Footsoldiers in the fight to restructure the Soviet economy. Some apolitical average citizens feel urge to push for perestroika

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``To understand what perestroika (restructuring) is about,'' insists a rising young Soviet policy analyst, ``you must put our Russian skepticism in context. We're always skeptical. It's to keep us from being disappointed.'' Yet there are also Russians like Maxim - an unabashed foot soldier for Gorbachevian change, not because he necessarily believes it will work, not because he discounts the enormous obstacles, but because (as he puts it) ``we dare not allow it to fail.''

On the face of it, Maxim is an unlikely foot soldier for anything. He is a mathematician who has traditionally enjoyed life, and steered clear of politics, with equal resolve. But, like many among the determined minority actively pushing perestroika, he came of age in the late 1950s - during an earlier, abortive move toward political change after the death of [Joseph] Stalin.

Though he would resist the label of intellectual, he has this country's special love for books, ideas, argument. Like many others of his generation, he has never fully lost the idealism that reigned briefly during the ``thaw'' of the [Nikita] Khrushchev era.

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Maxim explains it better himself. ``So far, perestroika consists of politicians and their words - very beautiful words, it should be said - but still just words. The challenge is to convert words to real changes.''

An example? Maxim has laid the groundwork for a private cooperative for computer software under perestroika's loosened controls on the economy. By the end of the year, he is hoping to launch a second computer-related cooperative - in a country of shop-counter abacuses and wind-up taxi meters that has yet truly to enter the computer age.

So far (in an experience that has been fairly typical of the battle over perestroika nationwide) his application for formal approval on the first cooperative remains entangled in bureaucracy.

``The bureaucrats don't want change. They keep delaying, and I keep going to their offices,'' he said. ``But I'll win. It's a question of patience, perseverance.''

Why bother? At first, Maxim didn't fully grasp the reasons, himself. ``But in setting up the cooperative, I came to see that for the first time we have on paper specific, published regulations which - it seems, at least - are going to apply to everyone in this country. This concept - the rule of law - is utterly new to this country.

``It's fascinating to think about. I have a circle of friends that include all sorts of people, but until a few months ago I'd never spent a single minute with a lawyer. No one I know ever has. ... Laws have never touched our personal lives.''

For Maxim and others seeking to establish cooperatives, consulting lawyers has become a matter of course. ``The legal side is ultimately what is important about this cooperative trend. ... It is to press the idea of legality in every way we can. And we will: because when you devote months of your life, or all your resources, to setting up a cooperative, the regulations of perestroika become a matter of livelihood.

``Intellectuals,'' sneers Maxim, ``talk about perestroika. But intellectuals don't fight for ideas. Only those practically involved - and at this point, this means the cooperative movement - can be expected to fight for this process.''

But there are many fewer Maxims in this country than there are people like cab-driving Sasha, who's still waiting for any practical reason to abandon life as usual.

For the official planners of perestroika, these men present a pair of chicken-and-egg puzzles. The obvious strategy would be to demonstrate palpable benefits in leaving the familiar inefficiency of the state economy for new free-market opportunities. But the obvious incentive - more rubles in pocket - means little in a country desperately short of consumer goods that make more rubles worth having.

``Look at it this way,'' says Sasha. ``If I lived in America, or West Germany, I could theoretically have a nice car. I could travel. I could even,'' he chuckles, ``get a private plane and land it in Red Square... I'd need only one thing: money.

``I have money. But here, what am I supposed to do with it?''

The second chicken-and-egg problem involves hard currency. An obvious way to entice popular participation in Gorbachevian reform is to stock Soviet shops with consumer goods from abroad. In the years before perestroika, it sometimes seemed as if officials assumed the country's enormous natural wealth would ensure there would always be money for imports. The plunge in world commodity prices - notably for oil, once the Soviet Union's leading trade earner - has changed that.

A prominent official economist privately suggests that the Kremlin's hope is to hedge the problem by convincing foreign companies to set up joint-venture facilities to produce consumer goods here - in effect betting their hard currency against huge (reconvertible ruble) profits once the production lines start rolling.

Maxim is not sure whether even with such outside help the proponents of perestroika will be able significantly to dent the lethargy and inertia still characteristic of much of Soviet society and economy. ``What's needed is a change of attitudes among people,'' he says. ``Maybe part of our generation's responsibility is, slowly but surely, to teach younger people, to bring them along.''

Will that work?

``Maybe. In 20 or 30 years. Maybe, too, this present climate of change will last only a few years. But even if it's only a brief time, we have to make every effort we can, don't we?''

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