Where does the waiting line lead?

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THERE are frequent misunderstandings in foreigners' judgments of Soviet society -- points on which there is total incomprehension, and hence a feeling that Soviet life is truly inscrutable. It seems to us that these are because Westerners -- scientists, politicians, journalists, or tourists -- do not take into account the main factor governing the day-to-day life, social contacts, psychological reactions, political sympathies, and even the ideals of the Soviet person.

That main factor is the waiting line.

Like mournful, irritating background music, the waiting line accompanies a Soviet person throughout life, from birth to death. First, there is the queue for pacifiers, feeding bottles, and diapers; then the line (with special tickets and a policeman on duty at the store's door) for a wedding dress; and finally, the line for the black slippers in which Soviet people bury their dead. Many of a Russian's notions about life and the universe are formed by the waiting line. And if, in our childhood, standing in round-the-clock waiting lines for flour, sugar, and eggs, we looked up at the sky, it was only to see which line was moving faster -- ours or the one in the heavens.

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There is almost no product or thing in the Soviet Union for which there have not been waiting lines. One is familiar with the classic lines for fruits and vegetables, newspapers, thermometers, New Year's trees, toilet paper, men's socks, meat, absorbent cotton and gauze, razors, pillows, underwear, shoes; the line in front of Lenin's Tomb -- and of course, the lifelong wait for an apartment.

The simple word ``buy'' has virtually disappeared from the Russian language in favor of terms like ``scrounge,'' ``rip off,'' and other synonyms. The same is true of the word ``sell.'' A Soviet person, taking his place in a line, never asks, ``What are they selling?'' but ``What are they giving out?'' or ``What are they throwing out?''

And the monetary transaction takes place somewhere outside the framework of the acquisition of the thing. Psychologically, it is the least significant part of that whole, almost magical procedure, which includes, first, the many hours of standing in line and, as its ``stellar hour,'' the moment of acquiring the thing and the incomparable feeling of soaring like a bird because of such a success.

In waiting lines, the Soviet develops and perfects the hunter's instinct. Like a real hunter, when he goes off ``hunting'' in the morning he doesn't know what he'll get by evening -- because the purchase follows the principle of ``what are they throwing out,'' not what one needs or wants to buy.

True, there are lofty, forbidden dreams: a pair of imported shoes, colored linoleum for the kitchen, a Finnish refrigerator. But realizing them is like tracking down and killing a bear. And the moral values of Soviet society are more and more taking on a primitive character, like those of a tribe of hunters. A person is judged by what he has gotten his hands on during the day. Within the family, a man's worth is subjected to doubt if he returns empty-handed from the hunt.

In the exhausting waiting lines, the Soviet people have polished to perfection those traits that Dostoyevsky singled out as Russian virtues: patience and a frightful endurance. But the lines are responsible, to one degree or another, for less attractive traits -- both of the individual and of the Soviet people en masse -- which, in an unpleasant way, astound foreigners in the subway, on the streets, and (again) in waiting lines. Those traits include irritability, aggressiveness, intolerance, and pointless agitation.

Standing in line is not only a loss of time; it involves a terrible tension: One is not sure that one will get the thing in question. So people in Soviet lines usually don't read newspapers or books, and squabbles often break out. Even Soviet sociologists cautiously state that, in Moscow alone, the waste of time from conflicts and emotional experiences, most of them associated with the ordeal of waiting, amount to 15 percent of total work time.

A waiting line in Russia is a monolithic association, unified by need and stimulation, that has lost the habit of making elementary humanitarian gestures and is deaf to the sufferings of one's neighbor. We remember a line for canned meat that stretched out for several blocks. It was a gray winter day, and, as everyone watched, a woman dashing across the street to get in line was run over by a streetcar. She screamed, the line twitched with the shock, and the people in it screamed in turn. Like a fishing line, it curved toward the woman. But no one left his place in the serried ranks to go and help her -- no one but those at the very end of the line, who had nothing to lose.

One cannot help wondering whether the lines were not artificially and deliberately created by the state. After all, there is not yet a famine in Russia, and the people walking along the street are clothed, not naked. In one way or another, people are getting the necessary foodstuffs and other things they need.

Isn't the waiting-line ordeal an original method of bridling rebellion on the part of the Soviet people? It could be a way of preventing political discontent and mass dissent, for which the people simply don't have time, because they spend 30 percent of their lives standing in line.

Morning in any Soviet city begins with the fantastic sight of an old woman with the inevitable black oil-cloth bag, of huge capacity, clinging to the door of a mysterious store long before it opens. Such is the beginning of a Soviet waiting line. If you ask the old woman what she is standing in line for, she won't be able to tell you. She is simply standing in line -- in an abstract line that leads nowhere and exists for its own sake, as in the theater of the absurd.

This, however, is not theater but the everyday life of the Soviet citizen, in which the substantial is counterfeited by the spectral, reality by fiction, the ideal by the thing.

Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova, both Russian-born, are a husband-wife team of free-lance writers on foreign affairs. Their latest book, ``Behind the High Kremlin Walls,'' was recently published by Dodd, Mead.

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