How I Won The Cold War

Paul Lowinger


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 products.

"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