Back in the USSR

J. Arch Getty

The Western press is full of surprising stories about reform and crisis in the Soviet Union. Since Gorbachev came to power, Soviet politics have changed drastically. But even before his ascendancy, there were rumblings of earthshaking changes in Soviet society below the level of national politics. In the later Brezhnev years, liberal Soviet sociologists, many of whom were working in a kind of professional exile in Siberian research institutes, carefully wrote about changing Soviet mores. Studying the results of the first scientific public-opinion polls in sixty years, they noted a decline in Soviet-style patriotism, in respect for socialist and Leninist values, and in allegiance to Party and state. Led by the now-prominent sociologist Tatania Zaslavskaia, these observers pointed to increases in juvenile delinquency, evasions of military service and other ‘immoral’ activities as signs of a crisis in values. A decline in the attractiveness of visible and powerful public-service careers and a shift to ‘individualist’ lucrative private occupations, combined with respondents’ expressed desire to get rich, seemed to herald a fundamental transformation in attitudes and social organisation. Today many of the points scientifically documented by Zaslavskaia in their embryonic phase are becoming evident in daily life.

Westerners who have visited the USSR several times over the past decade or so are struck by the changes in the texture of everyday existence. It had been almost three years since my last trip to Moscow and Leningrad, and I had thought that my reading of the Soviet press would prepare me for the new situation: I was a convinced optimist about the future of the country. But a stay of some four months in Moscow and Leningrad during the latter half of 1989 produced a strange mixture of relief and unease at the direction Soviet society seems to be taking.

On the good side, the attitude toward foreigners has dramatically improved. In the past, it was rare to be invited to anyone’s home. Now invitations from colleagues and friends are so common that one must sometimes decline them in order to have time to work. As a historian accustomed to being denied access to historical and archival materials, I was pleasantly surprised at the new academic climate. I received archival documents that only two years ago were closed to Westerners. Visiting Western scholars, who in the recent past were treated with only civil correctness, are now sought out by Soviet counterparts, wined and dined, and constantly invited to give academic talks and lectures on any subject and from any point of view.

The new Soviet media are another treat. Glasnost is real. Television programming is now mercifully rid of banal heroic movies about World War Two, programmes about evil Westerners repressing workers, and laughably tendentious newscasts. Investigative reporting, pointed questioning of uneasy officials, and a kind of hard-hitting tele-vérité are their stunning replacements. The most popular television programme in Leningrad is 600 Seconds, a ten-minute, rapid-fire investigative programme. Hosted by a dynamic young man in a leather jacket, the programme moves rapidly from scene to scene around town to expose the corruption, foibles, problems and official blunders of past and present. Other media offerings are more sombre and powerful. One evening, some friends and I watched a television crew interview a pensioner in his tiny run-down apartment. The lonely old man had been a secret police executioner in the Stalin times and was eager to share his memoirs with the younger generation. Completely unrepentant about his earlier activities, he sincerely believed that those he killed had deserved it: after all, they had fought against socialism and and the Revolution, hadn’t they? Along with a stricken television interview team, we watched ashen-faced as the old man acted out the shooting of a prisoner: ‘Look, you had to hold the revolver just so in order not to make a mess.’ The man did all the talking; no commentary was provided and none was needed.

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