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.

Freedom of expression is now greater than at almost any time in Russian history. Almost every day there is at least one demonstration somewhere in Moscow ranging from protesting Ukrainian Catholics to angry anti-perestroika conservatives. Demonstration permits are relatively easy to get, but gathering without one instantly brings buses of police who peacefully herd the participants into the waiting vehicles for brief detention and a stern talking-to. Certain locations, though, seem to be free-speech zones by common understanding. Pushkin Square in Moscow is the scene of regular demonstrations and political gatherings. The courtyard in front of the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad (formally the Museum for the History of Religion and Atheism) is, on weekend evenings, the scene of a Hyde Park-style gathering of soapbox speakers, musicians, jugglers and political organisers. As bored police looked on, I saw Leningrad political cult hero ‘Sasha’ address a large crowd and call for the overthrow of the Communist Party and the ‘pigs who run it’. Representing one of the myriad new political organisations (popular fronts, unions of democrats, popular unions etc), Sasha stood and spoke in front of a large Russian royal flag from the pre-Communist period.

There is also a new interest in religion. The state has returned several famous chapels and monasteries to the Orthodox Church. (A priest told me that this was a ‘trick’: the buildings had fallen into such horrible disrepair under government use that the state had given them up to avoid paying for repairs – a burden the Church now faces.) Churches are full for services, and although older folk still predominate, several younger people can be seen participating. Others are newly curious about the Orthodox Church from a historical or intellectual point of view. They do not know whether they are believers or not. On several occasions, colleagues – some of them Communist Party members – would take me to see a particularly beautiful church and, when they though I might not be looking, would furtively cross themselves before entering. Even more incongruous to a frequent visitor to the Soviet Union are the ‘prayer minutes’ and sermons delivered on television by Orthodox priests.

Other aspects of the transition are troublesome. Most immediately evident are the tangible economic difficulties and general disrepair. Food is harder to find and more expensive; many people blame the new private co-operatives for buying up the best produce and selling it at high prices. Soap, sugar and occasionally tea are available only with ration cards. Cheese disappeared in November and laundry soap has been unobtainable for some time.

Soviet roads and street, never in good condition, have deteriorated markedly in recent years and months. The beautiful Baroque facades of Leningrad hide interiors with peeling paint, broken windows, holes in the walls, and armies of insects. It takes months to send or receive a package from abroad and sometimes two weeks are required to send a letter the four hundred miles or so between Moscow and Leningrad. Soviet citizens sometimes take their letters to the train station and pay a conductor or car man to take personal charge of their mail. The recipient meets the train, pays the courier and takes the letter. On the scholarly front, the new open atmosphere is balanced by the literal collapse of the Lenin Library, which houses one of the world’s great book collections, because incompetent construction of a nearby subway line has destroyed the foundations and cracked the walls. The plan now is to close the Library for five years to effect repairs: a disaster for the Soviet and Western academic communities.

The structure of Soviet society is being undermined as well. There is a troubling ‘flight from the professions’. Although hard data are scarce, it is obvious that many people are changing their careers. Boris, a trained economist who used to work at the Ministry of Foreign Trade, is now a freelance chauffeur. ‘I used to spend my days poring over tables and reports for a small salary. Now I work half-time, earn more money and have time to write poetry.’ Sasha, an electronics engineer, quit his job and now passes his days on Leningrad’s Nevsky Prospect selling souvenirs and changing money illegally with Western tourists. He makes more than ten times his former salary, almost all of it in precious foreign currency. Leonid is a gifted artist and trained icon-restorer. His work adorns several Moscow churches and cathedrals, and his home is decorated with his paintings and murals. Three years ago, he stopped ‘serious’ painting and began to produce traditional decorative Russian Easter eggs for export. He now supervises a staff of 60 who work in a makeshift factory in the basement of a Moscow apartment house. His product is quite good (he angrily scorns the inferior and cheaper eggs offered in souvenir shops), he is well-to-do by Soviet standards, but he is no longer an artist.

Many people in all walks of Soviet society now worship money in a way that was uncommon ten or fifteen years ago, and which would strike Westerners as a bit unseemly. Some people in Moscow and Leningrad have become ‘generic’ businessmen. (Biznisman is now a commonly-heard word in spoken Russian.) They are outfitted in new suits, Western haircuts and (empty) briefcases. They are ready to ‘do business’, but they have no skills, knowledge, capital, product or service. They roam the streets and hotels looking for contacts in order to organise deals for any product at any level. Some of them carry around written copies of the new Soviet legislation on Western/Soviet ‘joint ventures’ (another new Russian word) in the hope of meeting someone from abroad willing to be their partner. These aspiring Soviet businessmen are desperate to meet foreigners, and even if you convince them that you are not interested in a joint venture, they will pump you for lessons about how profit works, what a corporation is, or how a business establishes prices. They know that they want to be capitalists, but many of them do not have a clue about how business works.

This embrace of the market, combined with little understanding of it, seems to me to be one of the major problems and contradictions now facing the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Traditional Russian peasant egalitarianism, Marxist ideology and possessive individualism do not mix well. Frequently, the same person will say that he or she is in favour of a free market as long as prices are firmly controlled. Educated and otherwise sophisticated people will come out for the new co-operative (private) businesses, and in the next breath tell you that they resent the new wealth of the ‘co-operativists’. Many sense no contradiction between free markets and strong Soviet-style planning; although many want to become rich, they attach a kind of natural-economy stigma to being so.

Nowhere were these contradictions better illustrated than one evening in the restaurant of a large Soviet hotel which, like many service organisations, is being converted into a co-operative to be run for profit. When I arrived, most of the tables in the room were empty but the maître d’hôtel refused to seat me. To his dismay, I complained to the manager (the head of the co-operative). This person understood a bit more about the need to serve patrons in order to make a profit, but nonetheless was disinclined to help. I asked whether the restaurant was a public establishment organised to make a profit and whether, as a guest of the hotel, I had the right to eat there; the answer was a simple ‘yes’ and a blank stare.

Rather uncharacteristically, I lost my temper and threatened to complain to the assistant manager of the hotel, a position traditionally occupied by a KGB officer or collaborator. The restaurant manager then forced the head waiter to seat me. Then the truth came out: the table waiters refused to serve me because they preferred to save the empty tables for friends and rich patrons who might drop by during the evening; they did not want to have to reset my table when I finished. The manager had to threaten the head waiter, who in turn threatened the waiters, who in turn angrily waited on me. All of this was accompanied by shouting, waving of arms, and coarse remarks about the ancestry of those involved. I was eventually served, not because the united members of the co-operative worked together, but rather because each member in the chain had been confronted by some overarching personal threat.

Such adventures in dining are not particularly new in Russia. The difference is that now they take place in the supposedly ‘new thinking’ atmosphere of profit and loss. Few Russian restaurants would consider resetting a table in order to increase trade turnover during the evening. They prefer the short-term advantage of keeping all the tables empty and catering to a few bribe-paying rich parties to the long-term strategy of developing a continuing trade. It is difficult to see how with such attitudes, any kind of productivist mentality will succeed.

Those who do understand and work diligently are confronted by obstacles and uncertainties that would dismay the most determined Western entrepreneur. One week, the pro-perestroika side will enact legislation to facilitate co-operatives; the next week another body will pass a 70 per cent tax on them. In the autumn the Supreme Soviet came within a hair’s breadth of abolishing them. Such battles and controversies have not created a stable climate for economic development.

Leonid, the painter turned manufacturer, had net receipts of more than one million roubles last year. But from this he had to pay ‘fees’ over and above his rent to the management of the apartment building to let him use their basement; ‘fees’ to the borough council (soviet) for permission to manufacture (technically, a free right); ‘fees’ to the local police not to harass him and his workers; ‘fees’ to managers of retail outlets and export firms to carry his products; and kickbacks to wood suppliers to persuade them to sell to him rather than to someone else. When all this is paid, he is taxed not on what is left but on the original million. When I asked him whether he was angry at having to pay such bribes over and above the natural cost of business, he smiled and replied: ‘Here, in order to get something done, what counts is not being able to pay for it, but nurturing personal connections and good will ... and good will costs money.’ If he can succeed in business in Moscow, he can succeed anywhere.

Because of the continuing value of hard (foreign) currency, and because possession of it allows one to purchase otherwise unobtainable goods in special stores, it remains preferable to roubles for many people. It is not easy to find a taxi-driver in Moscow or Leningrad who is willing to accept roubles. Enough foreign and black-market customers hail cabs to allow drivers to be quite selective. In the Soviet Union, it is traditional to ask the driver whether or not he is willing to take you to your destination before entering the cab. If he does not happen to be heading in your direction, the usual answer is a surly ‘no’. Dozens of times, the offer of two American dollars instantly transforms this into a gracious ‘yes’. The almighty dollar is squeezing out the rouble.

Petty, victimless crime is now omnipresent and open. Street hustlers constantly accost Western-looking people on the street and offer to exchange money or sell souvenirs. Prostitutes also seem more numerous than a few years ago. Street businessmen (fartsofshchiki: roughly, scoundrels) and prostitutes were not uncommon in past years. What strikes one today, though, is their glasnost and apparent level of organisation. At most hotels in Moscow and Leningrad, there is a kind of informal system (rezhim) of associated taxi-drivers, prostitutes, police, doormen, traders and other staff. Taxi-drivers bring the prostitutes and currency speculators to the hotel. If they are on the ‘approved’ list, an otherwise intransigent doorman admits them. The prostitutes work the restaurants and general lobbies, while the speculators arrange their transactions in stairwells and floor lobbies. Pimps take their places in the hotel’s best restaurant for the evening, watch late-night strip shows, and co-ordinate the process. The hotel restaurant managers, concierges and policemen stationed in the hotel turn a blind eye in return for pre-arranged payments. Interlopers – those prostitutes and traders not part of that particular hotel’s system – are driven off by the doorman and policemen stationed outside the hotel.

More alarming is the rise in violent crime. Until recently, such crimes were almost never reported in the official media, but everyone knew that Leningrad and Moscow were not the crime-free paradises described in the official media. Still, it is hard to avoid the impression that, better reporting notwithstanding, the crime rate is climbing sharply. In the past, one could depend on the security of one’s room. Now, it is not uncommon to hear stories of burglaries and robberies in the best hotels. Leningrad television features a nightly programme with the catchy title Ugolovny Ugol (‘Criminal Corner’), during which city police display the collection of arms, contraband and malefactors seized that day.

On previous trips, I had never given a second thought to walking through almost any part of Moscow at night. Now, when I leave a friend’s home, he invariably asks me to call him when I safely reach my room. At first I protested: I am a large person and it seemed far-fetched that someone would attack me on a Soviet street. But my friends were firm, and a series of rumours and official reports of people being beaten and even killed on the street convinced me that Moscow is approaching the dubious status of New York or Washington. In the summer, two foreign students had their throats cut in a well-lit part of Gorky Park.

New words have crept into the Russian vocabulary. In many situations, one has to pay bribes (racket) to the syndicate (mafia) in order to survive. Over and above the petty and harmless rezhims of hotel prostitutes and speculators, there now exist several interconnected networks of organised crime. The widely-bruited arrests and prosecutions of certain politicians for systematic corruption are only the tip of the iceberg. One evening I watched members of one of the Moscow mafias ensconsed in a restaurant they had rented for the evening. Like Chicago gangsters from the Twenties, the chieftains held court at large tables, surrounded by scantily-clad professional women and fawning lieutenants. Periodically, tough-looking underlings would enter, confer with their chief, and leave on various nefarious missions for the syndicate. Terrified waiters scurried about serving the tables. At one point a fight broke out as a low-level thug attacked a disrespectful waiter. The policeman stationed outside the restaurant refused to intrude into the proceedings, so the unfortunate waiter received multiple blows while the assembled company looked on; some of them laughed and cheered the assailant. As I left, I asked the doorkeeper what was going on. Glancing apprehensively into the restaurant and not meeting my eye, he whispered: ‘Mafia.’

Many of these changes have more to do with industrial societies and improved communications than they do with Gorbachev’s perestroika. Whether one believes that society is maturing or collapsing depends on one’s point of view, but we are witnessing the decline of one society and the transition to another. Such historical periods are exciting and depressing, promising and dangerous. On my last day in Leningrad, students in the history faculty of Leningrad State University decided en masse to drop out of the Communist Youth League. Nationally, Party membership levels are down so much that the leadership now declines to publish them. The demise of such entrenched and ossified organisations as the Communist Youth League, the trade unions and the Party apparatus may be long overdue. Nevertheless, something is disintegrating and nothing has yet taken its place.