Back in the USSR
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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