Restoring charity to Soviet life. Writer calls on grass-roots action to revive moral dimension

Charity is slowly returning to Soviet society, says Daniil Granin. A leading Soviet writer, Mr. Granin has recently helped found a volunteer group known simply as Miloserdie - charity.

Charity as a concept presented serious political problems to previous Soviet leaders, he said in a recent interview.

It presupposes unhappiness, and until recently, he said, ``it was indecent to speak of unhappiness in the same breath as the Soviet Union. The Soviet man was, after all, the happiest in the world. To imply that he could be unhappy was disloyal.''

So ``the whole idea of charity was forgotten,'' he says. ``Far from being encouraged, it was driven out of our life.''

Granin, born in 1918, is one of the Soviet Union's best-known writers. His most recently published book dealt with the real-life story of Nikolai Timofeyev-Resovsky, a Soviet scientist who stayed in Germany throughout World War II.

Sitting in his small apartment on a quiet Leningrad street, Granin speaks quietly and with a touch of wryness.

His views, however, put him on the radical edge of the spectrum of Soviet reform politics. And Miloserdie is a direct offshoot of reform - a response to what many Soviets view as the dehumanization of their society.

``People have simply become tired of the coarseness and indifference of daily life. They want to improve its moral quality,'' he says.

This is difficult. ``It's easy to spoil a society or a person, but it's much harder to correct it. It's like trying to restore the ecology,'' he says.

Miloserdie's members include students, medical workers, teachers, and orthodox christians. They work in old people's and children's homes, with invalids, or with potential suicides. There are about 70 groups, Granin says, ranging in size from 15 to a couple of hundred members.

Compassion and independent social action are lost dimensions that have to be restored to Soviet society, Granin feels. Charity, he says, disappeared with the onset of Stalinism.

``In the early years of Soviet power, the idea of charity was acceptable,'' he says. ``Then in the '30s it was not allowed to help people in the [labor] camps, the children of dispossessed peasants. Sympathy for these people was not encouraged'' by the regime.

``The theory and practice of charity was driven out of our lives and our literature,'' he said. ``It was replaced by indifference and callousness.''

It reappeared briefly during World War II. During Leningrad's 2-year blockade, a group of young women worked with the hungry. About 12 years ago Leningrad schoolchildren sought out the women, then old and themselves in need of care, and began to visit them. This was one of the forerunners of Miloserdie.

In its early days Miloserdie had problems with the authorities. Leningrad health officials, for example, did not want to let volunteers into hospitals. They were afraid that the groups were planning to investigate and complain about conditions.

``They didn't understand that it might be possible to voluntarily offer one's help,'' he said.

Miloserdie is not Granin's only activity. He is impatient at the slow pace of reform, and speaks with regret of the ``illusions'' of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Asked what he means by this, he says that ``impatience can be dangerous. But so can patience. The danger of patience is more serious.''

Officials have had three years to show how they feel about reforms, he says. It's already clear who is willing to help and who is not.

Granin is skeptical about the political impact of the written word.

You cannot just rely on hard-hitting articles in the press to achieve reform, he says. You need grass-roots action. The present reforms have to be defended.

One way of doing this is by organizing a popular front, he says.

The front plans, through mass actions, grass-roots activism, and the fielding of its own candidates in elections, to oppose official candidates whom it considers hostile to reform.

Nonformal political groups in Leningrad are already trying to organize a front. Granin professes some vagueness about the groups' plans. But activists in the city clearly look for support to him and to Dmitri Likhachev - the grand old man of Soviet letters, and someone often said to be close to the wife of the Soviet leader, Raisa Gorbachev.

Changing the moral climate of Soviet society cannot be separated from political reform, Granin says.

Ethical attitudes cannot be improved unless one addresses fundamental issues like social justice, he adds. This means things like the privileges that come with work in the government or party structure.

``It's not just the cars and drivers, or the special rations. It's the feeling that comes with all this that there are first- and second-class citizens.''

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