Back in the USSR

Back in the USSR

Impressions from a trip to the Soviet Union.

During a three week visit to the Soviet Union last summer, a member of our collective had the opportunity to speak with Soviet citizens and observe, briefly, life in the Soviet union today. His article isn't meant to be a comprehensive survey of the Soviet scene but rather a presentation of attitudes, ideas and situations that he encountered.

His trip consisted of a cruise from Helsinki to Leningrad, where he spent a week and a half, a journey to Riga, the capital of Soviet Latvia, and then return by ship to Helsinki.

LENINGRAD

The whole centre of Leningrad, which has a population of approximately four million people is beautifully preserved. Unlike the rest of Europe there are no modern glass, 20-storey monstrosities to ruin mile after mile of pastel coloured l8th century palaces, institutes, museums, stores and apartment buildings. The Nevsky Prospect, Leningrad's main street, is bustling and lively. It's the only place where I was hustled, by (unpleasant hooking) young men who wanted gun and jeans. On the Nevsky I encountered the only beggar I was to see for three weeks, an old woman in a wheel chair who was successfully collecting coins from passers-by.

There seemed to be small movie theatres all over the place, tucked into apartment buildings or over stores, with simple signs out front "KINO" and a list of coming attractions. Again on the Nevsky, a large theatre with a painted sign advertising "Blue Water, White Death", an old American film about sharks.

On the streets you'd come across lineups, 10, 20 maybe 30 people in a line-up to buy apricots or tomatoes. Down side streets you'd go past apartment buildings where every window was full of plants; and behind the apartment buildings there would be a small park, with playground equipment and benches. In fact there seemed to be quite a large number of little parks all over.

In "Dom Knigi", House of Books, the largest bookstore, there are a wide variety of, among others, anti-drunkenness posters to be purchased. Outside the store is a beautiful canal (the city is full of canals) at the other end of which stands the Martyr Czar Cathedral. Built in memory of a Czar, I believe Alexander III, who was assasinated on that spot, the Cathedral is a classic fairy-tale mixture of spires and multi-coloured onion domes.

The west was not forgotten in Leningrad. In our hotel, a Chargex-Visa sign was attached to the front of the check-in desk. At the entrance to the hotel dining room was a sign urging guests to "Come and see our show" at the foeigners-only "Dollar" bar in the hotel. The accompanying photograph showed a chorus line of young women in silvery bikinis.

On the streets I was constantly amazed to see young men wearing American flag shirts, stars and stripes T-shirts and military jackets With "U.S. Air Force" crests on them. Young people are crazy about American culture and styles.

Our Leningrad guide, Antonov, was a young man who came across as fairly honest. In my time there we got to be reasonably comfortable with one another and on my last night in Leningrad we got together in the hotel bar to do some socializing.

We started off when I asked him why most of the people I'd met seemed to have very little interest in politics. In his opinion that wasn't very surprising, people had to devote all their energy to the struggle for adequate housing, clothing and food, so people felt they had no time for politics. He felt that the dominant mood in the Soviet Union today was discontent. People, as he put it "are tired of not getting the food, the clothing and the goods they want. People have rubles but there are no goods to spend them on. In general, workers are better off than professionals, however they still aren't getting enough. Workers get only 50% of what they want and intellectuals only 20% of what they want. "My experience is that things are gradually getting worse and that the economy is slowly going to grind to a halt".

Which of course led to the next question, what's the problem with production? Different people had different perspectives m the problem. Antonov felt clear that one of the main reasons was the fact that the Soviet Army is the largest in the world. "How do you know?" I said. "I was in it" he replied, and added, "Now, let's change the subject", and that was the end of that.

I asked if there were many gays in the Soviet Union. He was quite taken aback, why was I even interested, what an odd question and so on. After explaining that a lot of leftists in Canada felt the question of gay rights was very important he still seemed surprised but willing to discuss it. As he presented it, there are certainly gays living in the Soviet Union but they are not very public about it; although it is not completely socially unacceptable, it is seen as something of a sickness. Two of the women who lived in the flat he shared with another couple were gay. They were quiet and tried to please everyone. A friend of his who travels in those circles reported that the son of Yuri Andropov (head of the KGB) was gay. The son, Sergei, is protected from harm by his father, and is surrounded by people who like to have some sort of connections with power.

Antonov related an anecdote about a prominent Soviet author who had been interviewed on West German Television. When asked about gays the author replied that he felt sorry for them. The interviewer responded by saying that this was a narrow way of looking at gays. The author then asked "If your daughter was gay how would you feel?" The interviewer, upon reflection had to admit that he would be quite unhappy. "So", concluded Antanov, "it is normal to have this outlook about gays."

It was my turn to change the subject and I did with a question about Brezhnev:

What do people think about him? Antonov felt that in what he had to say he was speaking for the students. They were required in every subject and on every question to learn and approach all subjects on the basis of what Brezhnev thought or once thought about them. They found him very tiring.

We finished our evening with a discussion of travel in Western Europe as he had escorted Soviet tour groups to Italy and Germany. He observed that just as in those countries, the Soviet Union had prostitutes and pimps. For the most part they worked the tourist trade and interestingly, often have a connection with the KGB for the passing along of information.

One evening, I was out for a stroll and came across a theatre showing the film "Leningrad Blockade". The film was in colour and of recent vintage. It attempted to portray the history of the blockade (Nazi forces laid siege to Leningrad for 900 days during World War II) through the lives of a nurse, a captain, the Party chief of the city, the generals involved, leaders of a factory party committee and an architect. In the background was Stalin, portrayed as a fatherly, wise, and resolute leader. You would never think that Krushchev had once portrayed Stalin as a less than savoury character.

In one notable little scene a friend comes to visit Stalin who is working late in his Kremlin office. A brief chat about how their respective sons are doing at the front and then the friend asks Stalin, "Why weren't we prepared for war?" Joe replies that they did the best they could and after all who could know that Germany would fight on two fronts?

Aside from the very sympathetic portrayal of Stalin, the other aspect of the film worth further study were the central characters who were uniformly leaders or professionals, workers receiving all the bit parts. Another Soviet film, Dersu Usala, (actually a Soviet-Japanese co-production) casts a czarist officer as one of the two central figures. Sensitive and intelligent, he is quite a contrast with the boorish lot who constitute the party of soldiers under his command. Sixty years later Soviet film makers seem to be developing sympathy for the formerly badly abused czarist officer corps.

I should say before I go on to a description of the next conversation, that people would not speak frankly with you unitl they had had a few days of contact. They would discuss nothing of substance in the hotel (unless they were in the bar when loud music was playing) and on the street, conversation would stop if any person came too close. This sort of behaviour, which seemed common, induced a mild paranoia.

I met Nadia and Inessa in a coffee shop in Riga. They were both clerks in small shops and were both members of the Communist Party youth organization, Komsomol Although initially reticent to talk about anything but western music and life style, we were able to have an interesting discussion one evening down by the Riga docks.

It started out with their comments that my clothing seemed to be very sturdy and well made which broadened into comments that "Everything is better in the west". I vas a bit taken aback, given that they were young communists, and after pointing out that in Canada we didn't have completely free medical and dental care as they had in the Soviet Union, I asked if things weren't improving in the Soviet Union.

They said that things were improving but that the west was also improving, so the Soviet Union would never catch up. "Almost everyone thinks that, although you can't say it". "At our Komsomol meetings we have to say things are better here than in the west but we don't believe it."

Apparently most discussion at the meetings centres on work with very little if any time spent on political analysis. They felt that they couldn't speak freely, as an open expression of opinions could lead to hardship and reprisals. They were in Komsomol, like the majority of their fellow members, because all young people are required to be members. The only exceptions are those singled out as bad students or bad workers.

Pursuing this matter of reprisals resulting from free expression of opinion I asked who exactly decides what can and cannot be said. "The higher-ups, the state personnel".

Which led to a question about class structure and a firm statement that there are no classes and therefore no class contradictions in Soviet society.

"Well then, who makes the most money?"

In their opinion, chiefs of firms make the most money, about 400 rubles a month (the official average is 158 a month). I tried to determine whether or not managers were able to pass on their "class" status. Nadia and Inessa both had heard that the children of managers were able to get into university, whether they were able to pass competitive exams or not, through bribery. Although the children of managers were not necessarily destined to become managers, they did have an excellent chance of getting a good job.

As far members of the communist party the only real privilege they knew of were the special stores. Apparently both military officers and communist party members had access to these shops which did not offer bargains but did offer no lineups. After a few weeks in the Soviet Union one understands why a store without line-ups is a treasured privilege.

The last real chance I had for a lengthy conversation came with a couple I originally met in a park. Young and wellspoken Vlad and Alexandra were both members of the communist party.

After a few get-togethers I felt that they were becoming more relaxed and so I asked them what they felt were the long term prospects for the Soviet economy.

They were both convinced that although things were bad now they were going to get worse. Wages were low and rising slowly, prices however were rising steadily. Not only were officials declaring increases for certain item but a constant undeclared round of price increases was going on in the stores.

In their opinion the fundamental problem of the economy was the centralization of decision-making in Moscow. All decisions they emphasized, are made there even for the lowest administrative levels. Decisions were not made by the people affected by them.

"On paper we have all kinds of democracy but really there is none. After all, one cannot even speak freely."

I asked then what did they speak about at their party meetings. They agreed between them that for the most part their party meetings consisted of discussions about work and how to increase production. As to political analysis they did little or none for the political line came down from above. "When we go to conferences we can't really say anything. When the leaders speak we have to applaud whether we agree or not."

As for Brezhnev they considered him to be just a "big talker". However they felt that a personality cult was being built around him that was potentially dangerous.

I asked why they were in the Communist party if things were so bad and its leadership, at least Breshnev, was discredited. After a brief survey of reprisals taken against open political dissenters, jail, loss of work or vacations, none of which they were ready to face, they said that in the end one still had to do something even at a minimal level. As for those people in open opposition to the regime they expressed respect for their bravery. Characterizing them largely as intellectuals, they said that there were great numbers of oppositionists in jail.

It is possible that this crushing of desire for social change is what is driving people back to the church. Both party members, they were regular church goers and suffered no penalties for it. Every year they observed more and more young people going to church if only to get married.

I was assured after some probing that there were neither classes nor class contradictions in Soviet society. As Alexandra said, "There are no landlords or big property owners now but the state is very rich and we have little."

The Alexander Nevsky monastery in Leningrad is a quiet retreat. It has a very large, very well maintained and still active Russian Orthodox Church.

It has two graveyards. The first, closest to the entrance, has the graves of many well-known Russian authors, composers and cultural figures. Inside the monastery itself is a smaller graveyard. It is apparently set aside for war heroes and notables from the Communist Party. The graves have fences around them in the Russian fashion.

It is silent and peaceful and disquieting. First you notice one marker, born 1890, died 1935, then another, 1901-1932, another 1892-1936 and so on until it strikes you that almost a third of the markers you see are for purge victims. Its the same in other places, memorials to the heroes of the revolution museums, etc.

When Stalin buried both the revolution and the revolutionaries, he left a society with a lower level of political awareness and development than we have even in North America.

We can hope for upheaval in the Soviet Union but even with what appears to be a perceived and real drop in living standards I don't think it will happen too soon. I hope I'm wrong.