Searching the Soviet Soul

Do Russians really prefer universal poverty to unequal wealth?

On the first night of a month-long stay in Moscow last September, I flipped on the TV right in the middle of a special on “Enterprise in the USSR.” A young man interviewed on the street was saying, “We were taught for 70 years that an entrepreneur is an exploiter, a grabber. Actually, enterprise is not even motivated by the desire to get rich but by the desire to leave one’s mark on the world.” A man in his 40s, standing in front of Moscow’s famous McDonald’s, offered this view: “We have always been told that capitalists were bad, but now we can see that they prosper themselves and help the rest of us.”

Where were the Russians we always hear about? You know, the ones who prefer universal poverty to unequal wealth and want not to catch up with a more successful neighbor but to burn his house down? The ones who opt for the squalor of security over the rewards of risk-taking and favor communism for its social guarantees? Of course, the selection of responses in the documentary was probably somewhat tendentious, but it seemed that the camera crew did not have a very hard time getting pro-free-market comments.

Still, the belief that Russians are not taking well to market-oriented change has become something of an axiom. To explain this by inherent genetic traits would smack of racism (even if it’s not the kind that brings a knock on the door by the sensitivity police), but cultural heritage coupled with decades of communist indoctrination will do just fine.

“For great masses of Soviet people,” writes Hedrick Smithin his best-selling The New Russians (published in late 1990), “capitalism is still a dirty word, and the fact that someone earns more, gets more, is a violation of the egalitarian ideal of socialism.” Besides ideology, “this hostility toward those who rise above the herd reflects the collective ethic of the obshchina,” the village commune which, in czarist times, apportioned equal strips of land to peasant households, made most farming decisions, and frowned at “anyone who tried to advance beyond his peers.”

In this neat scheme, large parts of Russian history disappear into the memory hole. Smith does mention that the commune system was deliberately fostered by the czarist regime as a supposed bulwark of stability. What he does not say is that in 1906, when violent peasant rebellions had proved this belief quite wrong, Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin launched an ambitious land-reform program enabling households to withdraw from the commune and claim their plots as private property. Leo Tolstoy wrote to Stolypin denouncing the measure as evil, but many peasants apparently felt otherwise: By 1915 (when the Stolypin reform became a casualty of World War I), up to 50 percent had title to their land.

Smith also forgets that through most of the 192Os, after the specter of famine and revolt had forced the Communists to retreat from their hard-line ideological stance, nearly all Russian peasants worked as individual proprietors. They did so well that, in the 1930s, eliminating those who had grown too indecently prosperous and persuading the rest to join collective farms proved an arduous job that cost millions of lives.

The view offered by Smith is more than just a Western misconception. For the ultra-right Russian nationalists, it is an article of faith that Russians are not interested in material things, only in higher spiritual ones—presumably such as killing the Jews. (“The Russian is no money-grubber, no American,” emoted one such “patriot” at a spring 1990 press conference. He’d be chagrined to learn that when Soviets were asked in a recent poll what lifestyle appealed to them most, 65 percent said “American.”)

But liberal Soviet intellectuals echo the same themes, often—perhaps unwittingly—romanticizing the very traits they wish to deplore. In the April 11 New York Review of Books, the prominent writer Tatyana Tolstaya argues that Russia, unlike the West, has always elevated emotion over reason: “How many scornful pages have great Russian writers dedicated to Western pragmatism, materialism, rationalism? They mocked the English with their machines, the Germans with their order and precision, the French with their logic, and finally the Americans with their love of money. As a result, in Russia we have neither machines, nor order, nor logic, nor money.” It’s a nice point, but Tolstaya overlooks the fact that great Western writers have not been far behind their Russian brethren in bashing Western materialism, rationalism, and technology.

There is also the tenacious notion that Soviet people are used to having the state provide, if meagerly, for their basic needs and to having it relieve them from the trouble of fending for themselves. Widespread among Western pundits—including many conservatives, who seem to see the Soviet Union as something of a bigger, poorer, nastier Sweden—this idea is also surprisingly popular among Soviet reformers and radicals, who ought to know better.

Irina Ratushinakaya, a poet and former political prisoner who emigrated in 1986, is much closer to the truth when she writes in her 1991 memoir, In the Beginning: “If you are what our radio hails as ‘an ordinary Soviet citizen’ and have no access to special shops for the privileged will have learned from your childhood that you must fend for yourself, expect nothing from the state, and hope that the authorities will leave you alone.”

While a Soviet citizen may have been provided with work, medical care, and cheap housing (though with glasnost have come shocking disclosures about homelessness and unemployment), the quality of these “benefits” was, in too many cases, not just low but unbearable: A family of five might be crowded into a damp, drafty room the size of an American prison cell. If you wanted or needed something better than what you had, you could either pester the authorities or trade with someone else for their space; either way, you had to scramble and scheme for even the basics.

A middle-aged Soviet émigré once told me about a threeway apartment exchange her family had arranged to move from a communal apartment to a separate one. It sounded as complicated as a leveraged buyout and remained confusing even after she drew a chart to illustrate the deal. At no time in the history of the Soviet state were ordinary people relieved from the necessity of scrambling and scheming and foraging for clothes, furniture—even food beyond a few basic staples. A few years ago, a Muscovite shown on ABC News remarked that Soviet life was “like a chess game” where you always had to think about the next move.

Add to this the fact that most people from all walks of life have always dabbled in the “shadow economy,” inventing the most unlikely ways of making money. Burned-out light bulbs are sold so that people can quietly pocket a good light bulb at the workplace and replace it with the burned-out one. When the government issues an idiotic decree taking 100 and 50 ruble notes out of circulation, permitting only a limited amount of money to be exchanged for smaller bills, people quickly devise ways to get around that, such as buying railway tickets, which can be returned later for at least a partial refund.

When all is said and done, survival in Soviet society, even in the relatively “prosperous” 196Os, required far more energy and ingenuity than in any Western country. Meanwhile, the economy kept slipping, for the simple reason that all of this energy and ingenuity were applied to essentially nonproductive pursuits not to making the pie bigger but to securing a slice of it.

This sort of “self-reliance” may, not prepare people very well for the transition to a market economy. Over the years, Russians have developed specific survival skills required under socialism; many have even come to take satisfaction in their talent at beating the system. But a market economy requires a whole new set of skills. In many cases, economic reform has already disrupted the arrangements people had carefully devised for themselves over the years. On the other hand, Soviet émigrés have proven quite capable of fending for themselves once in the West; perhaps the central survival skill that people develop under communism is adaptability.

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