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It was on this day in 1962 that 88-year-old, four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost plunged into his goodwill tour of the Soviet Union. He really wanted to be able to meet with Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. Frost said that he could envision “the Russian and the American democracies drawing together,” their distinctly separate ideologies eventually meeting in the middle.

The goodwill tour was arranged, and in late August the crew set off. Frost spent his days in the USSR giving poetry readings and interviews and lectures and otherwise being a very public persona. His readings were immensely popular, with enthusiastic audiences filling venues. Frost would burst out into spontaneous recitations of his famous works wherever he went.

For most of the trip, it was uncertain whether he was going to get a chance to meet with Khrushchev, which he wanted so badly. Then, toward the final days, he got word that such a meeting had been arranged, and he would get his big wish. He flew to Crimea, and he was so incredibly excited that he felt to sick too his stomach — he reported having terrible stomach cramps. He was going on 90, and there was talk of canceling the meeting, but Frost insisted that it take place. Khrushchev sent his own personal doctor ahead to attend to Frost. He was diagnosed with a case of nervous indigestion.

Khrushchev ended up coming into the bedroom at the guesthouse where Frost was resting, and it was there that, at the height of the Cold War, the leader of the Communist world and the aging American poet had their famous meeting. Each man praised the other man’s work. They talked of the future of capitalism and the future of socialism. Frost told Khrushchev: “A great nation makes great poetry, and great poetry makes a nation.” And then Frost daringly took a stab at discussing one of the Cold War’s central issues: He urged Khrushchev to reunite East and West Berlin. Khrushchev declined, and explained to Frost why it was important for the Soviet Union to keep it how it was. The two men talked for an hour and a half.

Frost died just about five months after his trip to the USSR. At the dedication of the Frost library in October of 1963, John F. Kennedy delivered a moving eulogy, where he said: “Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation.”

From: The Writer’s Almanac

August 2010

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