Where does the waiting line lead?
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.