Russians seek a touch of `klass' in a `classless' society

Klass: How Russians Really Live, by David K. Willis. New York: St. Martin's Press. 328 pp. $15.95. Anyone familiar with the Soviet Union has heard a great deal about the official ideology, Marxism-Leninism. In addition to providing arcane information about ``historical materialism,'' ``scientific atheism,'' and the struggle against leftist and rightist ``deviationism,'' the Soviet leaders emphasize that their doctrine provides the key to understanding contemporary life. It explains the past, the present, and the future.

The current stage of socioeconomic development in the USSR is known in official parlance as ``developed socialism'' or ``mature socialism,'' and the Politburo has made it clear that it will be many years before the country is ready to enter the era of ``communism.''

Why on earth should any sensible person, including the leaders of the Soviet Union, care about such philosophical matters? There are, I think, three reasons, all of them highly important.

First, from the Politburo's point of view, Marxism-Leninism offers support for official policies, explaining how the world operates and why the Communist Party is acting as history's agent. This, of course, facilitates party control over the population as a whole.

Second, the ideology helps to attribute blame for current flaws in society (such as alcoholism, consumerism, religious belief, crime, juvenile delinquency, etc.) to earlier historical epochs, rather than to the party's ineptitude or the inherent inefficiencies of central planning. All social problems are viewed as ``vestiges of the past in the minds of the people'' or ``survivals'' of an earlier capitalist (or even feudal) era. The party, of course, is never wrong.

Third, and most relevant for the purposes of this review, the distinction between ``socialism'' and ``communism'' legitimizes various forms of inequality. Only in the ultimate communist society will everyone be equal. Then -- and only then -- will people's lives be governed by the principle ``From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.''

In the Soviet Union today, inequalities abound -- in political power, personal wealth and income, and the numerous ``perks'' available to individuals of different rank. In fact, the more one reads about contemporary Soviet life, the more one suspects that ``socialism'' will be around forever. The very notion of ``communism'' is like the horizon: The closer you get to it, the further it recedes into the distance.

What does it mean to live in a socialist society? According to David K. Willis, who spent 41/2 years as The Christian Science Monitor's correspondent in Moscow, it means considerable privation for most people, immense power and substantial wealth for a few, and an all-but-overpowering desire among citizens of all classes to use whatever influence they have to get something special for themselves or their families. It is this never-ending quest for ``klass,'' as Willis puts it, that constitutes the main theme of the book.

The author uses the term ``klass'' to describe what Americans would probably call ``clout,'' i.e., a blend of status, privilege, and knowing the ``right'' people -- the ability to obtain higher-quality goods and services or, indeed, anything that might be seen as ``classy.'' His choice is not a particularly good one; it assumes that the English word ``class'' and the Russian ``klass'' are cognates, which they are not. To say that Russians are seeking ``a bit of class'' in an otherwise drab life is undeniable; but it is not appropriate to say that Russians are striving for ``klass.''

But this is an issue that will disturb only specialists. Even if Willis's use of the word is not altogether felicitous, he is extremely successful in describing daily life in the USSR. Every day, in countless ways, Soviet citizens use whatever resources they have at their disposal to procure some scarce commodity or gain access to something or someone that is ordinarily available only to a select few.

They live in very small apartments, and one of their most powerful ambitions is to secure another square meter or two of living space -- or an apartment with its own kitchen and toilet. (More than one-fourth of all people living in major cities, such as Moscow and Leningrad, still live in so-called ``communal'' apartments.) Similarly, they find it all but impossible to get a ticket to the ballet, take a vacation with their spouse, obtain certain books, articles of clothing, or jewelry, see a medical specialist, or receive permission to visit one of the Eastern European countries -- in other words, to do the kinds of things that citizens of ``rotten bourgeois democracies'' take for granted.

Willis describes these phenomena and the frustrations they lead to with skill and compassion. He is particularly attentive to what he calls ``the symbols of prestige,'' i.e., goods brought in from the West or Japan by members of the Soviet privileged class. He also examines the difficulties involved in gaining access to adequate housing, cultural events, and goods and services. All of these things are made available according to principles very different from those of ``communism'': They tend to go to individuals who are professionally accomplished or politically well connected, or who deal in the black market.

The best chapters -- illuminating, poignant, and elegantly written -- are those that deal with travel (especially by air) and with the nomenklatura (the people who occupy the most prominent positions in politics, the economy, and society). But all the material is presented in an engaging manner, and all of it supports the author's thesis that the USSR is the very opposite of a classless society. Readers who have already been exposed to the books of Hedrick Smith, Robert Kaiser, or David Shipler are probably familiar with many of the topics Willis explores. But they, too, will find this volume well worth reading for its anecdotes, its analysis, and the author's ability to explain how the Soviet system really works.

David E. Powell is a research fellow at the Russian Research Center, Harvard University.

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