Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Finding islands of freedom in a sea of Soviet authority

Across the street from where Lenin was born, in Ulyanovsk near a wide and icy Volga, a modern hotel rocks to the beat of an electric band. A young blonde woman near the crowded dance floor confides: ''I don't work nowadays. Work is boring. . . .

''I love beautiful things, like gold and crystal.''

About these ads

She is Lena, divorced from a husband who gave her beautiful things but also drank for a living. She is one of dozens of ordinary people - neither officials nor dissidents - who have jolted the stereotypes I toted to Russia three years ago.

Russians since Stalin have reached an oddly comfortable convenant with authority. That is to say: comfortable for them, less so for authority.

Instinctively, they build ''islands'' on which to live, dream, drink, inform themselves of the world outside, discuss things, acquire goods and services, even prosper, beyond the reach of the powers that be - often in ways their parents would not have contemplated.

In return for Soviet-style ''freedom,'' they work, if sometimes as little or as shoddily as they can get away with. They pay lip service to official campaigns of one sort or another. And they otherwise forswear political activity.

Dissidents are the few who break the rules of the game and refuse to stay within their private ''islands.'' And the system crushes them. Even the little ones, like Viktor Tomachinsky. . . .

Viktor was a self-styled poet and A-one auto mechanic. He was a stocky lepre-chaun of a man with unruly hair, faded blue jeans, and a seemingly irrepressible urge to smile.

He was 35 when I met him, in late 1981, in the stairwell of the apartment house where reporters and diplomats live. He was handing out ''invitations'' to Moscow city court, where he planned to sue the KGB and the Soviet Interior Ministry for $20,000 the next day.

About these ads

His ''case'' was that KGB and ministry officials had promised him and his family exit visas, but reneged.

''They should pay me what I could have earned as a mechanic if the visas had been granted as agreed,'' he said.

I attended his day in court, a snow-chilled afternoon. A panel of judges, headed by a middle-aged woman with red hair, spectacles, and a look of puzzlement, heard the plea and withdrew to an adjacent room. They returned in half an hour or so to declare, with none of Viktor's evident enjoyment of the show, ''We do not have jurisdiction.''

That night, security police arrested Viktor. Two years later, friends say, he died in prison. His wife was informed the cause of death was pneumonia.

I remember asking him, before his courtroom appearance, whether it might be wiser to give up his suit. He thought otherwise: ''I don't know,'' he said. ''I guess it's just a matter of temperament.''

''This Tomachinsky was crazy,'' says Rima, a nondissident friend of mine. It is not so much that he wanted to leave Russia - Rima, too, has felt that way - or that he was angry with the KGB. But, she explains, thinking things is one thing. Going public, challenging the authorities to a fight, is insane. It is pointless.

''Nado jit,'' Russians say: ''You have to live.'' And within limits instinctively felt and observed, living here is a less neatly ordered business than Western stereotypes imply.

Yuri Andropov's calls for ''discipline'' have afforded an example.

In early 1983, sudden spot-checks by police for truants in grocery stores, movie theaters, and other public places sent shock waves through Moscow. People began showing up for work more often and promptly, laboring rather than drinking on the job, leaving work later.

Then the authorities called off the spot-checks, deciding against what an official calls ''shock'' tactics that could not have had a lasting effect without a return to other, darker tools of the Stalin days.

Since then, an official notes, the fresh ''discipline'' has lost some momentum. Downtown Moscow stores seem as crowded as ever with off-the-job shoppers.

''People do have a greater awareness of discipline since Andropov came to power,'' adds a factory worker among pedestrians I have stopped to interview.

But on the job, he and others say, there has yet to be lasting change: no mass firings for being late, or for taking an hour or so off to do the family shopping. ''There is simply more awareness. We are a bit more careful,'' a worker says.

And vodka, a prime foe of discipline, is very much alive and well.

Russians drink everywhere: on the job when possible, in restaurants, at home. And on the street, falling-down drunks are a familiar part of the urban landscape.

In 1981, the Brezhnev regime announced the latest in a series of vodka price hikes, linked to an equally familiar campaign against alcoholism. But a few months ago, in a move most Muscovites saw as pleasingly out of sync with the campaign for ''labor discipline,'' a new, cheaper brand was suddenly introduced.

I asked an official why: People simply started buying up subsidized sugar and other ingredients for a homemade firewater. They stopped buying vodka through state stores. ''We lost a billion rubles (about $1.3 billion) in revenue. . . . And people were still drinking.''

But if many Russians, on their ''islands,'' drink and deaden the mind, others feed the mind, exercise it. They trade bootleg cassettes of music that is officially proscribed. They inform themselves, in one way or another, of what is happening within the Soviet Union and beyond. They participate in what must be the world's most frenetic joke-and-rumor mill.

One result is that large numbers of Russians are more informed about - and fascinated by - the world outside Soviet borders. This is partly a function of detente, a process declared dead in Washington but having lasting grass-roots effect here. Another factor is domestic: Russians who have grown up since Stalin are better educated and more curious than their forebears.

A Russian I know recounts a lecture tour he gave in Byelorussia in late 1980: ''I was amazed by the information they had on Poland, but also on other issues'' like the death of John Lennon.

Far more widespread is the fame of a Russian bard named Vladimir Vysotsky, whose death in 1980 briefly overshad-owed the Moscow Olympic Games. He was part Soviet Bob Dylan, part James Dean. But he was not really a dissident, he did not sing ''protest'' songs. He sang of the way Russian life is, its sadnesses and joys and hypocrisies, in the language of the street. He laughed with Russians about Russia.

The authorities never allowed him to perform publicly in Moscow. But his songs were taped at private concerts, then retaped countrywide. Although death was not announced, thousands showed up for his funeral. More have been streaming to his grave ever since. A friend of mine visited the Far Eastern port of Nakhodka last year. Speaking to local kids, he was promptly asked: ''How did Volodya Vysotsky die?''

He died, as Russian as he lived, of drink. And before long, the whole country will know every detail, by word of mouth.

In 1982, when Lebanese militiamen killed hundreds in the Palestinian camps of Beirut, the Soviet line was in effect that Israel pulled the trigger. But when I interviewed people on the street, almost none offered this version. Lebanese did the shooting, they said. Some named the militia group responsible.

Some knew from Western radio broadcasts, which are not always perfectly jammed. Another source of unofficial information is the Yugoslav press, which is available to some Soviets at places of work or study.

Even Pravda helps. A surprising number of people scour the paper as closely as any Kremlinologist. In the case of the Beirut killings, a man explained that Pravda had quoted a foreign report charging the killing had occurred ''under the very nose of Israelis.'' So, he said, ''We knew Israel didn't actually do the shooting.''

The Soviet news media have increasingly been offering such bits, in tacit acknowledgment that large numbers of people are getting the news anyway.

Similarly, the Kremlin is well aware of the fascination here with the technologies and consumer trappings of the West. The Soviet version of the Korean jet incident stressed the plane was a Boeing jumbo full of space-age Western gadgetry that could not have failed without sinister United States design. The argument, an official noted, was particularly effective.

Nor does ''unofficial'' knowledge of things Western always stop with the young and well educated, though it is certainly more widespread there.

In April 1981, the son and grandson of famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich defected to the West - a fact that went unmentioned by the Soviet media for some weeks.

Days after the defection, I sought pedestrians' views on the successful landing of the first US space shuttle. Near the end of my interview tour, I stopped a rather elderly woman laden down with shopping bags - not, to look at her, a likely listener of Western radio broadcasts.

But after a few words on the shuttle, she asked in a whisper: ''Is it true the Shostakoviches are staying in the West?''

For the intelligentsia, compartmentalization of life is a careful, conscious thing. A poet-singer I know works hard to produce softly lyrical ballads about love and nature - of a type that has allowed official release of some of his songs.

In the privacy of a small, disheveled apartment outside town, meanwhile, he paints modernist canvases and strums occasionally more barbish compositions that would never win official OK. These songs he performs only for small circles of friends or fellow artists. That is his island, and he is happy on it.

For more ordinary Russians, the process is less conscious, more a function of everyday living.

Depending on what's available in the shops, for instance, many people technically break Soviet law by doing unofficial deals for goods and services ''through the back door'' of state outlets. They buy state-subsidized gasoline from truck drivers who get it for work, use less than they report, and sell the remainder on the side.

Or they occasionally take an hour or two off work to shop, see a movie, go to the steam baths.

Although this is visibly worrisome for the authorities, none of it necessarily has political implications.

Nor does the ever-present, if generally superficial, fascination with things Western. Or the endless political jokes, the most recent batch of which centers on Andropov's KGB past: They've developed a new apple, named ''Androploko,'' a takeoff on the Russian word for that fruit. ''It is so bitter it makes you snap your mouth shut and put your hands behind your back!''

Generally, Russians remain patriotic. And particularly outside Moscow, they seem to absorb a fair bit from the endless spew of official propaganda on things foreign. A typical remark comes from a young Tatar woman who shared a table with the lively blonde Lena in Ulyanovsk:

''All in all, I think our society is humane. The best people are true Communists . . . (although) we have our swine, too. . . .''

A bit later, she offers a familiarly disjointed Russian image of America: ''Will Reagan send American soldiers to fight Russians?'' she asks. Then, she says:

''I think America was the first defender of freedom. . . . I would like very, very much to go there. But I am almost sure I would not get permission.'' This is said without rancor, just a statement of fact.

A somewhat older Russian I picked up hitchhiking in the north offers another widespread view: The ''haves'' in America are far better off than any Russian, but ''some others live worse. And you have all that unemployment.''

And by and large, Russians really do find life easier in Russia than they suspect it is abroad. As long as one stays within certain political limits, the state virtually manages an individual's life from cradle to grave. Education is free. Work is guaranteed. Initiative is not required.

Ordinary Soviets have, nonetheless, become gradually more outspoken in recent years on all sorts of political questions. An officially encouraged forum for diverse opinion - letters to Soviet newspapers - provides a measure of this.

Even on as politically sensitive an issue as the Korean airliner incident, a major newspaper got what a senior Soviet source calls ''a large number'' of letters. Most backed the Soviets' downing of the plane. Yet one-third asked for an explanation of why the Soviets had fired.

Still, even young Russians generally tend to be leery of making explicitly political statements beyond either small groups of trusted friends, or officially sanctioned activities.

Still, if, in small groups of trusted friends, Russians who have grown up after Stalin are more outspoken than their elders, both groups tend to steer clear of any public political activity that is not officially sanctioned.

A Moscow joke, too nearly true to be only a joke, sums things up best. It is the story of the ''six great paradoxes'' of Soviet socialism:

First: There is no unemployment but nobody does any work.

The second: Nobody works, but year after year, state economic plans are ''fulfilled or overfulfilled.''

The third paradox is that plans are fulfilled religiously, but there is nothing in the shops.

The fourth: There's nothing in the shops. But if you go to the typical Moscow apartment, delicacies that haven't been in the shops for months somehow end up on the dining room table.

Fifth: People find special ways to get goods even when the shops aren't selling them. But people still complain.

And finally: Everyone complains. But when elections roll around, everyone votes: ''yes.''

Next: the political agenda

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.