An isolated giant; suspicious, insecure, cunning
Word flashed into the compound where we lived: Large crowds had defied police in emotional scenes outside the avant-garde Taganka Theater, just two miles from Red Square. Thousands had jeered and shaken their fists.
That such a scene could happen at all in a tightly controlled Moscow was news. That it happened during the Olympic Games (it was the end of July 1980), when the city was swarming with tens of thousands of extra police and soldiers to keep order, was remarkable.
Craig Whitney of the New York Times and I jumped into a car. The main protest was over by the time we parked near the drab two-story building; crowds had rebelled when police tried to clear people from the road as they listened to funeral rites inside for a revered actor and balladeer, Vladimir Vysotsky.
It was late afternoon, hot. Emotion was still tangilbe in the air as crowds, mainly young people, spilled into the road. Red fire trucks stood nearby. Police asked everyone to step back and let trolley buses through.
We were wearing old clothes, no ties. But as we began talking to bystanders, a middle-aged woman instantly recognized us as innostrantsi,m foreigners. She glared.
"Foreigners," she said sharply. "We don't need you. We can solve our own problems by ourselves." I shivered.
A few hours later I told another Russian about the incident, a woman who knew a number of Westerners. She said firmly, "I agree with her."
Outwardly, Russians look and act mudh like people in the West. But they remain a race apart. This is today, as it has been for 1,000 years, an isolated country, suspicious of outsiders, unexpectedly emotional beneath its uniform and patrolled surface. It is rigidly controlled from the center, Asian and rural in tradition, insecure, as shrewd and cunning as a 19th-century muzhik,m or peasant, largely ignorant of the outside world. ISOLATION (PHYSICAL)
The Soviet Union spans two continents, Europe and Asia, embracing 8 1/2 million square miles of land. It is three times the size of the United States, seven times the size of India, twice as big as China, one-sixth of the land surface of the globe, stretching across 11 time zones. When families are eating their evening meals in Minsk in the west, others are getting up the next morning in Khabarovsk on the far east cost, not far from Japan.
Most of it is cold, more Canadian then American in latitude: Moscow is way north of Edmonton; Yakutsk is as far north as Greenland; sunny Tashkent in Soviet Central Asia is actually farthern north than Denver.
It is remote. My wife and I found out the hard way when we drove back from London in August 1978. Dover to Baravia was an easy two days; on to Warsaw took another two, driving on two-land Czech and Polish roads behind ramshackle trucks; and on to Moscow took yet another two, across the vastness that never seems to end. Before the car and the jet, the journey took weeks. ISOLATION (MENTAL)
This goes back to a cataclysm that shook medieval Russia six centuries ago, the most important event in the country's history before 1917; the 250-year occupation by the Golden Horde of the Mongol Empire beginning in 1237.
Led by Mongols but considering mainly of Tatars, the horde swept across Russia like an avalanche from the east. It burned the central city-state of Kiev, pillaged its way farther west, and could have taken all Europe but for the death of the Mongol Khan, or emperor, in 1242. Back streamed the horde from camps in what is now Hungary. Never again did it penetrate farther west than the edge of modern Russia; if it had, Europe might look and feel more like Russia today.
The Mongols' iron occupation meant brutal, central control. Small Russian city-states stayed alive by currying favor, and Moscow was best -- or worst -- at it. Moscow princes learned how to terrorize; they learned the importance of efficient communications between center and circumference of empire, and how to extract taxes and men for the army from the boyars (nobles).
The man who learned the lessons best was Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible), who lived from 1530 to 1584 and was the first ruler to take the permanent title of "czar" ("caesar"). Until then it had been reserved for the Mongol rulers. Ivan shattered the boyars by seizing their lands, and set the stage for wildly emotional, Oriental oppression, which continued into the 19th century.
For Russians this meant no Magna Carta. No Renaissance. No Reformation. No successful challenging of royal authority by the men of the towns (bourgeoisie), of the land (boyars), or of the church. (The Russian Orthodox Church, conservative and respectful of authority, was as much under the czars' control as everything else.) So the flow, the pattern of history here, just didn't happen in the same way as it did in England, Spain and France. ASIAN HERITAGE
The Russian heritage is more Asian than the West commonly supposes. The Russians' ancestors knew oppression, totalitarianism, poverty, rural conditions, and other influences from the east (largely from the Mongols). Today, the Russian words for money (dengi)m and customs (tamozhnaya)m are rooted in Mongol terms. Since Peter the Great at the end of the 17th century, a thin layer of Western ideas has been adopted by the tiny governing elite. But the old ways have persisted underneath.
The situation is the same today: imported Marxism at the top, with Western influences in the elite's life style; but relative poverty below.
Intellectuals in Moscow and Leningrad rarely refer to the Asian heritage, locked as they are in confrontation with China. "You're not even European," university students can be heard remarking to other students from Siberia or Central Asia.
Soviet bathrooms are Asian in their primitiveness and dirt. Apartments are mostly cluttered and chaotic. The Slav is light-years away from Scandinavians in hygiene, order, efficiency. Big-city shops bear an Asian, rural stamp in their lack of bright light or comfort.
Such influences linger. Few average Russians ever see other countries, even East Europe (where living standards are higher). In most of the country people watch, hear, read, and know only what the Communist Party decrees. Glimpses of the West are seen and heard in Moscow and Leningrad; elsewhere not much is known of Western life styles.
Another set of influences is also at work, this time from the south: a Levintine sense of barter and trade. Cities did not develop in Russia until the end of the 19th century. Under the czars they were places to trade and to pay taxes. Most people lived outside them. Today many cities remain too hot for comfort in summer and too cold in winter, cut off by snow and then mud. Only autumn is balmy.
The GUM department store, which forms one side of Moscow's Red Square, is, in fact, a Middle Eastern bazaar filled with small separate shops. The Moscow pet market, unofficial but tolerated, is another bazaar. Sellers stand side by side , holding a tiny glass jar containing two bright fish, or a bag of birdseed, or a puppy buried in the folds of voluminous and shabby coat.
Farmers' markets allowed in most cities, are echoes of the pre-1917 past as rural workers sell the fruit, vegetables, and meat they have raised on their tiny private plots. they water down peeled carrots to make them shine, offer a sliver of cheese or a taste of honey, providing what the state stores do not: a choice. Prices are high, often outrageously so, but people pay.
If the Soviet Union is compared with the rest of Asia (except for Japan), its industrial achievements look much better. Soviet Central Asia is far ahead of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in electric power, water supplies, literacy, transportation, Tashkent, the biggest Soviet City in Central Asia, is used as a showcase for visiting delegations. It is even building a subway.
But Moscow constantly compares itself with the West, not the East. It insists it is better than the United States in every significant way.
Its own propaganda is so far from reality in such areas as basic consumer services that many intellectuals grow cynical. They stop reading the controlled press and occupy themselves with personal and family matters rather than politics. Workers, too, are nonpolitical. It is hard to find time for revolution when you have to stand in line for hours everyday to buy basic necessities like potatoes.
"We aim to survive," one Latvian told me calmly, "just to survive." On the other hand, workers in heavy industry plants live and eat relatively well. EMOTION
Russians are intensely emotional about their families, their close friends, their Motherland.Officials of the Ukrainian Communist Party had tears in their eyes as they sang to a group of Western reporters some romantic folk songs over lunch near Lvov. In a land where Stalinist control and historic suspicion of strangers still linger, people live, by order and by choice, in their own cirlces -- workers with workers, painters with painters, ballet dancers with ballet dancers, even composers with composers.
I once asked Dmitri Kabalevsky, last of the great Russian composers of the 1930s, where he lived; he waved toward a tall apartment block not far from Tchaikovsky Hall on Herzen Street. "Over there," he said. "Shostakovich was next door and Khachaturian upstairs. . . ."
Within these circles, bonds are close. I remember one night, on the outskirts of the city, snow and ice thick outside, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a warm, cheerful kitchen with nine Muscovites, eating slices of cheese, dark bread, boiled potatoes, cabbage, and chopped beetroot (beets), watching my friends toss back small glasses of vodka while I drank tea and listened to them gossip.
They talked about who was having an affair with whom; what store sold good fish (sometimes); how "they" said Moscow traffic were involved with a gang of car thieves; how life was harder these days; how meat was in short supply; how people spouted partly slogans just to get ahead, not because they believed in them; how they were planning holidays and children's events; how imported lipstick had appeared in one shop, only to disappear the next day; how the system didn't need librarians or linguists or the humanities, but only steelworkers and managers and soldier. . . . INSECURITY
Soviet borders are the longest in the world: 37,000 miles, nine times the length of US borders. Unlike US, Russia has been invaded many times -- by Mongols, Swedes, Teutonic and Livonian knights, by Napoleon, by Hilter. Outsiders remain strange, alien.
"Shpioni," young boys call to each other in Ukrainian cities when they see the white license plate of a foreign car. "Spies." Communist suspicions reinforce historical ones. The Kremlin has a legitimate concern with security. Its ideology makes it not just defensive, but also aggressive. It has armed force to lend weight to its words. But it often acts as though it is still insecure, still an outsider.
Whenever Leonid Brezhnev makes a speech or the Communist Party holds a meeting or greets a foreign leader, the press and television collect quotations from the European and US press and broadcast them -- as if no achievement really counts unless approved abroad. CENTRAL CONTROL
Citizens make far fewer decisions affecting their own lives than Westerners do. I have talked to Soviet diplomats and scientists abroad who were alarmed at the personal responsibilities the West taks from granted.
"Say a man is a good engineer but he wants to play the guitar," one diplomat said to me. "What a waste to the state." I said I called it freedom. He shook his head.
Young people here are assigned their first job out of school, university, or institute. They can switch after three years, but even if the first job is thousands of miles away from home, many stay.
The average person has little or no control over where he goes to school or what factory he works in. Most don't want such control: Let the state decice. The Soviet Union is the ultimate example of what happens when the state runs everything, when individuals agree to the right of others to decide what is best for them. Endless red tape and a lack of incentive are just two of the results.
With rewards not related to work done, productivity is low here -- much lower than in Europe, the US, or Japan. But the people know only their own system.They cannot read widely about others. They have no tradition of democratic action or individual thought.
An individual is defined more by his relationship with others than by his own nature.
"Yes, you have better consumer services than we do," one Soviet scientist told me. "You'll always have better hotels and railroads and airlines. But look at what we have: jobs, homes, free education, free health care, low food prices. You have unemployment, drugs, crime, insecurity. . . ."
No official I met acknowledged the existence of unemployment benefits, or any of the social-welfare support systems the West has erected. ETHNIC DIVERSITY
Ethnically, this is far more diverse country than many Westerners realize. More than 100 nationalitites, at least 37 of them Turkic and Muslim, crowd in, from Balts and Byelorussians in the west to Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Nogays, and Tungans in the south and east. There is no real prospect of any of them breaking loose, but Moscow must be constantly on the alert for trouble.
The 137,397,000 Russians as of January 1979 (52.4 percent of the population) have a solid grip on power. Armenians (4.1 million) and Georgians (3.5 million) have carved out degrees of cultural and religious and social autonomy; they leave political and economic matters largely to Moscow. The most active minority is Jews, but their main desire seems to be to emigrate rather than to undermine the party.
The fastest-growing group is in Central Asia, but, despite three representatives on the 14-man Politburo, they wield little decisive, political influence at the top. RURAL INFLUENCE
This is a far more rural country than figures show. By 1979, the population was two-thirds urban, one-third rural. Soviet control has seen a massive flight to the cities, as rural people have looked for new opportunities for themselves and their children, and the state has funneled manpower into arms production, heavy industry, and factories.
Yet this shift has taken place in less than 40 years. As late as 1940, two-thirds of the people still lived in the countryside, in remote and backward villages little changed since the last century, except for electricity and an occasional car. This means cities here are largely made up of people fresh off the farm or only one generation removed.
Yet this remains not only a rural-rooted society, but a blue-collar one, blunt in speech and manner as well. Even in the big cities, telephones are answered with a curt "Yes?" or "I am listening." Life is lived without cars; much time is spend standing in lines, shoving, pushing.
Naturally, one encounters people who are extremely polite and considerate. But even the Soviet press prints articles asking for a book like Emily Post's to improve manners. When I wrote about one such article, the author (clearly under pressure from his superiors to rescue the Soviet reputation) wrote to the Monitor in Boston alleging I was guilty of poor manners in even mentioning his article. He could criticize, apparently; a Westerner could not. ATTITUDE TOWARD LAW
A Russian obeys the police, and other authority, with alacrity -- but, on the other hand, untold millions steal from the state all the time. The system cannot fill the shops with attractive, useful goods, so people use every way they can to extract the good-quality dresses and suits, rugs, stylish shoes, and other items they want.
Many are law-abiding citizens -- and the party is quick to point out the extent of crime in the West. All true. But the press here is also filled with accounts of theft and bribery, even though the system is supposed to have removed the "social cause" of crime.
Russians use their jobs as ways to do favours for others, to get favors in return. Among the most coveted jobs: working behind a meat counter (meat is always in short supply); or in a factory with access to tools that can be used for after-hour repair work; or in a theater box office (tickets to good shows, reserved for those with power or influence, can always be exchanged for good shoes or a tube of lipstick or a tip that the local department store has just received some of the wall units many Russians thirst after these days for their apartments).
So great is the shortage of quality goods that Russians who come into contact with Westerners constantly ask for pens, watches, jewelry, jeans, winter coats, book, records, boots, vodka, stylish jackets, well-cut summer clothes, and other goods. My heart went out to many of them: good people, wanting to be honest, beset by temptation. We have so much; they have so little.
The materialistic system encourages illegality by failing to provide the right goods at the right places at the right times. Soviet citizens are not, like many in the West, worried about what to do in their leisure time. Nor do they heed party exhortations to beware of becoming too fond of consumer goods.
That's fine for party officials to say, a common attitude goes. They have privileges and their cars and their special food and clothing shops. As for us, we want better food and clothes and we ought to get them.
"It's all those other countries we have to support that drain us," said one Muscovite with irritation. He meant Cuba, Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia.
"One benefit of foreign aid is that we get sugar and coffee in our shops," a party lecturer, billed as an external economic expert, told a Moscow audience.
"Then why can't I find coffee or sugar in the shops?" demanded a questioner.
"That's an internal economic question," replied the lecturer."I am an external economic expert, so I can't answer. Next?"
The currency system here also encourages abuses. There are no fewer than five kinds. First, there is Western currency, used in certain shops by Westerners and some residents. Then there are "D" coupons, sold only through the foreign-trade bank for Western currency and used by foreigners in certain stores, such as supermarkets.
There are also "certificate rubles," coupons Russians who have worked abroad can buy with hard currency. (A few years ago these were also divided into "soft" and "hard" varieties. European currencies bought "hard" coupons, Arab and Asian bought "soft" ones.) These certificates can be redeemed in yet another system of special (though anonymous) shops. Finally, there are also "soft rubles," and, for the ordinary citizen, plain rubles.
"Soft rubles" are bought by third-world embassies in Geneva and Vienna for about four to the dollar (Americans in Moscow get only 66 kopecks, or two-thirds of a ruble, for a dollar). Diplomats then bring the rubles back here and pay bills with them, according to informed diplomatic sources. It is an accepted but under-the-counter way of helping potential third-world allies.
It adds up to an attitude to law that might suprise westerners, but not people in developing countries.
Next: The five ranks, or classes, in Soviet society