How I Won The Cold War
The phone made a gurgling sound at 7:30 Monday morning and I was
ripped from the depths of a dreamless sleep. Suddenly I was in a wooden
bed in a large hotel room with dark woodwork, plastic curtains and
lace doilies. My hand fumbled toward the phone and I heard the voice
of Nikola Shipkowensky, the professor who had invited me to lecture.
It was August l967 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
"That topic, Negro riots in Detroit will not do for your lecture."
Then after a delay,
"Did you have a nice trip?"
I was shocked but not surprised at the cancellation of my lecture
scheduled for the next day to the Department of Psychiatry at the
National Medical School. Like a lover whose liaison had been postponed,
I negotiated. "I'll talk on the history of American psychiatry."
"That's fine. I'll pick you up for lunch today at one and we can
see some of the city," he said turning the e ddies of the conversation
into a calm pool.
I rummaged desperately in my bulging brief case but there were no
papers on the history of psychiatry. Gory images of Detroit's street
violence, worse then Watts were in their slide box but there were
no pictures of the glories of psychiatry. The only appeal was to my
memory and instant speech writing skills. I had researched the causes
of urban racial unrest, not the history of American psychiatry. It
was like studying for a final exam without notes or a textbook.
The professor's slow Slavic accented English reminded me of our first
meeting in Detroit at a convention in May. I wanted to visit Eastern
Europe and he invited me to Bulgaria that summer since I would be
lecturing in London, Oslo and Wiesbaden. He was visibly European with
his courtesy, white shirt and tailored suit with narrow lapels. I'd
been professorially vague about the topic of my lecture though I mentioned
several subjects and we saw little of each other in the remaining
days of the Detroit meeting.
Like academic gypsies, we met again accidentally at an international
assembly in August in Wiesbaden and this was a more pregnant memory.
Was this a chance encounter? Probably.
In the Weisbaden meeting hall, I said eagerly, "I'm glad to see you,
Professor. My lecture in Sofia will be on last month's Detroit Riots."
My understanding of the Cold War was that a Soviet Bloc country would
be interested in new research on the racial and class violence of
their capitalist adversary.
He smiled as he replied, "We all heard about the riots in Detroit.
Let me have a copy of your paper. Xerox has a place in the exhibit
area where we can make a free copy."
My paper, "Civil Disorder in Detroit: Riot, Revolution or Uprising"
was research about the reasons underlying the five days in July of
street violence, the forty three dead and the five hundred million
dollars of property destruction. It had been presented in London and
Oslo but it was supressed behind the Iron Curtain. Why?
My history lecture the next day was at half speed as I waited after
each three or four sentences for the translation into Bulgarian for
those in the audience who didn't understand English. The room was
a hospital auditorium with sixty or seventy people many white coated
who sat on worn wooden seats facing a lectern and a blackboard. When
I finished, I was gratified by the applause and the many friendly
questions from the audience.
During lunch I was restless and wondered what more there was to do
in the capital. I'd seen the Alexander Nevsky cathedral and the monument
to Liberation by the Red Army in 1944 and the one to Freedom from
the Turkish Yoke by the Czar's army in 1878. Here there was nothing
like Notre Dame, the Berlin Wall or even Oslo's Kon Tiki Museum. No
Royal Family or Silent Scream.
After the obligatory hospital tour, we si pped Turkish coffee in
Nikola Shipkowensky's office. Twenty years older then I was, taller,
square jawed and balding with white hair, he looked pleased without
smiling as he announced, "Your lecture was a success and I've arranged
for you to visit the medical school in Plovdiv, our second city.
"I'll be glad to go, I don't have to leave for home until Saturday."
I'd learned not to argue. But I thought, "Why not the medical school
at Varna, the Black Sea beach resort."
"One of our young women faculty members, Dr. Dina will drive you."
My careful driver was quiet, unadorned by makeup and wore something
like a golf dress. Whether her calm exterior reflected contentment
or was a facade for inner turmoil, I never discovered. We traveled
for two and a half hour on narrow macadam roads in a small Soviet
car surrounded by large trucks bulging with animals, produce and factory
"I've been studying Detroit's civil disorder and I planned to present
a paper about it but the Professor thought I should talk on American
psychiatry," I said in a provocative effort at conversation.
"I've read about the riots in the newspapers. I would like to see
your report. Do you have a copy I could borrow? I'll return it." Her
words were sincere but I knew that some loans are made never to be
repaid and this was one.
The mystery remained. Why was the riot study rejected by official
Bulgaria while in the West it it readily entered a contentious dialogue?
The research was about the motivations of the crowd on the streets,
the looters, snipers and firesetters. It concluded that the Detroit
disorder was neither an aimless riot, nor a full scale revolution
against an established government but rather it was a Black uprising,
somewhere between a riot and a revolution. In contrast to the ban
on discussing racial disorder, civil rights were on the approved list
because my introduction mentioned my participation in the Selma to
Montgomery March which the audience applauded.
I finally decided that the story of Detroit's Black uprising was
a threat to Bulgaria's social fragility and its rigid controls. Slavic
Bulgaria had its own ethnic disadvantaged minority, Moslem Turks.
Besides there was resentment toward Africans and Arabs in Bulgarian
universities because they took scarce university slots from the locals.
Also it was rumored that some Bulgarian women preferred the dark skinned
foriegners to the local boys.
After the lecture in Plovdiv, I was back in the capital and in his
office the Professor smiled as he confided his own reputation as a
dissenter, "I have even been considered a Freudian, I publish in the
West and travel to international meetings." His confession ended with
a wave of his hand, perhaps a defiant gesture to critics who might
see my visit as grist for the ir mill.
"Uh huh, I see," I murmured sympathetically as I decided this wasn't
the time to discuss censorship.
On Friday night a faculty reception was held at the bacteriology
professor's country house which they called a dacha and in the morning
Professor Shipkowensky took me to the airport. We were still in his
car when he said, "We appreciated your visit and your lecture about
American psychiatry was of great interest. By the way, can you do
me a favor on your way home?" He held a large unsealed envelope addressed
to a publisher in London saying, "You can read it if you want. It
is a manuscript on schizophrenic criminality which is my specialty.
I gave the paper in London last March and this is the edited copy.
If I put it in the mail in Bulgaria, it will end up on the censor's
desk where it will remain for months and miss the editorial deadline."
"Of course," I said waiting to hear more.
"When you change planes f or the United States in Vienna, you will
walk right by the Post Office where the letter can be mailed with
an Austrian stamp. I hope that won't be a problem."
"I'll take care of everything," I said in a conspiratorial tone enjoying
the role. A discussion about freedom and the First Amendment would
have to wait.
He held out a box of Bulgarian pastries. "This is for your family
when you get home. They will be perfectly good even after eighteen
hours of travel." I added the too-sweet Baklava to my carry-on luggage
as I entered the check-in line.
I had already switched off my Balkan consciousness and now was in
my home persona so I didn't look inside the envelope but dutifully
mailed it at the post office which was just as described.
My censored paper became a samizat, an underground tract circulated
among trusted colleagues or so I like to think.
This was my Cold War
© Paul Lowinger 1998