Kremlin sees threat in uncensored videocassettes
Moscow — A ''video consultant'' at the state electronics shop on Lenin Avenue explains politely: ''No, we don't have a videocassette machine. . . . And we have a two-year waiting list for them already!''
A young, well-off Muscovite rues the day he snagged an imported video player. Since then he has had an endless stream of visits from acquaintances who suddenly seem to think they're bosom friends.
The video craze has hit the Soviet Union, and the Kremlin seems bent on halting it in its tracks. Like some profit-hungry film studio out of Hollywood, Moscow is signaling alarm over the public's hankering for home-screen entertainment.
Yet for Moscow, the issue is not cash, but control: The authorities have long guarded their command over what books and magazines citizens read and what films are shown to what audiences. They generally bar both pornography and gratuitous violence as well as anything politically suspect - a category embracing most Western work.
Now Moscow faces a slippery new medium that threatens to mock such restrictions.
Like other Soviet consumer revolutions of recent years, the video explosion began from above. This is of little surprise. Even at restricted hard-currency stores, a video player and monitor can cost some $4,000. The few imports sold at state secondhand shops fetch an average $6,000, more than the typical Soviet worker earns in a year. Black market prices are far higher.
Soviet diplomats, journalists, or commercial envoys posted abroad apparently toted back the first video machines a few years ago.
Also joining the trend: the artistic and intellectual elite, a group who stay gingerly on the right side of the cultural powers that be although they also enjoy occasional barbs at officialdom in their Moscow kitchens and living rooms.
And the children of the above - the Zolotaya Molodyozhm, or Golden Youth - have also joined the trend.
Yet the newspaper Sovietskaya Rossia recently suggested the video circle has widened. The article, last month, spoke of illegal cassette sales from Odessa to Leningrad, and of private showings ''in apartments or closed cafes after work hours.''
A current Soviet film playing to packed Moscow theaters, ''Station for Two,'' includes a scene in which a well-off farm market speculator is shown watching a videotape of a Western pop singer.
''It seems the authorities didn't fully appreciate the implications of video when it first started arriving here,'' a Moscow youth says. ''Now, that has changed.''
Signaling heightened official sensitivity to the video craze, a new border law last year barred import of ''video and audio recordings . . . containing information which could damage the country's political or economic interests, state security or public order, or the population's health and morals.''
Some recent visitors here say they have been spared traditional customs inquiries on books and magazines. Instead, they were queried about videotapes.
The Soviet press, meanwhile, has driven home to the local population the official concern about videocassettes and indicated what kinds of cassettes most unsettle the authorities.
Pornography is high on the list: The Soviets have always restricted nudity on film.
But there are further areas of concern.
When Sovietskaya Rossia announced last month the arrest of an illegal videocassette ring, among titles cited as unhealthy were not only those of Swedish sex films, but also ''The Green Berets,'' ''A Clockwork Orange,'' and ''Apocalypse Now.''
The inclusion of the last film, which was profoundly critical of the Vietnam war, suggests that the principle of central control, not merely movie content, concerns Soviet video watchdogs.
''Apocalypse Now'' was shown to an elite Soviet and foreign audience during Moscow's 1979 film festival. But it was never approved for general viewing. The Soviets seem intent on prolonging that record in the video era.