AMERICAN commentators seem unable to escape their ethnocentric assumptions when analyzing reform in the Soviet Union. For example, they view the lack of consumer goods in the USSR only from the perspective of being behind an American supermarket shopping cart. Projecting the anger and frustration of an American shopper onto a Soviet counterpart prevents discovery of the ingenuity, patience, and - sadly - resignation characteristic of Soviet consumers. This isn't to suggest that lack of consumer goods is not a major problem for Mikhail Gorbachev, but to question the ability of Americans to grasp what it means in the long and short term. Bread riots are not imminent. Soviets are not Americans.
Next to cherishing our consumer conveniences, we Americans embrace social tranquillity. Our society operates on the ``consensus model,'' with an assumption that the normal state of society should be harmonious. Social conflict, demonstrations, violence, and confrontation seem unnatural and destructive. The 1960s increased tolerance toward some forms of protest, but the assumption still remains that political life should be rational and orderly. In stark contrast to this view (born of 200 years of generally affluent democracy), is the reality of political life in Russia.
The USSR has been growing more confrontational. Demonstrations are getting bigger. Violence on a limited scale is becoming a bit routine. The high-visibility stories about political confrontation in the USSR make dramatic newsclips for American TV.
In the process, however, we are missing the quiet, less dramatic but more significant daily political developments across the USSR. Away from the much publicized conflicts and confrontations that fill our news reports from the USSR, thousands of Soviet citizens are emerging with practical experience in grass-roots democracy - a fact too rarely reported. Members of unofficial and quasi-official movements strike compromises, demonstrating a cautious realism informed by a long history of repression. They solve local problems. Local leaders are developing a well deserved sense of political efficacy, rooted in actual achievements.
Nowhere is this development more evident than in the environmental movements across the USSR. The results are impressive. For example, problems with contaminated milk in 1988 in Lithuania prompted a widespread consumer milk boycott organized by the Lithuanian Green movement. Milk consumption dropped 40 percent in a society where milk is one of the few cheap, available commodities. Officials responded by providing a special protected milk supply for children.
In Estonia, Green movement leaders protested a polluting phosphate operation's plans to expand. As a result, plans for expansion have been shelved, and the most polluting part of the plant has been shut down. One of the organizers of the protest has been given government funds to create an alternative plan for converting the region into a tourism and clean-industry zone.
As in the United States, where environmental concerns are recruiting new segments of the population into politics, environmental concerns in the USSR have propelled a broad segment of the population into political involvement. In the USSR, which has no established party system outside of the Communist Party monopoly, environmentalists are moving swiftly into positions of regional and national power, while their American counterparts are obstructed by preexisting political groups.
A grass-roots environmental leader I visited in January was a successful candidate to the Supreme Soviet four months later. Environmentalism has attracted many of the best young Soviet scientists into political involvement. They bring with them a bold insistence upon factual support for policies and a faith in their own ability to reason, even with an opponent.
Environmentalism may well be the silent and hidden training ground for a generation of new Soviet leaders. Amid the food shortages and the raging emotions of mass demonstrations, Green leaders are demonstrating a remarkable ability to place the long-term common good above their immediate material gratification - and even above consumerism.