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Not a More Perfect Union



AS all those who stand to profit from the collapse of the Soviet Union lick their greasy lips over the possibilities of a vast, now-tamed Russian marketplace, let us hope that they pause for just a minute to mourn what they are destroying.

There is more to the new Soviet UnUnion than budding young Russian entrepreneurs dreaming about the mountains of hard currency they can suck from their video-McDonalds-Michael Jackson-starved fellow countrymen, and Harvard economics professors drooling over the thought of making the new Soviet world more efficient by dismantling bureaucracies and closing factories.

Since the failure of last month's hardline coup and the apparent triumph of democracy, capitalism and the right for every Soviet to do whatever she wants to anyone else, American politicians and journalists, each more gushing than the next, have been lauding the new Soviet UnUnion and excoriating the old. If we are to believe them, the defeat of the coup means "freedom" and "opportunity" for Russians, Lithuanians, Kirghizians and Georgians. Now every last one of them can set up a flourishing small business and vote for dozens of exciting new politicians.

THE OLD SOVIET UNION never produced a decent stereo, and even if it survived another 1000 years, it never would have. Its cars sucked. It had awful food and not enough of it. Its architecture was hideous. Its books and movies were boring propaganda. Its great artists were either emigres (e.g. Solzhenitsyn) or escapologists (e.g. Kabakov). It polluted like sulphur dioxide was going out of style. Its rulers were, almost without exception, bloodthirsty swine. Its record on human rights was laughable, its concern for individual freedoms nonexistent. All this and much worse is true.

But at the same time the old Soviet Union stood for noble values--egalitarianism and security, to name two--and sometimes even achieved them. What is so tragic about the vanquishing of the old-line Soviet Communists is that those values are gone, chucked into the void with gulags and five-year plans, replaced by the potential-laden, but equally heartless, god of the Free Market. The leaders of the New Russia and its 14 Dwarves are showing an appalling willingness to adopt Western capitalism hook, line and sinker without much consideration of what it means.

The United States, at its most basic level, works on the principle of More Stuff. Our economy runs because people buy stuff; if they don't buy stuff, everything grinds to a halt. While this is a great way to get a lot of neat things, the principle fails as a way of giving much philosophic meaning to our society.

FOR ALL ITS FAULTS, the Soviet Union did something that we have never done: It spoke for those who do not speak. The Soviet Union provided jobs. They weren't good ones, and the Party got preference, but people worked, and unless they were too free-thinking, they kept their jobs for a nice long time. Its medical care was terrible, but it was free for all. Schools were not much better, but they were free as well, through the university level.

And in its revolutionary heyday, it did a lot more. The voice it offered to all, in participatory arenas large and small. A "soviet" was a democratic forum more like a town meeting than anything else, back before it became sysonymous with gerontocracy, corruption and the nomenklatura. Factory meetings, cooperative meetings, production meetings, even artists' meetings. When we think of the Soviet avant-garde of the early twenties, we must remember that it was the massive unleashing of human potential that drove the arts forward. Marx's dream wasn't becoming a reality, but it was becoming less ludicrous.

These noble attempts did not work very well. A privileged class developed anyway, and everybody had less of everything. But still they made the effort, realizing too late what Marx had said all along: A communist revolution in an undeveloped country means a redistribution of poverty, not a cable-ready cornucopia. Still, this cultural and political Siberia gave Soviets security. Their security was cheap, badly designed, and falling apart. But it was security.

That is a lesson soon forgotten when you can see the boatloads of VCRs and Doritos waiting off the Baltic Coast.

THIS SECOND Russian Revolution was, as all are, a revolution of young people. If you saw the crowd outside the Russian Parliament building during the coup, you saw that almost everyone was under 35. Revolution is the work of young people because young people can afford risk. They can afford to lost their jobs, because they don't have families they need to support. They can afford to speak out. They can afford to go to jail. They are strong enough to go hungry through a long winter seige, if they must. Most others are not.

The victory of capitalism in Russia is the victory of youth. These young people who defeated a coup and who brought down the statues can risk forming the Russian stock exchange, or organizing an import-export deal for the destruction of the Communist bureaucracy because they don't belong to it. They can ask for free-floating currency because they don't have any life savings tied up in rubles.

When we think of this revolution, we see 10 million young people fighting bravely to win the chance to make their million dollars and be elected president. And we wish them the best of luck. But we must also remember those millions and millions who were not out in the streets, those millions who supported or acquiesced to the coup because they saw it as a chance to return to security, to bread lines that actually did have bread at the end.

They are not the ones who could chant and march, because they can't afford to. They are old people living in small Moscow apartments who need free medical care. Old people with a lifetime's saving--partially gutted by Gorbachev's efforts at currency reform, but a savings that promised stability. They are low-level party bureaucrats who need their jobs to raise their families.

They are the people without voices, the ones who don't know enough, don't care enough, aren't smart enough, aren't independent enough, aren't healthy enough and aren't brave enough to learn to survive in a capitalist world. One day, perhaps in 20 years, the transition to capitalism will have made the Soviet UnUnion a healthier and wealthier place than it ever was under Communism. But that is cold comfort for the voiceless people.

They will learn, as many Americans have, that they don't count under capitalism, that capitalism means today, as it has in the past, "the freedom for the stupid to starve." These cogs that fit so well in the old Stalinist machine will be the Soviet homeless, unemployed, uninsured, and uneducated, toosed out in the streets as they are here, avoided and ignored. They will be the relics of a failed system, left to rot on cabbage and stale rye bread as their grandchildren either forgot them in the quest for that elusive first million or turn away in an effort to save themselves from the same fate.

WE SHOULD NOT be surprised when these people turn, en masse to charismatic and demagogic figures like Boris Yeltsin, or worse. They are not naive, but they will be increasingly desperate. When Poland's Lech Walesa promises a return to that old-time Catholic state, the youth grumble, Jeff Sachs pulls at his hair, and the Pope comes to town. Who listens? Those who don't know any better or those who do?

So before we start holding parties to celebrate the end of the awful Soviet state, we should briefly remember those who are unprotected. For them, the coup was a final, hopeless, misguided, destructive chance to save something for themselves. Now they will have to suffer and make a lot of stuff.

As Americans celebrate the death of the old Soviet Union, they should remember what has been lost...

... poor consumer products, hideous architecture and the security of a totalitarian state.

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