Respect Needed for the Battered Bear

IN Moscow these days the weather is bleak and so is the mood of the people. While Western news media dutifully report the minutiae of Russia's economic woes and the grand sweep of political events, they are missing the more fundamental story. The most poignant account of the daily struggle of the unemployed factory worker and the most perceptive analysis of recent machinations in the chaotic parliament fail to capture a primal and potentially threatening aspect of life in the largest of the Soviet succes sor states - wounded pride.

While the image of the once powerful, fearsome bear tending its wounds may be a cliche, it is difficult for those in the West, particularly Americans, to appreciate the extent to which a once proud people have lost their self-esteem, and with it, increasingly, their hope.

What every hunter knows seems to be ignored by the slick Western deal-makers who crowd the refurbished lobby of the Slavianskaya Radisson Hotel and their more sophisticated counterparts in the stately headquarters of the International Monetary Fund: A wounded bear is a confused and dangerous animal.

Although events from Kuwait City to Sarajevo have abruptly extinguished the euphoric afterglow of the cold war's end, many in the West are still reluctant to acknowledge that Russia's transformation into a paragon of democratic capitalism is by no means a foregone conclusion. When news that Yegor Gaidar, the cherub-faced architect of Russia's economic reforms, has been replaced by Viktor Chernomyrdin, the corpulent, bushy-browed former communist technocrat, is met by many Russians with resignation - and by some with unvarnished delight - it underscores the fragility of the progress made thus far.

A hint of this fragility is reflected in the dour but reverent faces of the Muscovites who still wait in line each day to view the surreal body of Lenin. Despite the many depredations suffered by Russians under the Communists' brutal and misguided rule, there was a measure of predictability and certainty to life, however corrosive, that is nowhere to be found today. There is, instead, a palpable sense of longing for protection from what are viewed as the vagaries of the market.

But as it so often has happened during Russia's long and tempestuous history, the truth is something yet again. It is not that the country has been slapped by Adam Smith's invisible hand - Russia is still, in fact, well beyond its reach.

Debates about the respective merits of the American or Swedish models of capitalism ring hollow in a country where the state still controls the lion's share of the economy, and where the new prime minister speaks of further price controls on oil and increased subsidies to bloated industrial dinosaurs.

Yet the main voice of opposition to President Boris Yeltsin, the ostensibly centrist Civic Union, has clearly struck a chord among the newly impoverished and disoriented. There is something undeniably comforting to many Russians about a leadership that promises to bring order and stability to an economy seemingly out of control. When the elderly who toiled for years in Soviet fields and factories and fought in the Great Patriotic War receive a monthly pension equivalent to $4, when a new breed of Russian

"Goodfellas" straight out of Central Casting brazenly flaunts its ill-gotten gains, when slot machines fill grocery stores and subway stations, when the majority of goods sold in the Arbat commercial district are produced outside of the country, there is ample reason for Russians to feel misgivings about what many perceive as a pell-mell rush to reform.

And when the apparatchiks who predominate in Russia's intemperate Parliament couch their critique of Mr. Yeltsin's policies in crude and incendiary nationalistic jargon, the gray unease of the masses takes on a more vivid and sinister coloration.

The West's ability to understand these rumblings of discontent is hampered by the broad conceptual gap that still divides the once bipolar world.

A simple vignette recounted to me by a dignified Russian woman who had been witness to half a century of Soviet rule encapsulates this mental chasm: A life-long bureaucrat, the woman was put on a waiting list to buy a car in 1973. For the remainder of the decade and into the next, her status remained unchanged. It was not until the incremental liberalization of the economy during the perestroika of the mid-1980s that her prospects began to improve.

Finally, in 1990, she was able to make the long-anticipated purchase. Her delight, however, was short-lived. With political and economic reform had come less salutary changes; six months after she bought the car it was stolen off the streets of Moscow. Because of the steep price rises that have now become a staple of Russian life, the woman's ability to buy another car is again severely limited - this time, not by a command economy, but by one that aspires to be capitalist.

It is not the theft itself that disturbs - after all, a car is stolen every 20 seconds in the United States. It is the fact that the woman's 17-year vigil is something totally alien to Western, particularly American, sensibilities. Equally alien is the despair she has suffered as a byproduct of what she hoped would be a change for the better.

If the promise of the post-cold war era is not to be stolen, the West must comprehend the depth of Russia's pride - derived as much from Stalingrad, Sputnik, and the Backfire Bomber as from Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevski. Government officials and international financiers, business executives and foundation officers, all need to appreciate the extent to which the Russian people have been emotionally battered. Those who would assist the country's transformation should treat Russians not with condescensio n and disdain, but with dignity and respect befitting citizens of a former superpower that is still among the world's largest - and potentially most menacing - nations.

Let pundits warn of the country's economic backsliding, its still-potent nuclear arsenal, and the dire implications of other legacies of Soviet misrule, from environmental degradation to ethnic strife. But the search for solutions to these problems will founder if we do not also recognize and respond to the Russian psyche.

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