SOVIET UNION. . . OH, . . . THE FORMER SOVIET
Compass (Fall 1992): 10-12.
(This is a slightly expanded version of the published article)
J. Clarke, an assistant professor of history at
Jacksonville University and an Executive Board member of the Southern
Conference on Slavic Studies, this past spring acted as local arrangements
chairman for the Thirtieth Annual Meeting of the SCSS
held at Jacksonville University. A prestigious organization and event, the SCSS includes many of America's top scholars interested in
Eastern Europe and the territories of the old Soviet Union.
These are times of momentous changes in Russia. The collapse of Lenin's brand of Marxism means that the onrushing twenty-first century will be remarkably different from our own times. But while the West sees changes in Russia as an end to its problems, the collapse of the Soviet command economy, the very model of twentieth-century totalitarian dictatorship, means only confusion and turmoil for Russia.
Last spring Jacksonville University hosted the Thirtieth Annual Meeting of the Southern Conference on Slavic Studies, the largest and most active regional affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. In a remarkable cross-fertilization of knowledge and insights, the conference brought together scholars with government, military, and business leaders from across not only the Southeast but the whole United States and foreign countries as well.
The meeting naturally focused on the collapse of Communism in "the Soviet Union. . . oh, . . . the former Soviet Union"—surely the most common heard phrase at the meeting. This year's gathering was particularly fascinating as the members of the SCSS tried to break old habits of speech and thought. Imagine the difficulties.
Planning for the meeting began in January 1991. Then there was a Soviet Union and a Mikhail Gorbachev determined to keep a moribund ideology alive. Now, no one quite knows what is there, much less what will be. But this is an exciting time full of possibilities and fraught with dangers. The meeting began to uncover these from the diverse perspectives our participants.
For years Western scholars had basked in the constancy and sterility of the "years of stagnation," as Russians themselves call it, under Leonid Brezhnev. Two of their jokes cruelly mock the limitations of his rule. In the first, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev are riding a train which stalls somewhere in the steppes. The train-riders naturally turn to Stalin, the senior leader. He quickly and surely commands: "Shoot the engineers. Exile the crew. Get someone new." The metaphorical train leaps forward. A short while later, however, it stalls again, and Khrushchev tries his hand. He pardons the exiled crew and returns them to their jobs. The train lurches forward but inevitably stalls once more. When the riders turn to Brezhnev, the dictator ponders for a moment and orders: "Pull down the shades and pretend we're moving."
The second anecdote likewise taunts the ignorant banality of Brezhnev's command economy, which was desperately and fruitlessly trying to catch up with the United States. While congratulating Soviet cosmonauts after a successful space flight, and aware that the Americans had landed on the moon, Brezhnev discloses that the USSR intends to do the USA one better: the Politburo had decided to send Soviet cosmonauts to the sun! One cosmonaut protests: "But comrade leader, we'll be burned alive." "Do you think we understand nothing?" Brezhnev replies. "Don't worry. We have planned every detail. We have arranged for you to land at night."
How different is life today in Russia! Everyone has to alter the lens through which to view America's former Cold War adversary.
For historians, political scientists, economists, sociologists, and military and intelligence officers new archives and other sources are opening up every day. Perhaps, even more important, for the first time there are opportunities to establish meaningful relationships with the movers and shakers in Russia. These increased possibilities to practice the conferee's sundry crafts were a frequent topic at the formal sessions as well as their informal conversations over coffee or even stronger refreshments as SCSS members reestablished friendships and working relationships. Such gatherings are essential to the growth, refinement, and spread of knowledge.
Generally these annual meetings are held at hotels away from the sponsoring school. It was decided to hold this one on JU's campus. Not only would this be cheaper during tight economic times when funding is hard to come by, but it would show off JU's students and give them an opportunity to experience at first-hand what scholars do.
Some of JU's women students particularly enjoyed one session provocatively entitled "Poets, Prophets, Prostitutes." They were intrigued by the very Russian and Orthodox idea of the "Whore-Saint." The notion is that when a woman, with no other way to feed her family resorts to prostitution, she becomes a "passion-sufferer," who, just as Christ did, sacrifices herself for the salvation of others. This idea provides a wonderful insight into the Russian soul.
Others students attended a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Economic Roundtable of Jacksonville, a group of high-powered local businessmen. The vigorous discussion featured James Millar, an internationally respected economist at George Washington University, Leonid Finker, a Russian businessman and founding-head of the community college system in Russia, George W. Robbins, president of Jacksonville-based SCM Glidco Organics, and an active audience of scholars and businessmen. Together, they thrashed out the problems and prospects of commercial dealings with the former Soviet Union. Although Jacksonville is well-poised to take advantage of whatever opportunities might arise, the general conclusion was that many problems, including non-convertibility of the ruble, transportation chaos, general economic dislocation, plus organized theft by Russian "mafias" make any dramatic increase in US-Russian trade in the immediate future quite unlikely.
Another critical challenge facing the foreign entrepreneur trying to take profits out of the former USSR concerns the economic attitudes of the average Russian citizen. He looks at the trade and economic development which create profits as inherently exploitative, something done by a "mafia," and he sees little difference between mafia extortion and capitalist "buying low and selling high." This attitude is only partly a response to seventy years of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist teachings. Rather, it strikes deeply to the heart of Russian culture which has always valued equality—even the equality of common poverty—as preferable to allowing the individual initiative which inevitably creates inequality.
An old story shows the point. A poor peasant prays hard for a better life and the Lord replies that He will grant the peasant any wish. The excited peasant sees all his dreams within his grasp . . . until the Lord warns, "Just remember, whatever you choose, I will do twice as much for your neighbor as I do for you." The peasant is stumped: he cannot bear to think of his neighbor being twice as well off, no matter how well he himself should become. Finally, he sees the solution. He tells God, "Take out one of my eyes."
Dr. Finker, ironically, reflected this mistrust of profits. A genuine progressive sincerely seeking the best for his country, he pleaded not only for material assistance from the West, but also for the knowledge of how capitalists on a day-to-day, practical level go about doing their business. But he warned the audience not to go to Russia merely to seek a profit paradise. Rather, he suggested, America's capitalists will be welcomed only if they first come to bestow long-term benefits to the population. For him, this is a normal and expected cost of doing business in the former USSR. Profits only then would follow.
This approach, of course, turns the ideas of Adam Smith, the founding father of capitalism, on their head. Capitalists assume that the search for profits guides the "invisible hand" which inevitably, however inadvertently, increases "the wealth of nations." The socialistic Saint Simonians of nineteenth-century France tried to put Finker-like ideas into practice in developing Eastern Europe. But they soon discovered that simple altruism does not produce long-term business success, the prerequisite for raising the material wealth of the people. It is hard to imagine that a Russia guided by these anti-capitalist attitudes will find much quick success in catching up to the West.
If an American businessman is to profit from the Russian market, he must understand Russian culture. The Economic Roundtable of Jacksonville also held its regular monthly luncheon to coincide with the SCSS meeting. Dr. Richard Stites, a renowned social historian at Georgetown University, spoke about recent cultural trends in Russia and suggested that it is culture which determines what markets want and how they will use what foreigners have to offer. Professor Stites emphasized that today's Russians are hungry for Western and especially American pop culture ranging from blue jeans, rock'n'roll, and Stephen King, to graphically violent movies and hardcore pornography. For Russia's conservatives, these borrowings reflect the cracking of the glue of tradition which has held the old Russian society together.
As in America, this cultural flood has divided the generations. Parents fear the corruption of the global pop culture on their children. Even Stalin had failed at the totalitarian barricades. He, for example, tried in a vain to keep jazz out of his country by confiscating all saxophones. For his efforts he reaped only more jazz. How much more difficult it is today to maintain the purity of Russian culture. Americans can empathize with those who fear the implications of the enthusiastic receptions given to howling rock bands that throw meat at their audience and urinate on their fans.
Tatyana Tolstaya, the keynote speaker at the annual banquet of the SCSS, continued this discussion of the cultural trauma afflicting Russia. The great grandniece of Leo Tolstoy and a relative of Alexei Tolstoy, the famous Soviet author, Ms. Tolstaya is herself an internationally noted author of short stories. She has been a writer-in-residence at the University of Richmond, and this past year she taught at Goucher College in Baltimore. Next year she will be teaching at Princeton University after which she will probably return to Russia.
In her address, Ms. Tolstaya argued that Russians do not have any clear idea of where Russia is or is heading, and literature reflects this confusion. Artists and writers have not yet defined a new identity for Russia and her peoples. No one in either politics or culture knows where to begin or, more importantly, where to stop. She maintained that the task now is not literature but journalism—to try to make sense of where Russia may go from here and how the political and economic changes will transform society. She predicted that soon literature will catch up—just as soon as the political situation stabilizes. Literature needs time to provide the perspective to understand what has and is happening to the nation.
Ms. Tolstaya finally confessed some ambivalence. With the overthrow of Communism, she said, Russians at first had naively congratulated one another. Now they realize that all may not work out as smoothly and as happily as they had assumed. Russians are discovering, and Americans would agree, at least once reminded, that freedom, democracy, and even economic vitality are goals never achieved except in the constant and difficult striving after them. They are a process, not an end.
Present pain, in fact, is very great. Not everyone in Russia is happy with reform. Many conservatives, who may or may not be dedicated to Communism per se, long to restore the strict discipline, aggressive nationalism, and even the unabashed imperialism of yesteryear.
One evening at the Holiday Inn where the majority of our conferees stayed, many watched the recent Russian film, Sideburns. A sort of battle of the bands with the Communist Party for the hearts and minds of Russia's youth, the movie satirized the cultural depravity of many Western-oriented youth. But is also savaged those who wish to return to the old ways of coercive violence by a self-appointed elite determined to lead the recalcitrant masses where they supposedly would want to go if only they understood their own best interests. This movie, which would have been impossible to conceive of, much less produce, in the days before perestroika, is quite bizarre and suggests how far Russians have come since the vacuous, halcyon days of Stalin's Socialist Realism.
The Thirtieth Annual Meeting of the SCSS was happy to draw upon Jacksonville's surprisingly large Russian community, made up of many Jewish émigrés plus evangelical Protestants and Russian Orthodox who have fled first the religious and ethnic intolerance of the old Soviet Union and now the economic catastrophe of the new Russia. The Mark Spivak Dancers entertained the SCSS with Russian folk dances at the reception before the main banquet. The more recently arrived Gregory Yatskar presented some of his visual art. Mr. Yatskar's story reflects the frustrations which have tortured the most vital elements of the old Soviet intelligentsia. He has written:
If you need to characterize me as an artist, you may write that, to 1966, when I was graduated from the art college, the official art in the late Soviet Union already had become absolutely corrupted. The artists had to give bribes to get contracts from the government or even to join the State Union of Artists, the only organization which could provide contracts and access to artistic supplies. The head of the local Union of Artists in the town where I lived was a retired army general, who had never held a brush in his hand. The only way to gain independence was to choose another field for making my living. So I was graduated from the Moscow Physical Technical Institute and for many years earned my daily bread as a researcher in physics.
But there was an underground education, too. I had gotten the possibility to attend an underground studio in a Moscow suburb, where some of the rebellious Russian artists taught students in secret.
Mr. Yatskar also read poetry and sang Russian Orthodox liturgical hymns, and then he and two members of Russia's underground Baptist church sang religious hymns. The Communist regime had persecuted and imprisoned these Believers and had put them into the Gulag—the Soviet labor camp system. Thus isolated into small congregations, these faithful had to create their own texts for their services. Their hymns, as Mr. Yatskar explained, bear "the true fervor of oppressed spirituality." Jacksonville is dramatically richer for the influx of this intellectual, artistic, and moral fervor.
Jacksonville has other contacts with Russia. Her energetic Sister Cities organization has established a close relationship with Murmansk on the Barents Sea. Blessed by the Gulf Stream, Murmansk is a warm water port and played a dramatic role in funneling America's Lend Lease Aid to Russia during World War II. Today, Jacksonville is sending medical supplies and other assistance to help her sister to the North survive the current economic disaster threatening the old Soviet Union. Dr. Duane Dumbleton, who heads Jacksonville's Sister Cities, put together a roundtable discussion on the tight relationship between the two Sister Cities.
Next year Georgia State University will host the SCSS meeting in Atlanta. Who knows what Russia will be like then? But one thing is sure, the members of the SCSS left Jacksonville with warm feelings toward the University and the city.