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- April 06, 1987
- Vol. 27
- No. 14
Across a Land of Power and Poetry
Who Are the 280 Million Men, Women and Children from the Baltic to the Pacific Who Form the Soviet Union?
In an attempt to better understand the people who live under the hammer and sickle, we were embarking on what proved to be a marathon journey through the largest country on earth. Our goal was to report on Soviets the same way that PEOPLE reports on Americans. We decided at the start that we would not tread on ground already heavily traveled by the Western press. We would attend neither the ballet nor the circus. We would eschew international politics. And though we were sensitive to their plight, we would not search out refuseniks or dissidents. We would instead look into everyday life, visit the Russians where they live.
The competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. invites constant comparison, making the Soviet Union a kind of distorting mirror for Americans, reflecting a world that in many ways is the reverse of our own. Our societies claim many of the same ideals—justice, equality, even democracy—but the same words there seem to mean the opposite of what they mean here. When the Soviets purport to show us their true face, we suspect the mirror of tricking us. And yet the sense of recognition persists—along with the itch to know: What are the Russians really like?
As long as the Soviet Union remains a closed society (which could be forever), that question will be difficult to answer. No Westerner, let alone a journalist, is allowed to travel freely there. Our trip, approved about 1½ years after application, no doubt as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev's embryonic reforms, was organized under the sponsorship of the state-controlled Novosti Press Agency (APN), a cross between an official wire service and a government public relations agency. We began our first day visiting Novosti's headquarters to review our interview requests. To our surprise, most were approved. Others were not. We did not, for instance, get to see Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of one of the world's most widely used rifles, the AK-47. And, despite repeated promises to the contrary, we were never allowed to speak with any worker involved in the Chernobyl disaster.
Yet, with APN's watchful assistance, we were able to interview and photograph scores of Soviets. We watched them at work and at leisure, ate with them and visited their homes. At first we feared that we might be taken only to "Potemkin villages," attractive false fronts concealing a less attractive reality. (The Russians, past masters at concealment, even have a name for it—pokazuka, "making a show.") We were not so deceived, though an occasional attempt was made. When we asked to interview a Moscow bus driver, for example, we were taken to four men in immaculate suits and ties sitting in front of a gleaming bus. We kept straight faces and so did the most distinguished-looking bus drivers in the U.S.S.R.
We were aware that we were being shown some of the best the Soviet Union has to offer. But even the Soviet best is more than Americans usually get to see up close, and if you know the best you can judge the rest. Though we visited many homes, for instance, we never saw a communal apartment. Some 20 percent of all Soviets reportedly still live that way. (TIME magazine correspondent Nancy Traver, however, had visited one. See story, page 51.)
Our Novosti guide, Aleksandr Grigoriev, 33, was with us nearly every step of the way, and he became a hardworking friend, though we acted on the assumption that part of his duty was to report on our activities. A member of the Communist Party (like only six percent of his countrymen), he defended his system strongly.
Despite the limitations on our contact with these Soviet men, women and children, their rich and varied personalities came through more often than not. Our interview questions were never screened in advance, and in our spare time we were free to wander, visit shops, movies and theaters and speak with whomever we wished.
In Moscow, we reported mainly on those in the arts, all of whom seem to know and dislike each other. Perhaps dislike is too strong a word, but we were amused to find that these writers, filmmakers, musicians, painters and actors are as catty—and as charming—as any Hollywood or New York coterie. They are wealthy by Soviet standards. Yet what passes for a luxury apartment building in Moscow often resembles one of our housing projects. And while they may give each other the back of their hands, some give a hand to artists whose work has been suppressed by the political establishment. Cultural life in the U.S.S.R. is intense, dramatic and precious.
Famous Soviets, moreover, unlike many Hollywood celebrities, are not created by publicity machines. When asked about movie actors, for example, Russians can name a host of talents, but no "stars." As with so many other activities, the arts are pervaded by a group ethic. While some of this "socialist outlook" is mere posturing, it also reflects the Soviet conviction that art should serve the social good.
Such communal values color the attitudes of all Russians and are profoundly embedded in their culture. Americans often think of all Russians as potential dissidents, simmering with righteous rebellion against the Kremlin. In fact, support for the system and pride in its successes is widespread and deeply ingrained. Many times Russians told us how much they were like Americans—an open-hearted, generous, impetuous and blunt people. Well, they are and we are, but we were more impressed by our differences. Where we value individualism, they value conformity. Where we value independence, they value control. Where we value novelty, they value tradition.
At one Pioneer Palace, a kind of Communist "Y" for children, we had a spirited discussion with junior high schoolers about press freedom. When we criticized their state's control of the media, one girl burst out, "Are you suggesting that our government acts as a censor?" We said we were more than suggesting it. She replied, "You're wrong. We can print anything we want—except, of course, something that undermines public morality." In that one exception, to our minds, is a world of repression; to theirs, a world of harmony.
There are historical, geographical and psychological reasons for the Soviet obsession with control. Their country stretches across 11 time zones, includes 15 republics and scores of ethnic groups. Despite a millenium of dictatorial rule, the possibility of centrifugal disintegration is strongly felt and real. Example: One night in Tallinn we had a highly charged chance meeting with an Estonian youth. Estonia, except for a flicker of independence between this century's world wars, has been dominated by Russia for 300 years. Yet this teenager seethed with nationalist fervor. We were in public and had to keep our voices down. "I am Estonian boy," he hissed in broken English. He took rubles out of his pocket and spit on them. He refused to speak Russian. "It hurts me here," he whispered, clutching his throat.
We see their control of border states as repression—they as a necessary buffer against war and invasion, tragedies that for Russians are a national theme. Time and again throughout history invading armies and ruthless rulers have inflicted death and suffering on them. Every person we met on our trip had lost a family member in World War II. Twenty million Soviets died, more than a tenth of the population at that time. Everywhere we found a longing for peace as real as their terror of nuclear war—a fear fanned by a state that relentlessly portrays the U.S. as a threatening nation. In the Soviet Union, the word mir (peace) is on everyone's lips—as well as on thousands of buildings and posters in 50-foot letters. If the Soviets want peace, we would ask, why are there no demonstrations against their government's own nuclear weapons. They looked at us as if we were idiots. Why, the U.S.S.R.'s official policy is one of peace. How could they demonstrate against a policy of peace? The antinuclear demonstrations in the West only show that the people want peace but their governments want war. If America wants peace, why does it allow people to advocate (Rambo was mentioned) war? We achieved no meeting of the minds in that land of superpatriots. Though the tremors of Afghanistan have been felt by many (we met both drunken veterans relieved to be home and drunken conscripts fearful of going), they have not shaken Soviets' faith in the Motherland. As Americans love their freedoms, the Russians love their country.
Nowhere is the beauty of that country so powerful as in Siberia. The flight from Moscow to Yakutsk in eastern Siberia takes as long as the flight from Moscow to New York. The land's grandeur is harsh. About two seconds after landing you first hear about "permafrost," permanently frozen ground, in some places thousands of feet deep, that covers almost 50 percent of the Soviet Union. Doors and windows are three layers thick to keep out the cold in Yakutsk, which by November looks like the inside of a freezer. Once the temperature drops below—40°F, as it did while we were there, a fog of ice crystals shrouds the city. Below —58°F, first and second graders are allowed to skip school. It has hit —84°F. Trucks are kept running all winter. Russians who come to the North are apt to quote Jack London and have a pioneer boosterism and an easygoing friendliness.
Everywhere we traveled in the Soviet Union, we found people of warmth and humor. As a group, they are suspicious of foreigners, especially Americans, but individually they were intrigued and welcoming. Living in a system that has enforced conformity for so long, the Russians lack our fertile and vibrant public life. Their response has been to cultivate their inner lives and to raise friendship above almost all other personal values. Far from being mute and faceless masses, they are people of complex character and deep spiritual resources.
The familiar crimes and failures of the system, however, have too often defeated the best in the people. Lately, the news from the U.S.S.R.—a few dissidents released, experiments in economic freedom (on May 1 some small, private businesses will be legalized), proposals for contested Party elections—has been hopeful. It is too soon to predict where these changes will lead, but the prospects for better relations between the superpowers seem to improve daily. To that end, we believe there is much in the following pages to reflect upon. Perhaps, by looking into the mirror of the Soviet Union, we Americans can see ourselves—and our strengths—more clearly.
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