lockshin exactly how the FBI had infiltrated the American publishing industry, but he was rambling and I was struggling to follow his drift.

How, I went on, was the FBI continuing to harass him in Moscow? “Tell ’em to cut the crap when I go to the American embassy,” he demanded. “What crap?” I asked, baffled. “The crap that Strauss gives me,” he replied, referring to Bob Strauss, the Texan who is the U.S. ambassador to Russia. “Strauss is an old man, a rich millionaire. Why does he need to hassle me?”

I tried to imagine what Lockshin meant. Visiting the American embassy is a hassle for everyone, not just for dissidents. Security is still extremely tight. The guards outside the front gates make you wonder if the Cold War is really over. You have to state your business, present a passport, and sign in. You’re escorted everywhere. The atmosphere is official, even tense; no one gets a welcome wagon. Is this what Lockshin meant by being “hassled”? “Just tell Strauss to cut the crap and stop hassling me about my citizenship,” Lockshin ordered when I pressed for details.

Again, I was mystified. I had already asked Strauss what he knew about Lockshin. Beyond what he had read in the newspapers in 1986, Strauss said he didn’t know anything. The issue of citizenship is fairly straightforward. As a spokesman for the state department explained, citizenship is a matter of birth or naturalization, not political ideology. Lockshin and his family are still American citizens, and like all citizens living overseas they are requested to register with the American embassy. This is a bureaucratic procedure, not a hassle. If he wanted to actually renounce his U.S. citizenship, however, that would be a bit of a hassle. He would have to take an oath of renunciation in front of a consular officer at the American embassy and then sign the oath. So far, Lockshin hasn’t taken that step. By now, though, I was no longer listening to Lockshin’s words, just the futility of his paranoia.

I had given up my nostalgic vision of Lockshin as a bold rebel. The view of the world that he holds on to is not only irrelevant but banal. Lockshin is a Cold War leftover. He may have imagined himself as heroic and romantic, but as the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe and 1991 in the Soviet Union prove, there is no heroism, no force left in Marxist rhetoric. The Cold War is not something that ended just in Eastern Europe. It ended everywhere. Americans who cling to Lockshin’s ideals are just as obsolete as Russians who cling to the tenets of Marxism. Like everyone else, I watched on television as one Marxist capital after another crumbled beneath the realization that communism does not work and the power of ordinary people standing up to their own armies. But internally the Cold War did not end for me until I heard the hollowness of Lockshin’s accusations over the telephone in my Moscow hotel room.

“How much does it cost to fly from Austin to Moscow?” he asked as we concluded our talk. He sounded wistful, as if for a moment he understood that his move to the Soviet Union was not as grand or important as he had hoped. When I told him that a round-trip ticket cost me about $1,200 off-season, he couldn’t believe the price was so low. “I guess that’s because all the airlines in America are bankrupt, isn’t it?” he asked. I laughed, thinking he was making a joke, but on the other end of the telephone, Lockshin brooded in silence, still fighting the Cold War that now rages only in his mind.

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