All Commentary
Wednesday, April 1, 1992

Looking for a Strong Man After the Revolution


Doug Reardon is a freelance journalist.

Taras and Ilya were doing a very bad thing. So awful, in fact, was the deed the two young men were doing on the train to Kiev that, should the police have found them out, Taras and Ilya could have gone to prison for a long time.

They had bought cigarettes for two rubles a pack in St. Petersburg and were going to sell them for five rubles a pack in Kiev.

“I could go five years to prison, five years for this!” Ilya exclaimed later in the smugglers’ flat while unpacking the rucksacks, suitcase, and cloth bag crammed with dozens of cartons of rather toxic-looking unfiltered cigarettes made in Bulgaria.

“I am a criminal!” Taras chimed in with his partner, both singing the hymn of wronged victims of a bad system.

A system that makes supplying legal products a criminal offense obviously is in need of reform. That 73 years and untold human suffering were required to make apparent the failure of Communism in the Soviet Union is a profound tragedy. Yet as the republics of the former union move toward building a more sensible society, old habits of state dependency may be as vexing as loosening the chains of government.

In many instances, if government simply removes itself from people’s lives, people will gladly get on with putting society on a more sensible footing. For example, Taras and Ilya were black marketeers because the government did not allow a free market to exist.

The cigarettes Ilya and Taras smuggle are not particularly good, but queues are eye-poppingly long outside state-controlled tobacco shops in Kiev. If the state didn’t have a monopoly on tobacco and set its price, the price of cigarettes might rise and the supply of cigarettes would increase until there was a satisfactory equilibrium.

This is exactly the type of free-market price reform Russian President Boris Yeltsin has pledged for the Russian republic. But other republics so far haven’t followed suit.

However, withdrawing the heavy hand of government, which touches even the most picayune details of life, does not mean that many people will accept the absence of Big Brother. Patterns set by centuries of authoritarian rule seem little changed since the smashing of the highly centralized Soviet state. The desire for a powerful government to dictate life remains widely held in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere.

Despite the “Second Russian Revolution,” life flows along the same old path at the sprawling state farm surrounding Bortnichi, a village about 20 miles, through pine forest and across rich, black soil, from the Dnieper River and Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.

Sunlight haloed the milkmaid’s angelic face, soft and fair, her hair wrapped in a simple white scarf, as she seemed poised to part her lips in a soothing lullaby . . . instead came steel. “There should be a hard hand, a fist!” hammered Tamara Checko, a mother of five who tends milk cows and fattens calves at the farm. “People should be forced to work!”

Down the dirt road from the milkmaid’s home, Ivan Momot, a 76-year-old retiree, was spreading ash fertilizer with a rake over the rectangle of earth where he cultivates cucumbers, red beets, and pumpkins. With a dash of his rake, Momot set a billy goat bleating away from a stalk of corn, and grumped that someone needed to take control of things. “Someone broke into my root cellar!” he exclaimed. “Crime is increasing everywhere, even in our village.”

Such faith in authoritarian measures to combat rising crime and economic difficulties is heard around the globe. Unlike the United States, Russia and Ukraine don’t have centuries of constitutional government and firmly established legal precedents to protect the individual against excesses of the state. Not only does this tendencytoward authoritarianism pose serious problems for democracy, it also hinders economic reforms in the former Soviet bloc.

The Need for Personal Initiative

The reforms most experts believe are needed to pull Russia and the other republics out of their current economic morass require personal initiative. But after centuries of being told what to do by the state, many people naturally look to the government for instruction. Many hesitate to strike out on their own.

“Nobody even thinks about working independently,” said Klavdiya Kharchenko, a soil expert, who has worked in the state farm’s greenhouse for 26 years. After a moment’s reflection in front of the greenhouse with its tattered plastic sheets flapping madly in the wind over its battered and broken wooden frame, she acknowledged the place could be better run. For example, this season they’d botched the tomato crop by experimenting with four strains, only one of which thrived.

In fact, Kharchenko said, running a shipshape greenhouse privately “would be very lucrative.” Nonetheless, she went on, “Conditions aren’t ripe for that.”

For centuries, people have learned that conditions aren’t ripe until the government tells them they are ripe. In 1547, Ivan the Terrible adopted the title Czar and created a state where virtually all reins of power were held by his hands. Since then, Russia’s economic development has been dictated from the center rather than growing spontaneously by individual effort. In 1712, Peter the Great thought up a plan for the Russian economy, then simply decreed that the industries in his scheme be created and trade be developed with the West.

Even the last attempt in the U.S.S.R. to stimulate farming through privatization, during the 1920s famine, was steered from the center. Ironically that attempt, the New Economic Policy, was made by the Communists, but was brutally smashed after a few good years by Stalin, who shipped thousands of the small private farmers to death camps.

Throughout Soviet citizens’ lives, the state set wages and controlled prices. So people are in the habit of expecting the state to take care of them.

Free market reforms will be politically difficult because they mean increasing many prices. At the same time, the government must hold the lid on printing money to avoid hyperinflation.

A conversation with Maria Fotan, a 27-year-old mother of five from a Carpathian mountain village, illustrated the tremendous difficulty facing reformers. Fotan was in Moscow (“It’s very exciting!”) on her annual trip to sell the baskets she weaves. “Prices are very high. It’s very bad now,” she said. “We don’t know how we’re going to feed our family.”

What if capitalism means prices will increase even more?

“That means we must have more payment from the government,” she replied simply. If not, “Then we’re going to demonstrate. We’ll get rid of them.”

Reliance on the state and a desire for authoritarian rule surface repeatedly in conversations with Ukrainian and Russian citizens.

The Roots Run Deep

Even though the Communist Party’s absolute power largely was broken by recent events, its roots snaked deep. “Party people used to watch our work and give instructions. They interfered,” said Kharchenko, the greenhouse worker. “But now there’s no more party oversight and propaganda.”

Communist Party members have been banned from conducting political activity and other party business in government-owned enterprises. Those new rules went into effect on the Bortnichi farm, three days before Kharchenko spoke.

“The party members have not been kicked out,” she said. Why not? “They’re the managers.”

Elsewhere, the failed putsch and its aftermath seem to have had little effect. “it was just a revolution in Moscow,” said Misha Babieva, 38, who comes from a village in the Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea. “Nothing is changing in the places we live.”

Sometimes there is an odd, flailing attempt to fuse divergent desires for democratic reform and for the relative wealth provided by previous Communist regimes.

“From America? Well, excuse me for not shaving, there are no razors in this country,” cracked Victor Vakulov, 57, smoking a cigarette from a filter. “I’m against everything that’s going on right now in Russia. Even after the war, it was better. Even though Khrushchev was a fool, it was better. When Brezhnev was ruling, it was much better. Because of Gorbachev’s rule, we cannot live.”

He interrupted his tirade to haggle with an elderly woman trying to buy one of the grizzled ears of corn he was hawking from a wooden crate at a Moscow market.

“The politicians are just chatterboxing and chatterboxing. We need a strong man,” he said upon returning. “I’m for the power of the people, but the main thing is for this strong man to be just and to show us what to do. He must be cruel and strong, but no dictatorship. I want the power of the people.”

If history played a role in instilling this tendency toward authoritarianism in Soviet life, history also serves to ward off such trends.

“Our young democracy is making a lot of mistakes right now,” said Mikhail Smiryagin, a taxi driver in Moscow. “One mistake was to ban the Communist Party. We’ve already seen this. In 1917, the Bolsheviks banned all the parties.”

No, he was not a member of the Communist Party. “It’s not a question of whether you’re a member of the party, it’s a question of your thinking like a democrat.”