On a cold slushy Christmas Eve, several Soviet businessmen gathered under the chairmanship of a former nuclear submarine commander to discuss the restoration of private enterprise in their country. It was a mixed group - a would-be private farmer from Lithuania, former blue-collar workers from Siberia, a retired ambassador, a lawyer, and several former military officers. The setting for the meeting was the high-rise Institute of Economics, whose director, Leonid Abalkin, has been a prominent advocate of reform, and a frequent critic of the slowness with which it is being carried out.
Several speakers were so tongue-tied they could barely speak; others were fluent and polished. But one speaker seemed to catch the mood of the gathering, drawing warm applause with his definition of the two dominant features of Soviet life: ``fear and indigence.''
The hundred and some participants were discussing the electoral program of the ``Rossiya'' association of cooperatives. The organization claims a nationwide membership of cooperative workers - the country's fledgling entrepreneurs - and plans to field candidates in the Supreme Soviet (parliament) elections scheduled to be held in March. It has, however, already lost one round in the bureaucratic battle for permission to have its own slate.
In the long term the group sees itself playing the role of a Soviet Solidarity (the outlawed, but powerful, trade union in Poland), says Viktor Korchagin, the association's president. Mr. Korchagin says he served a term in labor camps before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power for advocating something much more moderate than the Soviet leader's reforms.
The association has been given permission to publish its own weekly newspaper, Delo (which translates either as ``business'' or ``cause''), Korchagin says.
The group here was discussing a program that owed more to British leader Margaret Thatcher than to Karl Marx. Private property must be reinstated in the Soviet Union, said Point 1 of the manifesto: ``The land must belong to those who work it!''
Market forces, not state committees, must determine prices, the group said. Government bodies like the state Price Committee should be abolished; so should many ministries. And most enterprises should be handed over to the workers. Defense spending and the military itself should be cut back, with conscription gradually phased out. Women who chose to remain at home with their children should be paid a minimum of 200 rubles a month.
Some speakers, apparently a minority, castigated the program as totally unrealistic. Others wanted a more clearly defined political focus.
But some expressed a very Soviet form of class hatred - resentment by workers toward bureaucrats. A rough-hewn cooperative organizer from the western Soviet city of Bryansk got up to attack the comments of a previous speaker, retired ambassador Viktor Beletsky. ``Why does Beletsky try to talk about something he doesn't know - workers,'' the man asked.
The speaker felt that Ambassador Beletsky had idealized the position of the Soviet worker. ``He should try bringing up a family on a wage of 200 to 300 rubles a month [$320 to $480].''
Other delegates referred to the public resentment directed against them. We are a little different from most people, said a speaker from the Siberian town of Tomsk. The balance of political forces in this country does not favor us. A large part of the population is not on our side. (There are frequent complaints of high prices charged by cooperative restaurants, and occasional complaints of physical attacks on cooperative businesses). But, another speaker charged, a lot of this is because party bureaucrats provoke the population against us.
One of the association's new executives, retired Lt. Col. Yuri Zakharov, concentrated on military matters. During the Brezhnev years (1964-82) our involvement in the arms race took its toll on our light industry and agriculture, he said. He praised Mr. Gorbachev's recent announcement of a 500,000-man cut in the armed forces, but warned that the plan could strengthen the main enemy of reform: the bureaucracy.
Not all the officers who are laid off will go into factories or ``our long-suffering countryside'' to work, Colonel Zakharov predicted. Many will become bureaucrats. And once they discover the joys of office life ``they'll dig in so tight you'll never dislodge them.'' The one solution, he said, was to try to draw them into the cooperative sector.