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© Pyotr Patrushev

Sydney Morning Herald


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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 certificate.

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 minorities.

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 young.

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 superficially.

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 time.

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.


Population: approximately 280 million.

Known persons infected with HIV virus: 56 (30 identified in the first four months of 1988 - rate doubling similar to in Australia).

Surviving AIDS patients: One (three dead).

Estimates of homosexual population: 2.5 million to 7 million.

Registered drug addicts (1987 data): 50,000.

Estimated total: 120,000+ and rapidly growing.

Number of condoms planned for 1988: 220 million.

Estimated minimum demand: 600 million.

Disposable syringes planned for 1989: 350 million.

Estimated minimum demand: 6 billion +.


 Editor: Pyotr Patrushev’s books and articles can be found on his website,



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