Gregory Freidin

The New Criterion, vol. 8, no. 1 (September 1989)


Imagine the horror of a paleontologist confronted by a live dinosaur -- grinning amicably and wagging its tail as a token of good intentions. In the era before the advent of glasnost'' and perestroika, people studying and writing about the Soviet Union, too, practiced a paleontology of sorts. An odd bone thrown over the iron curtain or a chunk of petrified entrails surreptitiously pushed under it were analyzed meticulously and often with imagination to serve as basis for reconstructing the entire body of the beast. Now they find themselves inside a paleontologist's nightmare, for the Soviet Union has arrived at our door -- through the policy of glasnost', the increased access to its decision makers in Moscow and a veritable invasion of Soviet visitors, among them scholars, policy advisers, intellectuals, generals, ministers, and, of course, the dissidents whom we must now rechristen, to avoid the anachronism, into members of the loyal and not so loyal opposition. Could this still be the old country?

True, the Soviet Union retains much of what has defined it for decades; yet the organs and parts of this Hobbsian animal have turned out to be distributed differently, and the whole thing does not appear as well put together as the paleontological renditions would seem to suggest. Indeed, this commonwealth -- uniting as it does a Northern European Estonia, so ripe for democracy and autonomy, and an Oriental Uzbekistan that is choking on the Soviet imperial legacy -- so much resembles a fanciful animal from a medieval bestiary that another question arises: are we dealing here with one or a multitude of beasts? The answer depends on the vantage point, philosophical as well as physical, of those doing the viewing. Do they distinguish between, let us say, carnivores and vegetarians, totalitarians and orientally despotic creatures, ones with and without a human face? And to make the picture still fuzzier, do these observers position themselves below or above the beast, close or far, facing its head or its tail, provided it is possible to tell one from the other?

Eager to see it for myself, I went to the Soviet Union last fall for a two-months stay as an American intellectual with a professional interest in the country (I study Russian literature) and also one with a personal connection to it (I grew up and came of age in Moscow, migrating to US in 1971). This was the first time in seventeen years that I visited the Soviet Union. Because of my research agenda, having to do with Stalin and the writers, and for family reasons, my horizons did not extend beyond Moscow, its professional middle class, intellectuals, among them people of public stature and some influence, at least, potentially so. Part of a small minority in a country of two hundred and eighty million, and traditionally very distant from power, these people have been drawn by Gorbachev into the political process and have come to play the role of the proverbial dog's tail, wagging the world's largest territorial giant out its coma-like slumber. Frequent palavars with cab drivers, mostly "gypsy" (that is just about everyone who drives an automobile) added some variety to the otherwise exclusively high brow fare served up by my Moscow contacts. The outer horizons of what I know about the Soviet Union are defined by the Soviet and émigré press which I have been following assiduously since the beginning of the perestroika. What follows, then, are a few informed impressions of my contact with the Soviet Union today -- first-hand as well as through public media. They are intentionally open-ended and necessarily blurred. After all, the giant is stirring and stretching, assuming a radically different shape even as I am putting my pen to paper.

* * *

To an old Russian hand like myself, the country or, better, what I have taken to constitute this country, still looks familiar. The problem is that the parts no longer add up. The ease with which it used to add up to something coherent, with every protagonist and event fitting the appointed niche in the rigid Stalinist structures has made the Soviet Union eminently calculable and describable. Today that country -- one I have known and loved to hate -- exists no more. Oh yes, it is still on the map, still equipped with ICBM's and all the other accoutrements of a superpower; it is still largely undemocratic, still intact as a de facto empire, that is not yet facing a large-scale open revolt of a constituent republic. Perhaps most important, it is still run out of the Communist Party headquarters and its analogues in the all-pervasive APPARAT, as speaker after speaker pointed out at the June 1989 Congress of People's Deputies. All of this notwithstanding, every intelligent observer, including, at long last, the country's top leadership, understands: the center no longer holds -- whether in the nationalities (only a blind man could have failed to see that coming for a long time), or the economy, or science, or social organization, educational system, health, or, finally, the Soviet Communist ideology. Indeed, the country now stands at the edge of the precipice and unless drastic measures are taken in a matter of months -- this note of urgency, made ominous by the miners' strike, has been the leitmotif in the Soviet Press for over a year -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics runs the risk of a mind-boggling internal convulsion

None of this happened overnight. Gradually, one by one, the consistently incompetent Soviet government has run out of the special dispensations which have been conveniently extended to it by nature, history and chance. Science and technology are a prime example. For awhile the general technological backwardness may not have been felt as acutely because at a certain level of development, a space program and, related to it ICBM production, could be insulated from the rest of the economy and still secure for the country a superpower status. But in the age of hi-tech such LOCAL achievements can no longer serve as convincing emblems of advancement. Failure are all too obvious. The Soviet Union is behind Mauritius in the area of infant mortality,1 stands unchallenged in alcoholism, or acknowledges, in the person of the Minister of Health, twenty five thousand dead a year from drinking improperly treated tap water2. Even the vast mineral deposits, a seemingly inexhaustible blessing, have been plundered, as Gorbachev put it in Krasnoiarsk, with the predatory energy of a colonial power. The Soviet Union has become an empire that has turned its imperial appetite upon itself, for how else can one interpret the fact that it produces five times the number of tractors per capita produced in the United States but only half as much grain?3

Even more important were the special dispensations in the spiritual sphere which were once accorded to the government by Soviet history: the people's acceptance, however grudging, of the political status quo and legitimacy of the party-state. In part, it stemmed from the instinctive fear bred into the people by the Stalinist terror; in part, from the perceived gains in the social, cultural and economic sphere; in part, from the willingness to tolerate privation for the sake of national defense -- an obsession, enforced by the state and reinforced by memories of the war with Germany. What cemented these and other pieces together and, in addition, provided for continuity in the national discourse was the Soviet Communist ideology: its simple-minded commitment to the reason of history, to be crowned by no less than a paradise on earth, its monopoly on representing that reason, and the feeling of superiority it conferred on its adherents.

Up until the late 1970s, many people accepted on faith at least some version of the official story of the creation of the party-state in the crucible of the October revolution. This story, or master plot, supplying meaning for everything that followed, protecting the original objectifying event -- the October Revolution -- from many a tarnishing misfortune. "If it hadn't been for the war, we could have been as well off as the Germans," so went the customary refrain. In a similar way, the crisis of the present has been be absorbed into the mythology of the past. "Just as we have won the civil war and WWII against impossible odds," the argument would run, "so we shall be able to overcome our present difficulties."

All of these special dispensations, material as well as ideological, might have provided the state with the opportunity to accomplish reform while minimizing social and economic distress, but they were used only to buy time, to postpone the day of reckoning. And that days is today, indeed, it is yesterday. The traditional ideology has been rendered obsolete and dysfunctional by changing demographics (fewer people remember the terror or WWII), expanding horizons of the population and their ability to articulate their views (college-level education is rather common), as well as the revolution in mass communication. There are very few people left today who find the old official story, for that matter, any story issuing from the state, a believable one. At the June Congress of People's Deputies, one listened in vain for any signs of communist revivalism in the speeches of even the most conservative deputies. Suspended for what must have seemed like an eternity, disbelief is back, fast evolving into impatience and outrage. At the Congress, Yuri Vlasov's tactfully worded call for the Communist Party to resign from power was greeted with applause.4 I can only imagine the outburst of delight with which Vlasov's words were greeted by the millions of viewers glued to their radios and TV's throughout the fully televised proceedings (it has been estimated that labor productivity in the Soviet Union during the televised sessions fell by as much as 20%).

Perhaps, the most powerful example of the dissolution of the Soviet communist ideology is represented by the debates around the history of the collectivization of agriculture. This pillar of the Stalinist state is now variously qualified as the "unpeasanting" of the Soviet Union, as acme of totalitarian repression, mass murder, even genocide.5 There may not be a general agreement on the causes of this national catastrophe -- explanations range from peasant ignorance6 to a Jewish conspiracy7 -- but the old master plot is decidedly dead. One no longer hears that collectivization was a necessary sacrifice in the face of the impending war with Germany. The war was won, not because of, but despite collectivization or it was nearly lost because of it and a series of Stalin's other catastrophic blunders -- so goes the dominant line today.

Now that they are no longer framed by the archetypal narrative of Soviet Marxism, the country's past and present do not fall into an orderly arrangement of prefiguration and fulfillment but are allowed to accumulate in random and unruly piles. Indeed, what Reason in history can account for the mass extermination of the peasantry and the virtual enslavement of the survivors? Or who would dare to explain away the murderous orgy of the late 1930s now that even the Marxist Roy Medvedev, a historian with impeccable dissident credentials, declares in print and without equivocation that by 1937 the "new orders from Moscow quickly transformed the 'correctional labor' camps into camps designed for extermination"?8 Or the much discussed one-German-to-five-Soviets ratio of battlefield casualties in WWII9 -- what did that prefigure or fulfill?

Demystified, the official ideology has lost its axiomatic transparency and become simply a botched story, a jumble of good intentions, murderous inhumanity and lies. "We are sorry," one can almost hear this unspoken refrain in the central media dominated by the Gorbachev generation, "We are sorry, comrades, but there has been a terrible mistake."

Curiously, even the people who had been radically critical of the Soviet phenomenon to the point of rejecting it altogether find themselves as disoriented by the recent events as the hitherto loyal Soviet man. Gone are the days when the unwieldy Brezhnevite state could virtually guarantee its opponents a role of a David taking on a Goliath. Under Gorbachev, the slings of criticism have become so widely available, the target so easy that one would have to try hard to miss the mark. It would seem that the other master plot, one of a giant monster challenged by a courageous man, too, has become obsolete, no longer capable of sustaining an intellectual's social identity. For it is one thing to be defending the unqualified Good and purposefully fighting the Evil Monster, or simply to withfraw from any contact with the state as many intellectuals had done; it is quite another to realize that what appeared as Evil incarnate may have just been a product of a delirious indiscretion, an accident, an unintended mutation, a mistake if you wish, however colossal and catastrophic its consequences.

What has remained of the old ideological totality are bits and pieces of the Soviet sacred, institutionalized and more exotic religions, consumerism, a rich and pungent assortment of nationalisms, and, perhaps, most odd, the impatient, lusty, hedonistic vision of urban youth culture, with its strong opinions, aerobic narcissism, and orgiastic Rock'n'roll. The morning news show on television that lasts two hours and focuses ostensibly on affairs of state is liberally interlarded with rock videos ranging in repertoire from Madonna's "Material Girl" to Grebenshchikov's "Give us back our land" flashing a low shot of peasant women crossing themselves before a wooden church to the throb of an invisible electric guitar. Cut to the Kuban region, scorching sun and phalanxes of combine harvesters -- things are not so good there. Cut to a dozen leggy women in mean-looking leotards tempting the entire 250 million to an aerobic euphoria -- now, that IS good. Who knows, perhaps, some of their sex appeal will rub off on the affairs of state, lending a bit of excitement to the Sisyphean job of holding together a disintegrating empire.

Pop sex aside, nationalism is the most readily available and flexible substitute for a rational ideology like Marxism, and it has long played a significant role in Soviet Communist mentalité. But if for other major ethnic groups, nationalism instantly fills the ideological vacuum and provides them with a new and powerful master plot, dissolving the clawing pretense of "fraternal friendships," in Russia proper the question of national identity is one of loss, not gain, and poses a particularly vexing problem. For one thing, being Russian has never meant the same as being, say, Georgian or Polish, because the Russians have viewed themselves and functioned as a sort of an Olympian people, at once particular and transparent with regard to other national groups. It is a give-away that there exist neither a Communist Party nor a KGB of the Russian Republic proper whereas all the other constituent republics have both a party and a KGB of their own. This supremacist aspect of the Russian self-image belongs to the imperial legacy, and exchanging it for something smaller and local will be both painful and confusing. Curiously, the view that being Russian may simply refer to a geographical, linguistic and broadly cultural identification, rather than one's biological roots, finds few advocates even in the most liberal milieu. Indeed, it took a Latvian writer, Jan Peters, to point out to his Russian counterparts with considerable sarcasm that the peoples of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, "in whose veins there courses the Russian, Bielorussian, Jewish, Polish, Swedish, Finnish blood," do not define their national identity on the basis of the biological criterion.10

In the Gorbachev Moscow, one hears endless complaints that the Russians, unlike other national groups, have no place of their own and are therefore deprived of the opportunity to be Russian (the impersonal construction is so telling!) while safeguarding this right for others. However, what the politics of Russian nationalism will look like after the nationalist feelings coalesce into specific ideological positions and become part of the new institutional structures still remains to be seen. For awhile, the neo-Nazi group Pamiat', with its unabashedly fascist messages including the news of the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy, has attracted considerable attention and some sympathy, but as a political organization whose platform consists of hate alone, it has been losing its popular support and now faces a dim political future. Still, if Pamiat's lunatic slogans have only a limited effect in highly concentrated doses, once dispersed and attached to some reasonable issues, such as the environment, they begin to acquire respectability and potency which call for concern and caution. A case in point is the writer Victor Belov, a talented author who publishes and serves on the editorial board of the liberal NOVYI MIR and has recently been elected Chairman of the Writers' Union of the Russian Republic. Speaking at the Congress of People's Deputies, he spent much of his time castigating the state for funding one ecological catastrophe after another only to close his speech by linking the country's crisis to the liberals' alleged facility with Xerox reproduction and both, to unnamed dark and mysterious forces -- a clear enough allusion to the Judeo-Masonic plan for conquering the world.11 In all fairness, most of the central press treats such conspiracy theories with a healthy disgust and ridicule and, at least in Moscow, candidates with links to Pamiat' were soundly defeated, but the nationalists of Belov's ilk, too, have made important strides. They have organized their own political association in Leningrad and are successful at lending intellectual respectability to some of the most outre ideas by publishing them in such bastions of scholarly decorum as Moscow's PROBLEMS OF LITERATURE.12 There is no doubt that the Russian Orthodox Church, both the hierarchy and its laity, will play a decisive role in the formation of the new national identity in Russia proper. But it is still to play its hand in this game. What the outcome of this process will be is anybody's guess.

One incident I witnessed on the Arbat mall, a most civilized street of old Moscow closed to traffic, has become emblematic for me of the complexity and fluidity of the Soviet phenomenon today. A policeman was trying to arrest a Hare Krishna for proselytizing in a public place. Immediately, the cop and his quarry -- both undistinguished looking young men -- were surrounded by a crowd of people, a random crowd, who angrily but correctly challenged the policeman's right to arrest the Russian follower of a distant Indian deity. Unexpectedly for me, the policeman felt obliged to enter into a legal argument with his challengers. "The Constitution," he rattled off the well-known formula in his high-pitched Moscow voice, "guarantees Soviet citizens the freedom from religious propaganda." "But the guy wasn't forcing anybody to listen to him," someone promptly dismissed this feeble appeal to the fundamental law. The tug-of-war went on for awhile without, it seemed, any hope for a resolution, until a young woman, with a finely chiseled face of great intensity, looked the policeman straight in the eye and reached for the jugular: "You are taking this guy in because you still have the power but we all know that you won't have it for much longer and soon you'll have to answer for it all." She spoke firmly, with well controlled, focussed anger and a matter-of-fact authority -- a person articulating a shared belief without any fear of a reprisal. In a minute or two the Hare Krishna was let go, the crowd dissolved.

For this observer, who might well have been a involved participant, the incident was reminiscent of his own close brushes with the rough hide of the Soviet leviathan in the middle and late 1960s. But what a faltering, disoriented creature it has become -- possessing little authority, unsure of its might, awesome only in the crushing magnitude of its aging and ungainly body.

"A state," Nietzsche wrote somewhere, "has no aim; we alone give it this aim or that." What will this aim be? Any ideas, comrades, citizens, gentlemen, ladies?

Copyright © 1989 by Gregory Freidin