All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1998

A Letter from Russia

Russia Seems to Be on the Right Path

Dear Readers of The Freeman,

Hello, I am Grigory (Greg), whom you might remember from a previous issue of The Freeman (“Letters From Russia,” October 1997). First, I should say I have read several issues of The Freeman, which I received from my friend Dennis Peterson, and it has been a real eye-opener to me concerning developments in the United States and other countries.

Second, I am neither an expert in economics nor a politician. I’m just an ordinary Russian man; therefore, I can tell you only what I see around me and what I think and how I feel about what I see. Of course, I was not and am not such a giant of dissidence as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Vasily Aksyonov, whose books we now can read without being afraid of persecution. Nevertheless, I still think that some of my views, opinions, and experiences may be quite interesting to the American reader.

More than ten years have already passed since the beginning of perestroika and almost seven years since the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But Russia (to say nothing of all the other republics of the former Soviet empire) is still very far from being a free country. But regardless of what the pro-communist newspapers say, it is my firm conviction that life is improving in Russia, and events are becoming more predictable.

Even with the little freedom we now have in Russia, I think the situation is great because in Soviet times I had less than I have now. As surprising as it may seem, I was not so much disappointed by the continual shortage of various consumer products as by the lack of information about what had been going on in the rest of the world. The Soviet people lived in a kind of information vacuum. All we heard and read was “the tremendous achievements of the Soviet people on the road to communism.”

The communist party leaders thought they “knew better” which books the Soviet people should or should not read. Most of the nonfiction books that had been published in the West were out of reach here, although their titles had often been mentioned with much scorn and disapproval in Soviet books, magazines, and newspapers. They were considered “anti-scientific” and “anti-social,” contradicting the Soviet science and “the Soviet moral conceptions.” For example, Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, Guide to Personal Happiness by Albert Ellis and Irving Becker, How to Develop a Winning Personality by Martin Panzer, and many other books on self-improvement, were banned. The Soviet literary critics condemned such books for proclaiming egotism and individualism, whereas the Soviet man’s priority, they declared, should be diligent work for the welfare of his homeland and the building of communism.

Nowadays I know for sure that I will not have to run all over the town and through every store in search of a package of washing powder, an electric bulb, or a pair of socks, as I used to do in Soviet times. All of these products are available at the local marketplace at reasonable prices. I will never forget how in 1982 a friend and I used to stand in line for three hours or even longer at the only milk shop in this town just to buy some milk.

Short Memories

Even today the communist newspapers prefer not to mention such facts. They ramble on continuously about how harmful Boris Yeltsin’s reforms have been to Russia and declare that the reforms are leading only to the decay and ruin of our country. I cannot agree with such views because what I see indicates quite the opposite. The people’s faces have changed. I can see more smiles around me. The young men and women have become less inhibited. The shop assistants have become more polite, attentive, and courteous toward the consumers.

In Soviet times, when someone approached a saleswoman, she would look at him with a what-do-you-want-from-me expression on her face as if he were her personal enemy. It may seem either funny or insignificant, but that’s just how it used to be. Now if someone enters a store, he will invariably hear, “What can I do for you?”—especially if he visits a private store. The salesclerks know that if they are rude the customers may turn around and go to another store because there are plenty of them.

Since the beginning of the perestroika and glasnost of Mikhail Gorbachev, we have read a lot of materials about V. I. Lenin, Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and other creators of the first socialist state in the world. Such materials had been top secret because they depicted “the leaders of the world socialist revolution” in their true devilish nature: extremely cruel, ambitious, bloodthirsty, and power-craving. Now many young people hardly believe in socialism “with a human face,” and the aged people have become disappointed and even frustrated because they have lost the ideals (and the idols) in which they truly believed.

Fond of the Bottle

Unfortunately, some people fail to see and enjoy the newly gained liberties, and I am inclined to think that most of these people are men and women who are fond of the bottle. They are unemployed but hardly even make an effort to find themselves jobs. They grumble about the difficulties of life and at the same time sell their own last belongings (such as chicken feed, pillowcases, or blankets) to whoever may be interested in buying them. However, they spend the money they gain not for improving their living conditions but on another couple of bottles of vodka or moonshine. Such people don’t care about reading books or doing anything else that might lead to self-improvement and the acquisition of a marketable profession. I don’t think that it would make any difference for them whether they lived in Russia or in America—they will never be satisfied.

Having talked to a good number of people, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are seven categories of people in Russia today.

  1. Those who care little about which kind of regime they live under—socialism, capitalism, or totalitarianism. They hardly know or care about the difference. Such people are usually drunkards, loafers, drug users, petty criminals, or tramps.
  2. Those who make every effort to improve their living conditions but are unable to adjust themselves to the current political and economic situation in Russia. Such people usually say, “We lived much better in Soviet times.” They are inclined to blame the government, the reforms, and even “the hand of Washington” for all of their troubles.
  3. Those who are categorically against the return to the road to communism because they realize that any such return would lead to civil war. These people fully support the reforms, in spite of the difficulties they may face, because they know how to benefit from the new liberties and the free market, not only in the political and economic sense but also in the sense of spiritual self-improvement. I believe that I am in this category.
  4. Those who are known as the “New Russians,” the richest people in this country. They have become rich as a result of the reforms, and they know full well that if the communists come back to power they will be deprived of their wealth very soon after and will go straight to a labor camp. Of course, they are against the communist ideals.
  5. Those who are nostalgic for “the good old Soviet times” when all the Soviet people were “brothers and sisters” and unanimously supported the Communist Party, which was doing its best day and night to achieve the well-being of the whole Soviet nation. Most of these people are elderly, in their sixties and seventies. They are pensioners, veterans of World War II (who had a lot of privileges in Soviet times), and the many ordinary aged people who are lonely and frustrated. These are the only people for whom I am sorry. They had fervently believed in the “radiant future,” but they gained nothing. Now they think that it is too late for them to think about the future, whatever it may be.
  6. Those who are involved in organized crime. They are neither for nor against the reforms. They are accustomed to solving their “problems” with “the fists of iron.” They have all the necessary means to do this, being even better equipped than the police force. They are extremely dangerous (as much as in any other country, regardless of political system), and the only “comfort,” according to the opinions of some people, is that they do not physically harm the ordinary people because the ordinary people almost never stand in their way.
  7. The young Russians who are in their twenties and thirties. Most of them look to the future with confidence. They are too young to remember Soviet times, having been their parents’ dependents, and they have a rather vague idea of life in those days. They are not at all excited about socialist ideas. Many of them study at colleges, in technical schools, and in business schools. Many have good jobs and are even able to support their parents. For example, a 23-year-old kung-fu student of mine recently married, started his own small business, and seems to be very happy. I could say the same about many young men and women who were students of mine.

New Prices

In January 1998, the Russian government instituted a monetary reform. We now have “new” money. Both the old money and the new will be circulated during 1998. Three zeroes are being removed from the old denominations; that is, the thousand-ruble bill will be equal to the new one-ruble bill. Stores and commercial kiosks have already replaced the old price lists with the new. A loaf of bread will cost nineteen hundred rubles (old price), or one ruble and ninety kopeks (new). Some people are afraid that prices may increase because of this change, but I don’t think so. Everything will be all right.

A lot of changes have occurred in Russia over the last few years, and many of them are, in my opinion, for the better. At least for now, Russia seems to be on the right way despite all the difficulties.

Your friend in Russia,

Grigory Shishatsky