IF you are travelling to Moscow (or Omsk or
Erevan) this winter, you no longer have to rack your brains over whether
the most wanted commodity in Russia this year is women's tights with
floral designs or Toshiba speakers or crocodile skin shoes.
You can still take any of the above, but make sure
you stuff them to the brim with condoms because that precious cargo will
open many doors, if not hearts, for its proud owner.
The truth is that the AIDS problem in the USSR
(although numerically small in comparison with countries like Australia)
is not only laying bare planning and production deficiencies that could
cost the country thousands of human lives and billions of rubles, but
also testing the limits of social tolerance and acceptance, even in the
age of glasnost.
The newest word in the Soviet vogue vocabulary is
SPID (pronounced "speed" and meaning AIDS). A few sophisticates will
even talk to you about "spidophobia", the unreasonable fear of
contracting AIDS, which is becoming widespread.
But the most significant results by far of the
spread of the AIDS virus are the social and psychological repercussions
it is creating among the Soviet people. One leading Soviet specialist is
talking about a potential polarisation of Soviet society in response to
the AIDS threat that would amount to nothing short of civil war.
While this might have been an exaggeration uttered
in the heat of a discussion, there are a number of reports that show
extreme forms of overreaction and discrimination, as well as official
obtuseness, which are encountered by the people who suffer from AIDS,
especially if they belong to one of the major initial "risk groups" -
homosexuals, prostitutes and drug addicts.
In one case reported from a small provincial town,
a couple diagnosed as HIV positive were sacked from their jobs and put
for a few weeks into a quarantine cell, where they were studied by
doctors and photographed by journalists (through a glass window) like
two exotic animals. They were finally released on the insistence of
Moscow specialists but were unable to find work or stay in their home
town. They left, with some of their belongings, for an unknown
destination, like itinerant plague carriers.
Officially, the confidentiality of the diagnosis
and the humane treatment of patients is assured by the Soviet law; in
practice, doctors will often call the party boss to announce the bad
news or will even openly write the diagnosis on the patient's sickness
The license for such actions, be as they may in
violation of the "socialist norms", lies in the general intolerance of
any kind of deviance which has been bred into Soviet society by decades
of xenophobic preachings and ruthless persecution of undesirable
Homosexuality, even among consenting adults and in
private, is still a criminal offence (although no longer rigidly
enforced). Drug addiction has been generally viewed as a scourge brought
on by Western decadent attitudes and influence or as a surprisingly
resilient relic of the past (in the case of Central Asian republics).
Attitudes to sexuality in general are such that
some early Soviet reports about the AIDS epidemic claimed proudly that
Soviet men and women were morally superior beings in comparison with
their Western counterparts, since they were engaging in the act on
average six times less frequently. This was viewed as a guarantee that
the AIDS virus would not spread as rapidly under socialist conditions as
it did in capitalist countries.
The truth of the matter is that no-one in the
Soviet Union has any reliable data about the state of sexual morality in
general, let alone frequency of intercourse.
Ministry officials euphemistically referred to the
condom as Item No 2. (This name stems from its designation on the
manufacturing schedule. It is also popularly known as galoshes, due to
its powerful built-in anti-erotic properties.)
General prudishness and ignorance has even led one
Soviet writer to reflect that sex is the best kept military secret in
the USSR. So secret, in fact, that not even the "closed" data, available
to "competent" authorities only, is known to exist.
However, since the reform program began, some
interesting facts have emerged. Among them was an unexpectedly high rate
of unwanted pregnancies among teenagers (the Soviet Union is a known
world leader in the use of abortion as a major contraceptive) and an
exponential growth of minor venereal diseases (such as gonorrhea) among
The specialists also found that the unexpected
promiscuity was compounded by an appalling lack of basic knowledge about
sex and sexual hygiene.
In one interview, a Soviet specialist spoke
wistfully about French television's ability to interrupt a prime time
broadcast with a public announcement about the need to use condoms for
protection against infection during the first act of sexual intercourse,
because the rupture of the hymen might be accompanied by bleeding.
But, for better or worse, the hymen of Soviet
prudishness is being rudely ruptured by the AIDS scare. Even the term
"anal intercourse" has finally appeared in one or two popular
publications, an event unthinkable only a few months ago.
The reaction to the AIDS scare ranges from
hysterical calls to isolate all HIV carriers in special camps (a similar
reaction was also recorded in Bulgaria) to some of the most enlightened
comments on the nature of the condition and its prevention found
anywhere in the world press.
The most informed specialists, such as the
sexologist I.S.Kon, advocate public education and concrete preventive
measures (such as the wide availability and popularisation of condoms
and free, clean syringes).
However, as the accompanying table shows, this is
easier said than done.
The problem is that condoms represent only a tip
of the iceberg of ideological unpreparedness, compounded by sloppy
medical and industrial practices.
There are doubts about the thoroughness of the
sterilisation procedures in many hospitals, particularly in remote
areas. Special central sterilisation units have been set up, but they
cannot satisfy the demand. Patients who have regular injections are
being advised to bring their own syringes, if they can procure them.
The mind boggles when one thinks about the
hard-to-sterilise hemodialysis machines or blood transfusion units or
the lack of disposable containers for blood. The Soviet Union has little
non-reusable equipment, cannot afford to buy it abroad and lacks either
the industrial capacity and sophistication or the will to manufacture
the needed items locally.
On the plus side, it must be said that the Soviet
Union has the capacity to quickly and effectively introduce large-scale
blood testing (sometimes without the knowledge of sample givers),
visitor screening (at present, all foreigners intending to spend more
than three months in the USSR must produce a clean bill of health) and
swift local reform (in prisons or in the Army).
In Moscow barber shops, all equipment with the
potential to cause bleeding or abrasions must be sterilised, at least
The sophistication of some of the discussion in
the Soviet press could occasionally make Australian standards seem
parochial and intellectually simplistic.
Although it is acknowledged that AIDS initially
was affecting primarily prostitutes (who comprise an especially large
risk group in the Soviet Union, because of their extensive contacts with
visitors from Africa) and homosexuals, its threat to the heterosexual
community is being widely acknowledged.
Even the inherent value of sexual freedom is being
acknowledged by some as a new and progressive social process that builds
voluntary internal controls against promiscuity, instead of the fragile
and punitive puritanical prohibitions of the past.
The Soviet Union's chief epidemiologist and AIDS
expert, Professor V. I. Pokrovsky (who has recently visited Australia to
acquaint himself with the local experience), has even pointed out that
prudish and ineffectual measures against AIDS were threatening primarily
the young, amid whom the various risk groups intermingled.
He implied that attempts to preach morality to the
young as the only preventive measure, knowing that they are at the prime
of their biological capacity for sexual and social exploration, were not
only futile and counterproductive but almost willfully destructive.
This remark becomes even more poignant as one
reads reports in the Soviet press about the virtual state of war between
youth gangs in some cities, and the aging and repressive old guard that
attempts to answer the threat of social ferment and disillusionment with
calls for more and tighter law and order.
AIDS in the USSR seems to have become a social
touchstone in the battle between "fathers and sons" (a title by the
Russian novelist Turgenev) that will test their capacity for mutual
recognition and forbearance or for mutual destruction.
The limits of tolerance are exemplified by replies
of the two key bureaucrats who control, respectively, the manufacture of
condoms and the availability of syringes. The first says he has no spare
foreign currency to buy the badly needed condoms abroad; the second
opposes "making life easier for the druggies". "Would you tell them,
'There you go, precious ones, here is a clean syringe for you to shoot
yourselves up with?'" he said.
One must acknowledge, however, that the problem of
comparative lack of foreign currency in Soviet coffers is a real one
(although even poorer Cuba has managed to solve it, at least in relation
to condoms). But surely, if there is a will, there is a way.
For example, why not barter the surplus Australian
condoms or disposable syringes for the surplus of Soviet cotton, caviar,
timber, cheap cars or whatever is needed in Australia? Could the old
catchcry "Make love not war" acquire a new meaning?
As the recent AIDS conference in Hobart has shown,
here, as in the USSR, there is little room for complacency or wasted
It is clear that we still have a long way to go,
not only in terms of finding a medical "cure" for AIDS but also in terms
of our capacity to develop humaneness and compassion towards each other.