On living in Moscow: fact and fable

SOVIET leaders since Stalin can be rebuked for anything but indifference to their capital. The importance of Moscow in their minds has always been much greater than the role of New York or Washington in the politics of American presidents. The latter have often been accused of neglecting their most important cities. To understand why Soviet politicians pay such special attention to their capital, it is not necessary to recall the history of France and the fact that all revolutions began in Paris. Both of the last two Russian revolutions -- in February and October of 1917 -- were initiated in the capital (then Petrograd [Leningrad]). There is in that a valuable lesson: The loyalty of the first city to the regime is of vital importance.

The capital, with its concentration of foreigners, also serves as the window of the country. It is a circumstance of great importance for a political system that expends a lot of its energy making impressions on the external world.

Whatever may be the significance of each of these or other motives, Soviet rulers have always tried to place Moscow in a privileged position in comparison with all other cities in the country.

Over many decades Moscow has been provided with all manner of scarce goods -- to a much greater extent than anywhere else in the Soviet Union. Moscow stores have priority in receiving imported wares coveted by all Soviet citizens.

Moving to Moscow has long been the dream of millions of Soviet people. Since the mid-1950s, the government has severely restricted moves into the capital. It has resulted in elaborate schemes and dozens of tricks carried out by Soviets to procure a desirable Moscow propiska. This special mark in the internal passport indicates the place of residence, thus affirming one's right to live in a particular city. The coveted Moscow stamp may be sought by such means as feigning passionate love for a Moscow resident or offering a trivial bribe to an official responsible for issuing the propiska.

Muscovites are very proud of being residents of the capital and look down on those who live in Leningrad or Kiev, not to mention those in Odessa or Tashkent.

One might expect that residents of the Soviet capital enjoy the quality of their life much more than the rest of the population. But a recent survey conducted by the Sociological Institute of the Academy of Science in Moscow showed just the opposite.

Data collected showed that in response to 23 questions about all aspects of their lives, Muscovites were generally much less satisfied than residents of other large Soviet cities. Only 15 percent of Muscovites are satisfied with public transport (despite the famous Moscow subway), compared with 30 percent in other Soviet cities. Only 18 percent (vs. 20) were satisfied with the supply of goods, and 23 percent (vs. 26) with cafeterias and restaurants. Overall, only 44 percent of Muscovites are satisfied with their lives in general, compared with 52 percent in other cities and 49 percent of the population of the country as a whole.

With its floundering economy, the Soviet government can no longer afford the relatively high quality of life made possible in the capital in years past. Corruption in Moscow, which flourished under Leonid Brezhnev, has also made its contribution to that deterioration.

Speaking extremely openly at a recent meeting of Moscow party activists, Boris Yeltsin, new first secretary of the Moscow party committee, acknowledged that today the life of Muscovites is worse in many respects than in the provinces. He pointed to very slow housing construction, the lack of kindergarten classes, and other significant problems.

Muscovites watch with special attention the words and deeds of Mikhail Gorbachev as the nation's new leader. Since support of the capital is mandatory to stabilize the regime, they believe that Moscow will be an initial beneficiary of Mr. Gorbachev's reforms, if these are successful. If this does not take place, the growing discontent of Muscovites will seriously influence the further political developments in the country.

Vladimir Shlapentokh is a professor in the Department of Community Health Science at Michigan State University.

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