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The struggle for change.

When I was invited to visit Russia as a special correspondent for modem casting magazine, I thought I knew what to expect. Images imprinted over a lifetime created a colorful and detailed mosaic that was quite real and fully believable.

But after spending almost a month in the Soviet Union, visiting large cities and small towns, talking to foundrymen and housewives, drinking vodka with political dissidents and career bureaucrats, I've come to the conclusion that nothing I had read or heard quite prepared me for Russia.

Underlying all I saw, affecting every aspect of Soviet daily life, is an under current of changes so strong that it seems, at times, close to being out of control. in this series of articles I will describe what I saw and how the changes in Russia may impact all of us.

The defining characteristic of Soviet society is central planning and central control. Everything f rom the style of shoes sold in Pskov to the number of heats melted at the mammoth Kamaz River Foundry is determined by a central planning bureau in Moscow.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power admitting what the average Russian knew only too well: the Soviet economy was in shambles. Gorbachev launched his plan to modernize the system by curbing central planners and introducing aspects of capitalism to a system void of all incentive. He called it perestroika-the reconstruction-and he made it a test of his leadership.

Now, five years later, frustration with the slow pace of reform has erupted in unprecedented public outbursts against the government and threatens to topple the Gorbachev regime.

I was in Moscow when Boris Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Republic politically comparable to Governor of California in the United States). What surprised me most was not the public expressions of support for Yeltsin, as much as the virtually universal disdain for Gorbachev, expressed openly in the streets and coffee houses. Yeltsin, a strong critic of Gorbachev, says that the government is not moving fast enough toward dismantling the central planning bureaucracy that is strangling the economy.

What Yeltsin basically is saying, and what an overwhelming majority of Russians endorsed in that republic's first open election, is that communism has not worked and that the longer the national government tries to modify the system, the longer it will take to address the real need, which is to completely change the system.

How far this criticism has eroded public confidence in Gorbachev became evident to me the morning after Yeltsin's election. I was sitting in a coffee shop in a working class neighborhood of Moscow watching television news reports of the election.

A group of workers came in for coffee. As they waited in line they watched the television with interest. When Yeltsin came on several of them applauded; all smiled and nodded.

Yeltsin was followed by Gorbachev who was contradicting much of what Yeltsin said. When Gorbachev, speaking with that encouraging earnestness that has made him the most popular Russian leader in the U.S., started to talk about his "program economica" the workers, to a man, laughed derisively and turned away from the television.

Their attitude reminded me of the way U.S. college students reacted to Lyndon Johnson on TV in the late '60s, or how many people reacted to Richard Nixon on TV just before his resignation in the midst of the Watergate scandal.

I was witnessing a leader who had lost the confidence of the average man, a leader without credibility with his own constituents.

This observation was reinforced in the days that followed. The shopkeepers, the housewives, the factory workers have lost patience with Gorbachev and faith in perestroika. Boris Yeltsin's dramatic rise reflects their frustration.

There does, however, seem to be a strong class division on the fundamental economic and political issues dividing Gorbachev and Yeltsin, with the working class supporting Yeltsin and the intelligentsia and middle class expressing sympathy with the difficulties Gorbachev faces.

Andrei Lubochev, deputy curator of the Lenin Museum in Moscow, told me that "Gorbachev is restoring the ideals and ideas of Lenin that were distorted and perverted by Stalin and Brezhnev."

Lubochev, an intense young man who spoke impeccable English, was skeptical of Yeltsin. He said that Yeltsin was very good at identifying the frustration felt by the average worker but offered nothing practical to overcome the daunting political and institutional obstacles Gorbachev faces in trying to change the Russian economic system.

Dr. Gennadi Lisichkin, an economist with the USSR Academy of Sciences and a Gorbachev supporter, sees the problem as fundamental to the communist system.

...when one and the same mistake is made over and over again, the reason isn't so much in the individual qualities of a manager or a specialist, as in the drawbacks of the economic system. Harmony cannot be attained here with random patching up; what is required is a series of measures to energize the whole system."

Dr. Lisichkin sympathizes with the housewife who waits in endless lines at supermarkets with empty shelves while food rots in the fields or in storage. He shares the frustration of the Siberian oil field manager who sees his entire operation idled because of a chronic shortage of pumps and valves while much of the nation's immense foundry capacity is underutilized.

He understands that, in theory, it "is the market that has the last word on the need for any particular commodity or service"...but that in Russia production is still too often artificially isolated from its framework, which would normally have ended with the market. The only thing that enterprises cared about," said Dr. Lisichkin, "was meeting the quotas set from above ... Factories and plants remained indifferent to marketing, since products were not sold, they were placed under the authority of the appropriate section of the state apparatus charged with pushing them on, distributing them as it saw f it... "

The result, felt by the average Russian and expressed so effectively by Yeltsin, is an economic system that cannot meet the basic needs of its society. The problem seems not to be with the society's ability to produce but, rather, with the incentive to do so and the effectiveness in distributing what is produced.

The positive signs, to an outside observer, are the admission of the fundamental nature of the problem by those in control of the government and the evident openness for public discussion, a relatively recent phenomenon in the Soviet Union.

The most important question is whether the Gorbachev reforms are deep enough to address the systemic dysfunctions and, more critically, whether he will maintain power long enough to make those changes.

Gregory Karasin, senior political counselor in the Soviet embassy in London, believes that the Gorbachev reforms will work if given the time to do so.

"We are quickly taking steps to reform management," Karasin says, "and we already have 900 joint ventures with foreign firms, 600,000 bureaucrats have been dropped and 9000free businesses have been established. We are trying to become competitive in the world market, and are developing free enterprise zones. We are trying to become more involved in the world financial community, moving toward convertability of our currency.

Karasin emphasizes the significance of the steps already taken by Gorbachev. "We have torn down the totalitarian regime and the process of democracy has started. Now we must fill the shops with goods and food. Our economic problems will be resolved in two or three years. There is no going back."

From what I saw and heard, there is no question that the process of democracy" is flexing its muscle in the Soviet Union. I do question, however, whether Mikhail Gorbachev will have the two or three years Karasin believes will be needed to solve the problems that feed Boris Yeltsin's challenge.

One young Russian, a graduate student I met on the campus of Moscow State Univ, confided his fear that the Yeltsin movement might have an opposite effect. Gorbachev, he observed, is still part of the ruling party elite so the reforms he proposes are tolerated by those who are reluctant to change and those to whom change means loss of power.

But Yeltsin, the outsider, frightens those who control the party apparatus and the bureaucracy. If he succeeds in deposing Gorbachev, the old-liners might well decide that the democratic experiment has gone too far. No one I spoke to wanted to speculate what would happen if the newly found democratic exuberance was met with a Stalin-era attempt at repression.

There is no doubt that Russia today is a society in the midst of profound and fundamental changes. What direction those changes take will have global implications.
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Title Annotation:Impressions of the Soviet Union; part 1 of
Author:Simonelli, Frederick J.
Publication:Modern Casting
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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