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Eyeing the New Russia

By Adam L. Berger

IT'S too bad devoted Communists have no room for religion, because Mikhail Gorbachev and the rest of his party are in desperate need of a miracle. Nothing short of Saint Nicholas on his sleigh could possibly deliver a cure for the slew of ailments afflicting their country.

From Kremlin bigwigs to local apparatchiki, Soviet leaders are now conceding what Western experts like Hedrick Smith--Moscow correspondent for the New York Times from 1971 to 1974--have known for decades: Lenin's experiment is a bust.

The evidence is everywhere. If Marx's socio-economic dream was supposed to erase nationalism, then why are Lithuanians so intent on preserving their national tongue and culture from Russian encroachment? Why are the Armenians and Azerbaijanis slaughtering one another (with stolen Soviet military paraphernalia) over an Armenian-populated strip of land in Azerbaijan territory? Why are Central Asian republics like Uzbekistan, traditionally a politically docile state, now clamoring for more regional autonomy?

The sheen of utopian rhetoric is thin indeed. The very state that has laid claim to erasing religious tensions has, for the last half century, promoted anti-Semitism through vigorous campaigns against "cosmopolitanism," a euphemism for Jewish influence. The ultra-nationalist group Pamyat ("memory") and lesser known groups have recently taken the lead from the government in stirring up such antagonisms.

If this were the extent of Mikhail Gorbachev's problems, he'd be a man in deep trouble. But they are only the surface.

Labor strikes in the coal-producing regions and elsewhere have contributed their share in crippling the national economy, already weakened by inflation. The irony of these strikes, of course, is that the workers shouldn't need to strike in a state where they are by law their own bosses. With this in mind, Lenin outlawed strikes during the civil war following the October Revolution.

Universal health care, one of socialism's main selling points, is a complete flop. "Health care" in the Soviet Union means rat-infested hospitals, minimal service and, in some places, no running water. Anything better requires a generous and well-placed bribe.

An acquaintance of mine who recently returned from the Soviet Union brought his own clean syringes along, just in case. Soviet hospitals tend to use them over and over.

So much for utopia. So much for Marx. And so much for Lenin.

For Smith, a hardened veteran of Soviet life, such problems are old hat. After returning to the U.S. from three years in Moscow, he authored The Russians in 1974, an exceptionally readable patchwork of anecdotes, interviews and personal experiences of the grey life under Brezhnev.

Life for ordinary Soviets has arguably gotten worse in the 16 years since Smith left, but his new offering is less about the vagaries of life under the nonsensical and stifling regime than a primer on recent changes and their effects on everyday Russians.

The New Russians is part of a genre of hastily published accounts--like Harrison Salisbury's book on the Tiananmen massacre and more recent offerings on the fall of the Berlin wall--which try to appear timely while generalizing enough to keep themselves on bookstore shelves for more than a few weeks.

Smith is certainly timely--his source list includes several interviews in early August of this year. But The New Russians is far from the timeless classic of his first book.

It's hardly the author's fault. It was much easier to write about life under Brezhnev without worrying about becoming dated, since virtually nothing ever changed under the dull, hairy Soviet leader. Writing The Russians was akin to painting with a skyscraper as a subject. Speed was not essential; the skyscraper wasn't going anywhere.

But writing The New Russians was more like using a tumbleweed as a model--Smith had to look hard and write fast, because by the time he was finished, his subject was five miles away and looked completely different.

Smith is not at his best while recounting recent Soviet history--anyone can do that, and some are even more qualified, like Bill Keller, who holds Smith's old position as the Times' Moscow bureau chief and who, more importantly, has lived in the Soviet Union rather than Washington as perestroika has grown up.

Smith is much stronger as a raconteur, depicting the grief of a widow in Nagorno-Karabakh whose son was axed in half by marauding Azerbaijanis, or the fear of a Ukrainian farmer whose state subsidies are in doubt, or the shock of a lifetime apparatchik who faces opposition for the first time in his political career for his seat in the Soviet Parliament.

He is also accomplished as a compiler of Russian jokes, which differ from Western humor by being much drier and often rather clunky, but are always pregnant with political satire.

One such example: a worker leaves the factory one day with a wheelbarrow covered with a cloth. The guard looks under the cloth, finds nothing there, and waves him on. The same procedure repeats for three days, when finally the guard asks the employee: "Look comrade, you must be stealing something. What is it?"

"Wheelbarrows," responds the worker.

In another anecdote, one Soviet is explainingthe meaning of perestroika to another. Hehas two pails, one full of potatoes and the otherempty. Then he transfers the potatoes into theempty pail.

"But you haven't done anything," objects thefirst.

"Yes," he responds, "but just think how muchnoise it makes."

Despite their penchant for satire, mostSoviets would deny that there's anything funny atall about communism. After all, the putatively"classless society" in practice means equality ofpoverty. It also means an obscene level of wealthfor the political elite, who enjoy summerdachas on the Crimea and special lanes onthe highways for their sleek Volga limosines whilethe rest of the population is holed away in huge,ghastly impersonal building complexes, one or tworooms to a family.

That's not funny.

Neither is the command economy, the polaropposite (if there is such a thing) of the marketeconomy. Here production is God and the consumeris meaningless. Success is measured in raw output:pairs of shoes, tons of lumber, stacks of bricks.

To demonstrate the foolishness of the system,Smith recounts the monumental inefficiency of theSoviet trucking industry. Since transportation ismeasured in kilogram-miles, Soviet truckers preferto lug heavy cargoes of lumber halfway across thecountry, rather than trying to minimizetransportation costs.

In the Soviet economy, three millionbureaucrats fill reams of paper each year settingquotas for everything from nails to oil to lumberto televisions, 200,000 items in all. Factoriesproduce goods not because anyone wants theirproduct, but because Gosplan, the state agencyresponsible for such nonsense, tells them to doso.

This Alice in Wonderland economy extends to theindividual level as well. Why should Sergei workharder if he isn't rewarded for additional output?And even if he were rewarded by merit, he can'tbuy anything worth having with his money, sinceMoscow bureaucrats, not he and other Soviets, setthe demand for goods. And even if he could somehowget what he wants, it would be of only the lowestquality, since quantity and not quality isrewarded by Gosplan. Soviet televisions, forexample, are prone to explode.

That's not funny.

Gorbachev and a whole generation of Sovietpoliticians who grew up under Stalin and now fillthe highest echelons of Soviet politics also don'tsee the humor in all this.

In a radical change from past Soviet policies,in June of 1988 Gorbachev decided to allow smallgroups of Russians to lease land for 50 years andsell on the market any output they produce overthe state-imposed quota. Not quite privateownership, but this piece of legislation is aconcession that incentives--the bastion ofcapitalism--are necessary in any economy.

SMITH tries, when dealing with theinnovations and reforms, to narrate and providecolor rather than to judge. Being Smith, he hasaccess to practically everyone except for the verytop of Soviet leadership, and he is an adeptinterviewer, gleaning inner motives and fears fromevery source.

He speaks with Leonid Abalkin, Gorbachev's topadvisor on economic reform. He speaks with AnatolySobchak, a reformist Leningrad deputy. Moreinteresting, perhaps, is his afternoon with NinaAndreyevna, who gained nationwide notoriety as aGorbachev critic, an advocate of the Stalinistcommand system.

The Western mind often doesn't recognize, asSmith does, that Andreyevna's message has a lot ofresonance among Soviet citizens. Gorbachev'sreforms--allowing small "cooperatives" of privateenterprise, for example--have struck fear in manySoviets, conditioned to fear rapacious capitalistspeculators making money off of other people'smisfortunes. Glasnost, conservativescorrectly claim, has also led to a plethora ofanti-government messages bombarding the publicfrom sources such as the newspaperLiteraturnaya Gazeta and the wildly populartelevision program Vzglad.

What the Soviet Union needs right now, theysay, is a some tvordy poryadok--some firm,Stalinist discipline.

Which direction the Soviet Union willtake--towards Stalinist reaction or moreincentives, more freedom and more democracy--is anunanswered question. He and we can only hope.Because there's nothing funny, or even practical,about communism. Nothing at all

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