Soviet Voices : Changes Bring Both Hope, Fear

Soviet Voices : Changes Bring Both Hope, Fear
November 1, 1987
November 1987
Moscow, Soviet Union
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A visitor to the Soviet Union these days finds a myriad of voices and images that reflect the headiness of change, the thrill of hope and the fear of failure.

The angry, elderly man, a black cap snug on his silvery hair, stared at the painting on a stand in Moscow’s Izmailova Park on a recent Sunday morning and demanded that the artist pull it down. “This is not art,” the elderly man said.

The commotion prompted onlookers to crowd around the critic. They laughed at him, jeered at him, thrust their fingers at him to make their point. “Who the hell are you?” someone demanded. The elderly man finally gave up and stormed off.

Glasnost the Key

Anatoly A. A., the artist, a 43-year-old interior decorator, grinned and said a single word: “Glasnost. " That Russian word, which is usually defined as openness, has become one of the symbols of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s program to transform the Soviet Union and rid it of its snags and rot.

“That angry man,” the artist explained, “is one of the old kind.”

The painting that provoked so much furor portrayed a Soviet soldier home from World War II. His face was disfigured in a symbolic way. In place of his nose, a hand grew, reaching below to clamp his mouth shut. The meaning was hardly subtle.

Like most of the artists in Izmailova Park, Anatoly has limited talent. He veers from style to style as if he were following exercises in some textbook history of Western art. But he and the others represent something fresh.

It was once illegal in the Soviet Union for artists to come together on their own to exhibit and sell their work. Officially sanctioned artists had to sell their officially sanctioned art at officially sanctioned exhibitions. Artists who tried otherwise might find the police breaking up the display.

But, since early this year, the government has allowed unofficial artists and craftsmen to sell their wares in Izmailova, and thousands of Muscovites now throng the park every Sunday to sample the new phenomenon.

Anatoly, a short man with a full, cherubic face, is one of the few artists at Izmailova who attempts political statements in his work. He said he is not worried that his elderly critic might try to get the authorities to tear down the offending artwork.

“Paintings like these do not stay up very long,” he said. “They sell quickly. I have even sold one just like that to a cosmonaut.

“I have had ideas like this in my head for a long time,” Anatoly went on, “but I did not feel free to express them. Now I do.”

But he still felt nervous enough to ask that his last name not be used in any American newspaper story about him.

How long will the freedom last, a visitor asked.

Anatoly shrugged. “I like to go to bed having happy dreams,” he said.

Fyodor Nikolaievitch Dmitriev was only 17 years old when he first heard V.I. Lenin on the old, dusty Field of Mars parade grounds in St. Petersburg on May 1, 1917. The clarity and force of Lenin’s stirring speech swept the young Dmitriev into the Red Guards, the armed bands of young toughs who fought for the Bolshevik Party in the streets.

Now 87, and a retired soldier and historian in what these days is known as Leningrad, the old Bolshevik with medals on his lapel feels a little uneasy about all the changes set loose by Gorbachev. Dmitriev is concerned about recent calls for the rewriting of official history, especially the attempts of some writers to expose the terror of the Stalin era.

“It’s true that we made a lot of mistakes,” Dmitriev said. “But while talking about mistakes, we should also talk about the historical achievements that transformed this country into a superpower. I do not agree with those intellectuals and writers who are always exaggerating. . . .”

His own memory of 1917 resembles a Communist Party poster. It was the first time that workers in St. Petersburg had ever celebrated the First of May, the holiday designated a celebration of labor by the Socialist International in 1889.

“When Lenin came to the podium on top of a truck, people shouted, ‘Long live Lenin!’ ” Dmitriev said. “I came close, only seven or eight meters (23 to 26 feet) away from Lenin. He looked very, very tired. He wore a gray, light overcoat, clutched a cap in his left hand and held the podium with his right.

“He spoke clearly and understandably,” the old Bolshevik went on. “It was easy and light to hear him. But his speech was very emotional. He spoke about the First of May, about the imperial war that gave the soldiers and workers nothing, about the February revolution that produced only a bourgeois democratic government. He talked of passing factories over to the workers and land to the peasants.

“With a great flourish, he called for the foundation of Soviet power. Within five months, his dream came true.”

Boris Grebenschikov is a rock star of the Soviet Union, but he does not live like Madonna or Michael Jackson. He lives in a tenement in an alley not far from Nevsky Prospect, the main shopping street of downtown Leningrad. Since he does not have a telephone, a visitor must climb seven flights of stairs to see if he is at home in his long, narrow, cluttered apartment.

The soiled yellow walls of the dank stairwell have been relieved somewhat by the graffiti scribblings of his fans. They come often to celebrate their hero, whom they call Bob, sometimes daring to knock on the door of his apartment, almost always leaving some scribbles behind. “Long live the cult of Bob,” proclaimed one scrawl.

For years, Grebenschikov, who is now 33, has led a kind of surreptitious life as a rock star. He and his group, Aquarius, record only for private tapes passed from one fan to another and play only in response to private invitations. Since he is not a graduate of the Soviet musical education system and thus not a member of the Musicians’ Union, Grebenschikov is not a performer officially approved by the Soviet government. That has limited his income and opportunities but also relieved him of the obligation to submit his music and lyrics to government censors.

Since Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet government has begun to tolerate performers like Grebenschikov. Melodyia, the Soviet recording company, has even issued an album of Aquarius’ music--a kind of official blessing. But Grebenschikov still has problems. Communist Party officials in Leningrad have so far failed to approve his request to travel to New York to record a commercial album.

“I am sure that they will approve the trip someday,” Grebenschikov, his straw-colored hair held in a ponytail, told recent visitors to the apartment. “I have become too much of a symbol of the forward point of glasnost for them to reject it. But the party officials will take their time. They do not like unofficial rock groups. We want the freedom to express ourselves and not sing what they dictate to us.”

He can now perform anywhere and anytime he likes. “But I only accept perhaps three times a month,” he said. “For that, I earn 10 rubles ($16) a night. They have promised to restructure the pay schedule, but nothing has happened. My album has sold more than a million copies already. I will get a royalty of .0005 of a ruble for every copy sold. I will probably earn 2,000 to 2,500 rubles ($3,300 to $4,200) for the album.”

Prince Yuri Doguruky founded the city of Moscow 840 years ago, and city authorities decided to celebrate the birthday for the first time this year with a festive Moscow Day on Sept. 19.

Holidays have a rigidity in the Soviet Union: Moscow is usually weighed down by political banners, patriotic rhetoric, trooping parades and red flags. But Muscovites were urged this time to just go out and have a good time. The suggestion was treated like a radical new idea.

The city organized carnivals and street fairs throughout Moscow. In Gorky Park, for example, officials set up makeshift stages with clowns and mimes and dancers and rock bands and Peruvian flute players and filled food stands with shashlik, kasha and Fanta orange. Muscovites streamed into the park, chatting and laughing and shoving. Maskers wandered through the crowds. A parade of floats with characters from Russian folk tales made its way across the park, which was festooned in flags of many colors: green and blue and purple and yellow and red. For one of the few times since the great October Revolution of 1917, red seemed to take its place as just another primary color.

There were problems. Police foolishly refused to break the rules by opening all gates of the park wide for the onrushing crowds. Men and women, some with small children, elbowed and struggled through a single portal and, in fact, struggled just as hard to leave later by another single door. The crush became so dangerous that the police finally stopped hundreds trying to cross the bridge over the Moscow river that leads to the park.

One young man protested that he had already bought a ticket. “I’m sorry, comrade,” the police officer said, “the party’s over.”

The holiday troubled the weekly Moscow News. Journalists A. Pralnikov and V. Boldinov reported the next week that many Muscovites who had shown up for the opening ceremonies in Red Square were at a loss about what to do once the inaugural speeches ended after only 25 minutes. Noting that this was Moscow’s first “non-regulated holiday,” Pralnikov and Boldinov said that people were taken aback when they discovered they were supposed to enjoy themselves in the streets.

“How did it happen,” a performer asked, “that we cannot enjoy ourselves?”

“Apparently,” the Moscow News concluded, “the holiday is still too new for Moscow.”

Mostly young people jammed the street in front of the synagogue on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The interior of the synagogue had been refurbished earlier this year, and the wall behind the ark gleamed in colorful, arbor-like design.

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, on an official visit to the Soviet Union, slipped a yarmulke on his head, made his way up the steps of Moscow’s only synagogue and took a seat inside to hear the cantor chant the New Year prayers.

Most of the young people, however, preferred to remain outside. A holiday gave them a chance to meet old friends. Moscow, after all, has no Jewish community center.

Several of the young people said they had applied for visas to leave the Soviet Union in the past and might try again. Two identified themselves as former civil engineers who had taken jobs as factory workers. They felt there was a better chance of the Soviet government’s granting a visa to a factory worker since it could not claim that a worker knew state secrets. The pay was better anyway, they said, and there was less responsibility and worry.

A tall, blond youth stood nearby as the others spoke, and one of the former civil engineers explained in Yiddish, a language that the blond youth obviously did not understand: “That big boy was standing near you over there, and now that you have moved here, he is standing behind me to the left. He is a snooper. I just wanted you to know.”

The accused KGB agent stood impassively.

“If democracy means showing Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson on television,” the former civil engineer went on, in English, “then we have it.”

Sergei Obratsov, the Soviet Union’s most famous puppet master, is an elfin man with wispy white hair who keeps canaries in his office and moves softly around his desk in running shoes. The director of the Moscow Puppet Theater is now 86 and has survived all the upheavals in 70 years of Communist Party rule.

He speaks quietly in Russian with the trace of a smile and a happy glint in his eyes, and it is hard for a visitor to tell if these add a touch of irony to his words or not. Obratsov read “The Children of Arbat” recently. That novel by Anatoly Rybakov about the terrors of the Stalin era had been banned in the Soviet Union until this year.

Asked about life in the turbulent 1930s, Obratsov replied: “If you have read ‘The Children of Arbat,’ I cannot add to that. When I am reading these things now, I understand better what terrible times we used to live in. I myself, however, never had such problems, perhaps because the work of a puppet master is so special.”

The Western world knows of many great Soviet artists who have fled in search of more artistic freedom, but Obratsov is not one of them.

“I have never thought of leaving the Soviet Union,” he said. “I’m a Russian. What’s more, I’m a Muscovite. I would find it difficult to live even in Kiev or Leningrad. But let’s be practical. No other country in the world would have built me such a theater. Puppetry is not a profitable business.”

Obratsov is renowned throughout the world and has toured foreign lands with his puppets more than 100 times. He first went to New York, in fact, in 1925 as a member of a traveling troupe of the Moscow Art Theater. As his visitors left, he decided to sing, in English, a song he had learned that year in New York.

“Yes, sir, that’s my baby,” he sang. “No, sir, don’t mean maybe. Yes, sir, that’s my baby now.”

Natasha Uspenskaya, a grandmother, is a member of Green World, a society of angry environmentalists in Leningrad. Pressure groups like these, long inconceivable in the Soviet Union, have sprouted in the last year. Uspenskaya, a 60-year-old English teacher, has joined Green World because of her long battle against a $1.6-billion dam going up on the Gulf of Finland to prevent flooding in the city of Leningrad.

Her husband, Vladimir Shvedov, was an engineer on the project but quit when he discovered that the dam would pollute and muddy the Neva River that runs through Leningrad. Shvedov battled against the dam in vain behind the closed doors of the Communist Party and government bureaucracies and, according to his wife, was hounded by the authorities until he finally fell ill from a stroke.

“My husband,” she said in a recent interview, “does not even remember the project anymore.”

Uspenskaya took up the battle and, in an era when Soviet citizens feel less fearful about speaking out, has joined the organization that is publicly fighting the dam. Most of the environmentalists are much younger than she.

“The young people are very active,” she said. “They keep calling me up and inviting me to join them on one project or another. I tell them, ‘Children, I am 60 years old and can’t keep up with you.’ They are even worried about dust bins, and they fought an attempt to destroy the Smolenskaye Cemetery and turn it into a park. I joined them on that for a very special reason. I have ancestors buried there.

“I like the young people,” she continued. “But they are very naive. They think they will win everything.

“I like Gorbachev very much, and I think that he would do something about the dam if he heard us. But every time we send something to Moscow, we are told that our complaint has been forwarded to the Leningrad city authorities. They are the same people who approved the project in the first place.”

Uspenskaya feels she knows Leningrad well. One of her ancestors was the president of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, as Leningrad was then known, under Catherine the Great in the 18th Century.

“Leningrad was always the capital of the reactionaries in Russia,” she said, “and still is.”

Vladimir Vysotsky was an actor and singer who died in 1980 at the age of 42, after years of hard drinking. He sang of the harshness of life.

“Oh, mother dear, let us now weep,” he sang in the ballad of a convict. “As we rack our brains, as we try to guess. Where will they send me? Where will they send me? Come to think of it, I could not care less.”

Such songs were not looked on as really subversive, but Soviet officials never issued a recording of Vysotsky’s songs, and his admirers privately passed homemade tapes to their friends. When he died, officials were astounded when 20,000 fans showed up for funeral services outside Moscow’s Taganka Theater.

In the new era of reform, Vysotsky is a kind of cult hero. Artists in Izmailova Park sell portraits of him. Hawkers on Arbat Street sell 1988 calendars decorated with his photo. His likeness shows up as well on the metalwork and wood burnings of craftsmen. But the most enduring tribute to him is probably Vysotsky’s Bar.

Vysotsky’s Bar is a small, arty, expensive cafe not far from Taganka Theater, where he acted. He hung out there in the old days, and it has been transformed in his honor. The walls are adorned with large photographs of Vysotsky with his guitar--"You can cut my throat and you can cut my veins,” he would sing, “but do not tear these silver strings.”

A stuffed pig’s head on one wall overlooks the proceedings. Candles light up the cozy room to reveal tablecloths laden with plates of caviar, crab, sturgeon and salami. Waitresses, dressed in peasant skirts, rush from table to table serving wine and Champagne. On a recent evening, a procession of entertainers made the hours skip by--a Dixieland jazz band; a Russian accordionist; a gaunt, grinning, Gypsy violinist; a traditional folk singer; a belly dancer, and a contortionist.

Everyone agrees that a cafe like this could not have existed before Gorbachev. But it is not clear why. It is as if everyone believes that the simple act of having a good time with style and grace is a political statement that can only be made in an era of reform.

Gruff, grizzled men start lining up for vodka in Moscow at 2 p.m. every day, two hours before sales begin. The lines at the liquor shops are mean-spirited and long, often rambling back for a full city block. Police struggle to keep order as knots of pushers try to force their way forward. Sometimes a fight breaks out as a drinker asserts a special right to forge ahead of everyone. Men then shout, shove, strike at each other. The scenes seem unsavory, and housewives trying to buy a bottle of wine for a festive dinner at home do not like to brave the crush.

The hassles stem from Gorbachev’s war on alcoholism. Soon after coming to power in March, 1985, Gorbachev closed some liquor stores, reduced the hours of others and raised the price of vodka. It was surely his most unpopular act. Workers, angry over a cut in wages and a rise in prices under the Gorbachev reforms, find they cannot even have the solace of their weekend vodka without waiting in line for at least a couple of hours.

Gorbachev, however, insists that most Russian women praise him for his drive against drinking. The wife of the Izmailova artist, Anatoly A. A., was no exception. Sitting in their cramped apartment, the wife, a heavy woman who has posed for several of her husband’s portraits, said, “What we have for all practical purposes is a dry law. That’s good. Gorbachev did the right thing. So many people have perished from drinking, so many talented people, artists, writers, Vysotsky. My husband agrees entirely. People are working better. There is less drunkenness now.”

School life has changed somewhat, under Gorbachev, for Yelena Matveeva, a 29-year-old student from Siberia at Moscow’s Institute of Textiles. Academic work is harder. Officials have increased the time for on-the-job training from one month to two. That leaves less time to cover the academic curriculum and prepare for examinations in the 10-month school year, and Matveeva, who is studying computer programming, said she can feel the pressure.

“In principle, I agree with the idea of more on-the-job training,” she said in a recent interview. “But, when we showed up at the computer center for two months this year, they did not know what to do with us. We just hung around doing nothing.”

Life at the institute is now especially tough for some others. In the past, a professor’s salary depended on the number of students who passed his course, so he tended to pass everybody, no matter how lazy or stupid. Now the salary remains the same no matter how many pass or fail. The institute is throwing out mediocre students for the first time.

“They have promised a lot of other changes at the school,” Matveeva said. “They told us we would elect our own student representatives and would have the right to pass some judgments on our professors. But nothing has happened.”

Matveeva, older than most students, was sent to the institute by her textile factory in Ulan Ude, in Siberia. During the summer, she returned to the factory and found some changes.

“There is more discipline,” she said. “In the past, if you came late a lot, a supervisor might talk to you but would never cut your bonus. Now your bonus will be cut, and workers in my factory are coming to work on time.”

That pleases her but does not make her optimistic about the future. The history of the Soviet Union, after all, is riven with promises unkept and goals unfulfilled. “I like Gorbachev,” she said, “but I am a pessimistic person, and I do not think his reforms will work.”

The Novodevichy Convent Cemetery was closed to the public until early this year, but now anyone can walk into the cemetery and look at the grave of Nikita S. Khrushchev and, in fact, the graves of other prominent Russians and Soviets of the past such as Anton Chekhov and Dmitri Shostakovich.

There is a good deal of monumental tomb art, much of it tasteless, to attract a sightseer: a surgeon buried beneath a monument of thin hands clutching a red slab of heart-shaped glass, the busts of pilots in Steve Canyon headgear, the torso of a general emerging from a slab, a telephone held close to his ear.

A Politburo rebellion removed Khrushchev as Communist Party general secretary in 1964 and replaced him with Leonid I. Brezhnev. But Khrushchev’s disgrace seems to have dissipated with the rise of Gorbachev. Many of Gorbachev’s leading reformers, in fact, served in one way or another in Khrushchev’s drive to ease the Stalinist controls on Soviet society.

Almost everyone who walks around the cemetery stops by the grave of Khrushchev and chats about him. A sculpture of his bald head, showing just the slip of a smile, is set into a geometric design of black and white pieces of shining stone.

Onlookers seem good-natured and happy to see the monument. There are lots of smiles, lots of small talk. On a recent Saturday, one couple argued whether Khrushchev had won four Hero of the Soviet Union awards. No, a doubter insisted correctly, that was Brezhnev. Some passers-by were astonished at how closely the sculpture resembled Khrushchev. One woman wondered why his wife, buried off to the side of the grave, used a different last name than Khrushchev.

It would be wrong to say that a cult has developed around Khrushchev or that masses of citizens rush to see his grave now. But, less than a year ago, only the relatives of people buried at Novodevichy could pay their respects at his tombstone.

Arkady Dragomoshenko, 41, is a boiler stoker in a Leningrad factory but is better known as a playwright and poet. Some of his poems, in fact, have been published in translation in a California literary magazine called Sulphur.

“I do not shovel coal,” he explained. “I just turn knobs.”

The job is regarded by other people as a good one for writers. He is on duty for 24 hours and then off for three days. Even when working, he only has to come out once in a while to check the readings.

But Dragomoshenko says the job is not ideal: “You do not really write very much. A writer needs the pressure of having to produce in order to live.”

He may have that pressure soon. Dragomoshenko works with a small theater group, a “free” theater, the only one in Leningrad. By “free,” Dragomoshenko means that it does not receive subsidies or direction from the state. The theater has been applying for official status and hopes to receive it by the end of the year. Once official, the theater will have the legal right to pay members of its troupe from box-office receipts. Dragomoshenko would then be officially classified in the Soviet Union as a playwright instead of a boiler stoker.

“State theaters like to produce plays with themes that are black and white, one-dimensional,” he said. “Our theater wants the freedom to get away from that.” As an unofficial theater, the troupe has been performing psychological dramas of literary complexity and plans to continue doing the same once official.

There are no plans for political plays exposing the evils of the Stalin era. Dragomoshenko, in fact, is annoyed by hot-headed writers who get all excited about their new freedom and produce terrible works.

“It is understandable after being held back for so many years,” he said. “But a writer must learn not to shout but to work.”

A team of Times reporters spent a month traveling through the Soviet Union, interviewing scores of Soviet citizens, for this portrait of the world’s other superpower on the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The reporters are William J. Eaton, The Times’ current Moscow bureau chief; Robert Gillette, Moscow bureau chief from 1980 to 1984; Dan Fisher, Moscow bureau chief from 1977 to 1980, and Stanley Meisler, The Times’ Paris bureau chief.

A visitor to the Soviet Union these days finds a myriad of voices and images that reflect the headiness of change, the thrill of hope and the fear of failure. The angry, elderly man, a black cap snug on his silvery hair, stared at the painting on a stand in Moscow’s Izmailova Park on a recent Sunday morning and demanded that the artist pull it down. “This is not art,” the elderly man said. The commotion prompted onlookers to crowd around the critic. They laughed at him, jeered at him, thrust their fingers at him to make their point. “Who the hell are you?” someone demanded. The elderly man finally gave up and stormed off...
A visitor to the Soviet Union these days finds a myriad of voices and images that reflect the headiness of change, the thrill of hope and the fear of failure. The angry, elderly man, a black cap snug on his silvery hair, stared at the painting on a stand in Moscow’s Izmailova Park on a recent Sunday morning and demanded that the artist pull it down. “This is not art,” the elderly man said. The commotion prompted onlookers to crowd around the critic. They laughed at him, jeered at him, thrust their fingers at him to make their point. “Who the hell are you?” someone demanded. The elderly man finally gave up and stormed off...
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