During the Cold War, whenever there was some big event in U.S.-Soviet relations, the Voice of America (VOA) would send a telegram to the American Embassy in Moscow and ask for the reaction of the Russian “man in the street.”
One such telegram came in 1967 when Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva caused an international furor by defecting to the United States. As the Embassy’s Counselor for Press and Culture, I was not going to go out on the street and get some Russian into trouble with the authorities by asking what he or she thought about the defection. However, I did come up with an innovative alternative.
Russians have a great respect for American cars. During World War II the Soviet Union received many military vehicles from the United States under Lend-Lease, and since the first Jeeps received were from Studebaker and bore that name, Studebaker soon became the commonly used Russian word for truck.
I had a new Plymouth station wagon, and I learned that if I parked my car on a busy Moscow street, opened the hood, and with a screw driver began to tinker with the engine, I would soon be surrounded by a crowd of Russian men full of questions about my car. They wanted to know how many “horses” the engine had, how fast the car could go, the gas mileage in liters per 100 km, and what the car cost. After answering those and other questions, I would pop my question, and VOA would have its “man in the street.”