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The sound was immense, a shattering, gutteral growl, filling the midnight air. As we ran toward Gorky Street where it joins Moscow's inner ring road, prehistoric gray-green silhouettes loomed into view.

Heavy metal treads sliced into the road surface, scattering tiny pieces like chaff. Exhaust pipes spat out clouds of diesel fumes that stung the back of the throat.

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Four abreast they rumbled down the hill to Karl Marx Prospekt, massively incongruous on the wide city street, long narrow gun barrels thrusting forward beneath the trolley-bus wires, the drivers' heads helmeted like the flying aces of World War I. Khaki canvas-swathed machine guns stuck out at the rear.

A pause. Engines idled. A soldier marched to the center of the road, held up a red flag, then ran for his life. The commander's jeep shot off in the lead. And the T-72 battle tanks, on display for the first time in Moscow as the rehearsed for the Nov. 7 parade in 1977 (the 60th anniversary of the Soviet state), roared up the hill and into Red Square.

Each machine 38 tons of polished and painted metal, they vanished into the distance beneath the striped, brilliantly lit onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral at the far end of the square. The domes towered, unearthly, against the black sky, like the backdrop to a Russian opera at the Bolshoi Theater.

That moment, as my wife and I stood there, ears ringing, the taste of fumes in our mouths, watching plainclothes KGB agents watching Western military attaches who had been watching the tanks . . . that moment summed up the menace, and the basic challenge, that the Soviet Union presents to the rest of the world today, almost 6 1/2 decades after Lenin seized power in 1917.

That challenge is materialism -- the constant claim that material force is what counts in the world; that Soviet armor car can support Soviet ideology in a way that is superior to the ideals and ideas of the West, the worth of the individual, man's right to live and pray unoppressed by the state.

The Kremlin represents a form of government that believes might makes right. Its Marxist-Lennist-Stalinist ideology seeks to justify Soviet force and material appeal by arguing that they are the "inevitable" historical conquerors over all other ideas and forms of government and social order.

Man is put at the center of the universe. Religion is dismissed as a mere outgrowth of economic forces. There are no eternal verities.

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The challenge needs to be faced rather than feared.* It is the antithesis of the concept that ideas are mightier than military metal and brute force.

For it is force and fear that today's Kremlin uses to keep order at home and not to expand influence abroad. To the huge geographical entity created by the czars, the Communists have added the imported, Western ideology of Marx and refined it to local conditions so that it both forces an expansionist world view and justifies that view. The old religious icons have given way to the new: ballistic missiles and T-72 tanks.

Materialism shows up in the Soviet preoccupation with force here at home, even on "festive" occasions.

Every time I left Red Square after a Nov. 7 or May 1 (May Day) parade, I would look to my left through a tall door in the Kremlin wall just before starting down the slope from the Square proper to Karl Marx Prospekt beyond.

Through the half-open wooden door, in the shadows, out of sight but on the alert, was a squad of young Red Army soldiers, well fed and red-cheeked, Kalashnikov automatic rifles ready in their hands. A hitch in the organized spontaneity outside and they would be ready.

On Nov. 7, 1980, walking to may last parade, I passed more soldiers, armed and outfitted, in the long pedestrian underpass that leads to the square.

Nothing is left to chance. The mammoth parades themselves, with their massed ranks of people, red flags, banners, paper flowers, portraits of Politburo leaders on rubber-tired floats, are meticulously rehearsed. Even the crowd cheers are on a prerecorded tape blasting from loudspeakers high on the Kremlin wall.

The instinctive way the Kremlin coped with 100,000 non-Communist visitors here for the Olympic Games in August 1980 was to use a show of force. Not since a world youth conference in 1957 had so many foreigners come to Soviet Cities. Party officials wanted to limit their contact with local people, to control the impact of outside ideas.

So hundreds of thousands of militia (police) militia trainees, soldiers, and officers patrolled the streets of Moscow (and the other Olympic cities: Tallinn leningrad, Minsk, Kiev). Out-of-town traffic and Soviet visitors were simply turned away at the outer ring road. Many Westeners were astonished to find so little traffic, so few local people, so many uniforms, so little vivacity or joy.

Leaving Lenin Stadium each night, I felt as though I was in an armed camp. Platoons of militia marched to bus pickup points. Squads of soldiers moved away into the darkness. Messenger boys in green windbeakers were drilled in double file. Truck convoys coming in to take the men away for the night consisted of a many as 97 ten-wheeled vehicles each.

Of course, the Soviet Union is not just force and fear. It is many other things besides: people and families, ballet and opera, cosmonauts and chess players, ice-skating and cross-country skiing, dachas and mushroom picking, cities and farms, hopes and dreams (the latter will be discussed later in this series).

But central control, ensured by force, is the hallmark of the communist system. The thingking behind it, the intense rivalry the system sees itself locked into with the rest of the world, the adversary relationship he Kremlin believes to be inevitable, is the main challenge to President-elect Ronald Reagan and another non-Communist leaders as well.

The other Communist superpower, China, lacks superpower weapons or a history of aggresiveness abroad. Moscow has both.

The Kremlin's materialism shows in its view of Soviet citizens themselves. They are deemed to possess only those rights conferred by the state, which means by the communist Party, which in turn means a handful of men at the top of the hierarchy. The entire country is the party's domain, to be ruled as the party thinks fit. The Western concept of man as an individual possessing inherent rights is alien here.

The 1977 Constitution has 174 articles, laying out what the party allows its citizens to have, from housing to health to public catering to marriage.

Article 62 says, "Citizens of the USSR are obliged to safeguard the interests of the Soviet state and to enhance its power and prestige." Soviet people tend to be extremely patriotic, emotionally so. But the party doesn't feel able to rely on innate patriotism: It has to spell it out.

Surveillance and suspicion are part of the system, part of Lenin's and Stalin's materialist legacy, part of Russian history itself.

"Every apartment building has its 'watcher,' often someone elderly, who stays around the building all day, sees people come and go, makes a note of anything unusual, and tells local micoregion officials," one Moscow man told me in his apartment late one night, lowering his voice as Russians habitually do when making a critical statement.

He picked up his phone, dialed "2," and put a pencil in the hole to the left of the metal finger-stop to prevent the dial returning to normal. Many Russians are convinced the state listens in through the phone lines, so if they interfere with the line, sometimes putting the phone itself into a drawer, they feel safer.

Memories of the Stalin years die hard.

"If I come home with a new stereo set, for instance, and the 'watcher' suspects I could not have afforded it on my salary, I am likely to have a stranger knock at my door and start asking questions. No threats. No Siberia. But the message is clear enough . . . ."

Said another man, also late at night, as we walked along deserted, dimly lighted streets in the bitter cold:

"Step out of line in your factory or office, and you'll be visited by a trade union official, or called in 'for a chat.' In the bigger establishments it's the Pervii Otdelm [First Department] that will see you, the personnel people, except that they're either KGB or internal police.

"You'll soon realize what you might lose if you don't get back in line -- the right to buy a car, or a pass to a resort hotel in Sochi [on the Black Sea], or the right to buy food in bulk from the canteen once a week. Ninety- nine times out of a hundred, you decide to behave. It's fear."

The Soviet Union itself is an empire, the last 19th- century empire on earth. The czar's armies marched into Azerbaijan, on the southern border and adjoining what is now Iran, in 1723 but were unable to consolidate control until a century later -- about the same time Britain was taking Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

The czar overran Turkmenistan as the British conquered the Gold Coast (now Ghana) -- about 1840; and he took what is now Uzbekistan about the same time the British took Nigeria (about 1860).

Ceylon became independent in 1948, Ghana in 1957, Nigeria in 1960. But no one ever seems even to suggest that Moscow give up what the czar took.

In this century, the communists have added the Baltic States and part of Poland. Even now their forces are struggling to cement control over Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Soviet leaders repeat endlessly that the Western world alone is "colonialist."

What holds the internal empire of 15 Soviet socialist republics together is force. Article 72 of the 1977 Constitution says each republic "shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR." But no one that tried to do so would get very far.

Huge resources go into maintaining a 4 million-man Army and internal police force, including border guards. Filled as the huge country is with Slavic inefficiencies, the party has done two things well: It has infiltrated every power base and controlled it; and it has created nuclear, strategic, and conventional armaments equal to those of the United States, whose gross national products is about twice that of the Soviet Union. The Soviets rule with an iron hand over their immediate empire -- Eastern Europe, and now Afghanistan. The crisis with Poland shows clearly that force, size, and proximity are all the Kremlin has to rely on. Without them, both Eastern Europe and Afghanistan would thankfully go their own ways.

Moscow also uses proximity (Finland) or a mixture of proximity and force (Mongolia) to keep its neighbors quiet. Where if fails -- with China, Iran, Turkey -- the Kremlin feels constantly threatened. It has no internal dynamism, no vibrant self-made example, on which to fall back.

This reliance on material force rather than the attraction and vitality of ideas means fewer consumer goods for Soviet citizens than Western countries provide -- though the Soviet system does not look so economically inadequate when compared with the rest of Asia: China, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Iran.

The party blames the tragic loss of 20 million people in World War II for most shortcomings today, 35 years later. Mammoth arms spending is, however, the real reason shoppers still stand in long lines to get into dirty, badly lighted shops to buy basic necessities such as potatoes and meat.

Tin Moscow, the best-stocked city in the country, open complaints are often heard. Westeners report Russian friends asking, with embarrassment, if potatoes and rice could be bought for them in hard-currency stores open only to foreigners.

The average person here lacks color, variety, diversion in his daily life. the Soviet Union remains an underdeveloped country with overdeveloped arms: A Bolivia with the bomb.

The party does have achievements to its credit. It has provided many new apartment blocks, better clothes, color televesion sets, imported shoes. It has sunk massive sums into agriculture. It has provided its people with genuine superpower status through the force of its arms. It has maintained the Russian tradition in ballet and opera and music. Health services and education are free. Housing rents are very low.

But the costs in human freedom are enormous.

When I came to the Soviet Union in august 1976 it was still the era of detente -- despite the Kremlin's successful support (mainly with black Cuban soldiers) of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, and the tying of more trade to Jewish emigration from the USSR.

But detente has changed. So has the United States. So have I. Gone is the concept that being "nice" to materialism will make it nice to you. It is plain, instead, that being nice encourages it to believe you are weak.

True, the West needs always to be courteous in personal dealings and uprightin sticking to agreements. But the relationship with the Kremlin must always, at bottom, be an adversary one.

It's not a case of us deciding arbitrarily to be nasty to them. It is that their way of thinking is implacably opposed to us.

Kremlin thinking is more single-minded than that of Western leaders. The Kremlin does have a king of public opinion at home to cope with -- wi thin the party. It will have even more trouble if it doesn't provide more meat, and soon. Already trade union officials here have confirmed in private talks with Western diplomats that there were, indeed, "work stoppages" in no details. Yet the Kremlin permits no significant internal political opposition.

That said, it is worth remembering that materialism has its weaknesses as well.

For all its size and strength, Moscow remains insecure, thin-skinned, an outsider in the world community. Finland might watch its step in foreign policy , but that doesn't prevent the overwhelming majority of Finnish individuals from being passionately anti-Soviet. By relying on force, the Kremlin ceases to appeal with its ideas. It constantly demands that the US treat it as "an equal."

The journal entitled Voprosy Istorii KPSS (Questions of History of the Communist Party) claims wildfire successes: Communist parties working in more than 90 countries now, compared with 37 countries in 1922, and "already more than 75 million communists in the world."

"It becomes increasingly more difficult to outline and carry out an effective national policy " in Italy, France, Japan, Portugal, Greece, and Cyprus without working with Local Communists, the journal argues in its November 1980 issue -- failing to mention that communism in those countries is not always the Soviet brand, and that the current general trend in the Western world is to the right, not to the left.

Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism still fights the battles of a century ago. It still talks in the language of the 19th century, when Marx added an economic dimension to history and saw (correctly) how inudstrialization was turning workers into victims. Now the West is racing into the era of microships and wall television and word processors, while the Kremlin's only step away from nib pens and inkwells is inside its military establishment.

In many fields, Soviet policy is essentially to react to what the West and China do. Often, the Kremlin's fortunes depend more on how the United States and China are doing rather than on the appeal of its own ideas. Where the US does well (Camp David in the Mideast for a while, for example), the Soviets do badly. Where the US does poorly, the Soviets come up again.

Soviet foreign policy remains a mixture of superpower rhetoric and bombast, expansionism, target-of-opportunity maneuvering, and meticulously planned ventures all backed by force.

There are unlikely to be quick changes internally. The Soviet people have little history of internal revolt, no tradition of democracy to which to return, no tradition of successfully challenging central authority.

Russian and Soviet history combines Oriental secrecy, despotism, isolation, and rural poverty with an overlay of Western arms, technology, and ideas.

The West has to find ways to face this challenge in a spirit of confidence in the vitality of Western ideas, liberties, and religious ideals. And it needs to do this without flagging or fear -- and without hatred for the Soviet leaders or people as individuals; they can be as warm, gregarious, and outgoing as any other people in the world.

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