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© PYOTR PATRUSHEV

Sydney Morning Herald

PERESTROIKA HAS SET SOVIET UNION ON FIRE

 

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THERE IS a true story in Moscow about a school for which they needed a teacher of psychology. As none could be found, they appointed the astronomy teacher, since both subjects were judged to be equally nebulous.

Yet, psychology is precisely the subject that Soviet leaders may have to study very intensively in the near future if they are to make any impact at all on their largely lethargic and cynical populace.

In three recent and popular movies the following images stirred the passions of the viewers: a disinterring and a trial of a dead father; a young, pretty and intelligent woman whose marriage choices are limited to a bright but hopeless drunk or celibacy; and, finally, a young woman attempting suicide and an abortion as a result of cramped and unfulfilling domestic and marital situation.

Three profound schisms seem to underlie all the other problems in the Soviet society: a conflict between the young and the old, between men and women, and between paternal figures of authority and the people.

So, what's new, the reader will ask. Every society, including Australia, has the same problems. Well, the difference is that the Soviets are willing to let their astronomy teachers sort these problems out.

Not that the problem of a lack of psychological awareness and facilities was not raised in the Soviet press. It was, together with just about everything else. But there is a long haul between words and deeds.

Take just one problem - the conflict between the generations. The Soviet press speaks freely now of the prevalence of armed, violent and virtually uncontrollable youth gangs in many cities.

After years of blaming foreign influences and the adult mafia, Soviet sociologists are admitting that these gangs represent a natural reaction of the young to the corruption and meaninglessness of life around them.

In effect, the young are creating their own societies, with their own cruel but honest rules of mutual help and valour. The Lord of the Flies is riding high in the USSR.

In a subtler fashion, the same problem manifests in the political arena. The arch conservative among the Soviet leadership, Mr Ligachev (the recently demoted number two in the Politburo), and the arch liberal, Boris Yeltsin (the former Moscow party chief, also just demoted), represent the seemingly irreconcilable extremes of policy.

Of course, Mr Gorbachev, who tried to mediate between the two men -unsuccessfully - would seem to represent a moderate position. Well and good, except that he was then caught up in the position of an all-knowing father figure who can resolve all problems - clearly, not a very enduring solution.

Perhaps the greatest problem that the reformers face is the problem of time. In a matter of months, Gorbachev, almost single-handedly, has pushed through constitutional and organisational reforms that would take years in a truly democratic society. He is like a military commander who wants to take all the commanding heights before the enemy regroups itself. All the opponents have to do is to lie in wait until he shoots himself in the foot.

True, there are signs of progress that go beyond the rhetoric. For the first time since the 1917 Revolution there is an attractive and vocal "First Lady" in the Kremlin. There is also a woman in the Politburo - a jealously guarded male preserve of ultimate power.

The first marriage bureau has opened in Moscow - although its work is hampered by the bureaucracy. A monastery has reopened, and the Church is getting more freedom and may be even get land rights. There is a society of charity and even some talk of animal liberation.

These are undeniable signs of progress. But the optimism is tempered by other, equally undeniable facts.

The Church, emasculated by years of subservience, first to the Tsar and then to the Party, may, in its present form, be largely limited to its role of a tourist attraction and a fashionable way to demonstrate this currently safe form of dissent from official ideology.

Deeper down, there is a hankering for the pagan roots that were brutally crashed by Christianity which was, like perestroika, introduced from above a thousand years ago.

Politically, the vague ramblings of discontent among the old guard are beginning to crystallise into a potential strategy. A Moscow journal has just published excerpts form a novel titled The Day of Judgment, which openly voices the perennial Russian chauvinistic fear of a "Jewish-masonic conspiracy" which is supposedly trying to destroy and take over not only the USSR, but also the world at large. The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion, a well-known forgery of the Tsarist secret police, is in wide circulation.

It is very possible, indeed probable, that the publication of The Day of Judgment and the fears of the "Jewish-masonic conspiracy" were intentionally encouraged by the conservative wing in the KGB. This is a true and tried way of redirecting the anger and the frustration of Russian masses towards some easily identifiable target.

Shortages of food, nationalist unrest, even drunkenness and the chaos which perestroika and glasnost are bound to cause initially, can all be conveniently blamed on some foreign-inspired conspiracy. Jews are despised even more because they belong to a small minority of people who are allowed to emigrate abroad.

Those who believe that such a crude strategy can no longer work in the Soviet Union should read the novel Fire by the Soviet writer Valentin Rasputin. Rasputin showed that any conflagration in the Soviet society, such as a fire in the village store, can bring to the fore the long-suppressed resentments and hatred which then flare up with a tremendous force.

Perestroika is, after a fashion, a social fire of major proportions. Only, as one Russian writer remarked, "the fire is not on the roofs but in the minds of the people".

Despite all these unresolved problems, President Gorbachev and his associates are pushing ahead with major initiatives in disarmament, trade and foreign relations which are also seen as an attempt to legitimise and strengthen the new regime.

There remains, of course, the old tension between Soviet ambitions and aspirations in Europe and in the East. Following the example of Peter the Great in Europe, Gorbachev, in his speech in Vladivostok, announced the opening of a "window to the East".

While the Soviet Far East and Siberia represent possibly the greatest development potential for the USSR, the same old anxieties persist. The Russians, who have spent their longest period of slavery under the Mongols, are apprehensive about Asia and the Far East and far more ignorant about this region than about Europe or America.

There is a current joke in Moscow which tells of a news dispatch in the year 2000 which announces that all is quiet again on the Sino-Finnish border -a heavy-handed reference to China's old territorial claims on the USSR.

The Soviets, while eager to develop trade and procure capital in the East, do not yet seem to have the skills or even sufficient awareness to make a gesture towards their old rivals which would be comparable in subtlety and impact to the one made by the Japanese Prime Minister during his last visit to China, when he acknowledged the ancient Chinese roots of Japanese culture.

The old nostalgia for Russia's own Oriental past and a hankering for a reconciliation (a pre-revolutionary Russian writer, Herzen, spoke of the Pacific and the Far East as the Mediterranean Sea of the future) are, once again, tempered by the realities of history and politics.

It is intriguing to note that one of the foreign spies in the novel The Day of Judgment comes from an émigré family in Australia. He "infiltrates" the Soviet Union from the East, entering the port of Nakhodka. He is armed with a collection of pornographic postcards which are designed to corrupt the local youth.

Such a plot would have been deemed suitable for a comic vaudeville, were it not for the knowledge of deep Puritanism of such Russophile leaders as Ligachev and the yet deeper fear of the eastern frontier.

It is clear that for some people the opening of the "window to the East" means also the dangerous route for the entry of foreign influences.

The other side of this deeply-felt idea of the Soviet Union as a self-contained entity is the extreme reluctance of Moscow to consider rights of emigration. Despite the recent increase in the departure of Jews, and despite all the achievements of perestroika, the Soviet Union remains, for most of its citizens, a closed society.

Generally, one still needs an invitation from a relative to be able to live abroad. While the Soviets are talking about making their ruble convertible, the problem of a "convertible citizen" - one who is allowed to travel in and out of the USSR without incurring the wrath of the officialdom and the interest of the KGB is still beyond the ken of even Mr Gorbachev, who talks vaguely of the dangers of "brain drain".

Yet this problem is fundamental to the liberalisation not only of Soviet, but of Russian society, for xenophobia and isolationism predate the October revolution.

As long as the West remains a forbidden, and unfamiliar zone, both the xenophobia and the attempts by the old guard to manipulate this fear of the alien for their own benefit will persist.

Ultimately, free immigration should become the touchstone for the Western efforts to help Soviet reforms. No foreign investment or assets will be safe as long as the majority of Soviet citizens remain essentially ignorant of the ways, both good and bad, of the world at large.

As opposed to most other émigrés and Sovietologists, I believe that perestroika will ultimately succeed, with or without Mr Gorbachev. Its time has simply come. The old guard will lose precisely because it is old, flabby, and tired. But not before it puts up one last fight, which may not be too far off.

In the meantime, all we can do is to adopt the enduring words of the founder of Cheka (the precursor of the KGB), "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky, who admonished us that "the price of trust is eternal vigilance". So be it.

 

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

 

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