Muscovites find reform breathtaking - and a bit disappointing

Ordinarily, reporters avoid quoting cab drivers. But then, Moscow cab drivers aren't exactly ordinary. Take Sasha. At one point, he wanted to become a heart surgeon - until he calculated that, under the Soviet Union's meticulously misplanned state economy, he could make the same money, for less work, behind the wheel. ``Perestroika? ... Words, just words,'' he shrugs. ``Fundamentally, nothing has changed.''

That verdict is unfairly harsh. It fails to take account of the energy and personal commitment which the ideologists of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring) have brought to their efforts to make it work. Some things have changed:

The state press carries articles unthinkable a few years ago. (One included a call for a popular referendum on the Communist Party's choice of leader.)

Unofficial demonstrations, once taboo, are now routine. (One which I witnessed, though broken up in old-style fashion by the authorities, gave way to spirited debate between the protesters and young police officers, one of whom finally mumbled that, ``No, I don't like this kind of duty.'')

The right to travel outside the Soviet Union has widened, adding a new word to the Russian language: vyezdniy (``exit-able.'')

All this is part of what Mr. Gorbachev has dubbed ``glasnost.'' Roughly translatable in English as ``openness,'' it is not merely a case of democratization for its own sake. It is meant as a critical step in rebuilding a sense of individual involvement, energy, and initiative in a society systematically drained of these for many years - and, by so doing, to rescue a Soviet economy that has proven incapable of competing internationally in almost anything but arms production.

Asked what would happen if perestroika failed, one well-placed Soviet political figure (an advocate of political reform before it became fashionable) replies: ``Russia will revert to a third-rate, provincial power.''

The stakes are high. To an outsider, the Gorbachev team's bid literally to redirect Soviet history and society is almost exhilarating to watch.

But so far, at least, Sasha's response is far more typical of everyday Soviets. ``What change has occurred is superficial,'' chimes in a friend. ``A lot of times, its 25 intellectuals talking to each other.''

Even in Moscow, only a tiny minority has moved to take advantage of the single greatest practical opportunity afforded by perestroika: the right to opt out of the state-planned economy and set up free-market cooperative businesses. (Many in this group are not newcomers, but veterans of the black-market economy that, in years before perestroika, inevitably sprung up to provide products the official economy couldn't.)

Why the skepticism and reluctance? A prime reason is caution. This is a country that has seen a number of intermittent ``reform'' processes run aground since Stalin's death some 35 years ago. A local joke captures the sense of skepticism. Reform, goes the Russian-language pun, has three stages: First, perestroika. Then, perestrelka (a shootout.) Finally, pereklichka (the slang term for roll call in a labor camp.)

Few Soviets seem to expect so savage a backlash. Yet equally few are ready to bet that perestroika will triumph or, for that matter, survive. The old system's huge bureaucracy is virtually intact, staffed with officials visibly inclined, and able, to slow the pace of change. And even the new order retains enough hallmarks of the old to make many Soviets wonder whether even the ``reformers'' will go as far as their public statements imply.

``It's almost as if they simply switched the signs on some government ministries, and rewrote the official slogans,'' says one Moscow friend, a relatively well-off office worker.

Nowhere is this slightly surreal facet of perestroika more evident than in the recently revised official view of Leonid Brezhnev, whose 18-year rule ended in 1982. One recent article accused Brezhnev of ``neo-Stalinism'' - by implication equating the ``crimes'' of incompetence, inefficiency, and official corruption with wide-scale murder. When I asked my friend why such accusations were going around, she replied, ``That's always the way things work here. It is so that ordinary people will be able to identify the good guys and the bad guys.''

The assumption of this kind of official tutelage over individual judgment - the very kind of judgment now deemed essential to unclog the economy - still runs deep. On a Sunday just after returning to Moscow, I joined the inevitable line at Lenin's tomb on Red Square. Soldiers were posted at 10-yard intervals. Their mission was not to protect the late Mr. Lenin. It was to instruct the political pilgrims on the proper rules of pilgrimage. ``Straight line,'' said one sentry. ``Hands at your side,'' said a second. ``Button your jacket,'' prodded a third.

There is a further disincentive for the kind of individual initiative which perestroika presupposes: The old order, however inefficient for Soviet society as a whole, has become not only familiar but comfortable for millions of ordinary citizens. The benefits include a job from which it is almost impossible to get fired no matter how haphazardly you work; a salary sufficient for bread, cabbage, vodka, the occasional meat or dairy product; at least a tiny state-subsidized roof over your head.

How, then, to ignite a national burst of individual creativity and initiative - given the fact that mere glasnost, so far, appears insufficient? Asked separately, two prominent Soviet political analysts on close terms with Gorbachev offer a virtually identical reply:

The Soviet economy - the country's central problem - must be made part of the solution, they say. ``People who work well must be well rewarded. People who work badly, rewarded badly.''

Tomorrow: The battle for perestroika's future.

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