Over There: Back in the USSR


After discussing politics and human rights openly for four hours in a Moscow apartment, a group of American journalists and their Russian-dissident hosts strolled through Pushkin Park. As they crossed a small residential street, a Soviet militia vehicle slowed down and let the eight pedestrians go past. The police car rolled forward a bit, then stalled completely. As the Americans and their new friends walked to a restaurant for dinner, they could hear gears grinding loudly a block away as the Soviet cops tried to restart their engine.

Glasnost proceeds apace, with the scope of permissible public discourse and political activity expanding daily. However, glasnost's reformist sibling, perestroika, seems stalled in the starting gate. Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign to restructure Soviet society and the Soviet economy has so far demonstrated few tangible results. As a contemporary Russian proverb says, the old dog's leash has been lengthened and it can bark as loudly as it wants, but its dinner dish has been moved farther away.

Beyond police cars with faulty transmissions, the USSR suffers from disrepair, poor hygiene, and a dearth of consumer goods. While there was a bit of good news to be found in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tallinn, Estonia, Gorbachev's experiment appears to have produced few tangible improvements in the Soviet economy.

Poor maintenance has left much of Moscow and Leningrad begging for scaffolding. Many buildings could use the skills of a team of plasterers and painters. The Cosmos Hotel, one of Moscow's best tourist establishments, boasts torn leather furniture in the lobby, peeling paneling in guest rooms, and threadbare carpeting throughout.

At the official Novosti Press Agency in central Moscow the men's bathroom just off the main lobby comes equipped with three commodes, all lacking toilet seats. None of the stalls has toilet paper. One of them does have torn-up newspaper and old office documents for the same purpose.

A common sight on busy Soviet streets are the gazirovannya voda machines. They are akin to American water fountains but dispense mineral water for a few kopecks per customer. Each machine is equipped with one glass from which all patrons drink. The glasses are said to be changed nightly.

The lines in which Soviets stand day and night are a grim and ubiquitous reality of daily life in the USSR. Thirty people were lined up in Moscow waiting to buy coffee one morning. At the massive GUM Department Store, about 40 women queued up to buy purses and other goods at a leather shop. Just a block from Red Square; 88 Soviets lined up to buy single cones of vanilla ice cream. Interestingly enough, they left the small stand gleefully looking as if their scoops had been sprinkled with solid gold nuggets.

In a sense, the lines are not so bad. They at least indicate that something is available. Often, basic items vanish entirely. "In April there was no toothpaste," an Intourist guide announced at lunch. During the same meal, a curly-haired waitress came by and explained, "Excuse. No cream today." Coffee and tea would have to be consumed black.

It is popular in the USSR to give small presents when meeting people. These days, a gift of a small hotel-style bar of soap is highly appreciated. Like sugar, bath soap is now rationed in Leningrad.

Soviet grocery stores reflect this same level of scarcity. The Gastronom food store at 180 Prospekt Mira (or Peace Street) reeked of stale fish when I visited it one Saturday afternoon. The shelves contained about 100 identical containers of canned fish, seven huge wheels of cheese, some milk, about four dozen eggs, dried sardines, and a produce section that contained only cabbage, cauliflower, a few evaporated tomatoes, and a basket of small, dry apricots. Several display cases were entirely empty. The liquor section was well stocked but had few customers. The candy section had a wide variety and was swarmed, with about 20 people vying to have their orders filled.

For tourists, the Soviet Union offers very little in the way of souvenir spoils. The official beriozka stores sell vodka, caviar, lacquer boxes, and brightly colored dolls within dolls. On the streets, black marketeers sell lapel pins, military watches and T-shirts that say "Pepsi Cola" in Russian. But even the shirts are made in Peru.

Despite the dismal state of the Soviet economy, the growing cooperative movement provides a measure of encouragement. Gorbachev has permitted private businesses, or cooperatives, to function so long as they first register with the government. Entrepreneurs have established several private restaurants and retail establishments. And there has even been some talk of several cooperatives banding together to create a private bank, but apparently this initiative has encountered serious opposition from Soviet authorities.

Pizza Express, a cooperative restaurant in Leningrad, serves unusually tasty meals of pasta, steak, salads, and pizza. Its attractive menu in English, Finnish, and Russian announces, "Your call—our delivery!" For 2.90 rubles, it will deliver anywhere in Leningrad. The restaurant takes only hard currency and credit cards but offers a clean, cozy environment, air conditioning, and rock music—rarities in Leningrad.

But cooperatives face serious problems. Since they operate outside of socialist economic tenets and set their prices according to supply and demand, meals in cooperative restaurants and the goods sold by cooperative stores are often outside the budgets of many Soviet citizens. At the same time, they buy food and other supplies to which common Soviets would otherwise have access. The result is that many Soviets regard the cooperatives with contempt and resentment rather than admiration.

The cooperatives have also fallen victim to a disturbing phenomenon that has recently surfaced in the USSR. A "Mafia" has emerged that preys on these new businesspeople, charging them protection money and smashing the windows, crushing the limbs, and bombing the shops of those who don't cooperate. One manager complained to the Soviet magazine Ogonyok, "The dream of an honest private business has died. If I had known what this was going to be like before I started, I never would have gotten into it. Now I have to fear for my wife and my child and my business."

Soviet citizens seem to have mixed feelings about perestroika's chances for success. "I have no hope for the future," says Felix, a dining car attendant on a Soviet train to Leningrad. "This is a big country. This is a great country. But now it is asleep. People are drunk."

Felix's inventory in the snack car consists of slightly cooled Pepsis and big Kern's-style glass jars of green peas. "I make 200 rubles a month," he says. "That's nothing. If I work hard, I make 200 rubles. If someone else works bad, he makes 200 rubles. So why should I work hard?" Felix looks around at the two items he has for sale and says, "If this were mine, I would work hard and these shelves would be full of food. But it's all the government's."

Felix seems to draw encouragement from two pictures of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger taped inside a display case. "That's hard work!" he says in admiration. The tattoo on his arm, which reads, in English, "In God We Trust," alludes to a less earthy source of inspiration.

"You can't look at any socialist country that works," Felix declares with authority. "We had our revolution 70 years ago, but there are not products. What do we work for?" Felix asks. "We just work for the heavens," he says, his arms pointing skyward.

Felix looks me straight in the eye and says, "If I had a guarantee of a job and could bring my family, I would leave without sorrow."

Andrew, a Leningrad pediatrician, sees that things have gone wrong in his country, but does not display the same sense of despair that Felix does. Over dinner at the Pizza Express he carefully explains problems in Soviet medicine. He discusses intellectual life and his reflections on America which he visited for the first time last summer. He says, "The Soviet economy is based on false premises—that collective ownership works." He regards private property as one of the keystones needed to rebuild Soviet society.

Andrew is the kind of person Gorbachev needs to make perestoika work. Young, idealistic, professional, and sympathetic to the free market as the road to a national renaissance, Andrew is a man who could inspire others to make the sacrifices and innovations necessary to craft for Soviet society the new engines it needs to function.

But Mikhail Gorbachev will have to do all of this without his help. Andrew and his family moved to America on Labor Day.

Deroy Murdock, a New York advertising executive and freelance writer, traveled to the Soviet Union in August 1989 on a trip organized by the World Media Association.