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Visit to Moscow

We landed at the Sheremetievo Airport on time, but the young colleague from the Institute of System Research, who was supposed to take care of me, was nowhere to be seen. After he finally showed up, I asked, “Did you get into a traffic jam?”

“No,” he explained, “I allowed an hour for the usual time it takes to go through passport control and customs.”

“But I got through in ten minutes.”

“That’s perestroika for you,” he sighed.

Was it possible that perestroika had accomplished so much? I recalled a time a few years back when it took me over three hours to go through passport and customs. Moscow was not my destination then. I missed my connection, waited two more hours to be billeted and was charged for the overnight accommodation and fined 6 1/2 rubles for missing a flight. Now — ten minutes to get into the Soviet Union? The dawn of a new era?

Not yet. Petty frustrations still greet the visitor: I ate breakfast at a self-service buffet at the Hotel Rossiya. A sign over a shelf read “For used trays”, but there were no trays. Not just occasionally. Never. Having only two hands, I carried a glass of fruit juice in one and tea in the other. While I went through the line a second time to get food, the tea cooled. Yes, I finally got the idea of getting the tea last, but I could not figure out how to avoid going through the line twice.

When I tried to call the Institute, the number I had used from Canada did not respond. I found out later that one calls one number from abroad, another from inside the Soviet Union. There are two separate channels of communication.

Going through customs on the way out was much more complicated than coming in. Thinking about my previous experiences, I got panicky standing in a line that was not moving, switched to another, only to be told at the gate that it was the wrong line. (Like New York’s JFK.)

My cousin, who was seeing me off, succeeded in getting me through the “diplomatic” line.

Why do I relate these disgruntled tourists’ gripes? For two reasons. First, because for most people who visit the Soviet Union from North America, these frustrations — certainly not unique to the Soviet Union — define for them “how the Soviet system operates”. The second reason is more important. Such petty frustrations are symptomatic of the formidable inertia of the system which Gorbachev and his supporters are determined to overhaul from the ground up. Of course, every little thing by itself is trivial and can easily be “fixed”. But this cannot happen by itself. Some one must identify the bottlenecks in each instance, must know what lever to pull, must have the authority to pull it and must deal with the passive resistance of people set in their ways. Can enough people be mobilized to do this?

And it is not enough merely to streamline the mechanics of everyday living. Perestroika is meant to go much deeper. It is supposed to change “ways of thinking”, a phrase Gorbachev seems to have borrowed from Einstein. How deep can the process go without shaking the very foundations on which the undisputed stability of the Soviet system rests?

The foundations of this stability were set during the Stalin regime by an all-pervasive apparatus of terror. To be inconspicuous, to follow prescribed procedures to the letter, above all, to avoid the slightest hint of initiative or originality was not only a way of surviving but also a way of protecting one’s family and friends. What sort of apparatus is required to undo all this, to instill a sense of personal dignity and social conscience in a population deprived of both for generations?

Clearly, a coercive apparatus is useless to undo the damage perpetrated by a coercive apparatus. Successful persuasion, on the other hand, requires incentives. What sort of incentives can be offered to whom? And what if incentives for some are counter-incentives for others? If a struggle ensues, how likely is it to erupt into violence?

The visitor asks such questions of himself but doesn’t presume to answer them on the basis of a visit. One phenomenon is strikingly conspicuous: the depressing uniformity of public discussion has disappeared. Freedom of speech has become part of Soviet reality after sixty years. Thus a necessary condition for fundamental re-structuring has already been fulfilled. It should not be mistaken for a sufficient condition. People are apparently free to speak their minds. Fundamental problems can be publicly discussed. Solutions may occur and sensible advice may be given and even acted upon. To many this new freedom may be a challenge. It remains to be seen how it is met.

Among those with whom I talked,on one score there is enthusiastic agreement: everyone applauds Gorbachev’s peace initiatives and a feeling of profound satisfaction with the results of the Summit meeting is everywhere evident.

I have always assumed that whatever the stance of the Soviet regime on other issues,its commitment to detente and disarmament has been genuine. To move toward these goals it needed (so it seemed to me) allies in the West, especially in the US. Not in the old sense of “proletarian solidarity”, but among peace-oriented religious groups, liberal intellectuals and grassroots peace movements. It is these groups in the West that attempt to act as a brake on the arms race and to bring about a relaxation of tensions and a winding down of the Cold War. In a recent Conversation D.M. Gvishiani, director of the Institute where I visited, suggested a fourth group — the business community. Many Western business leaders Would like to do business on a large scale with the Soviet Union, and their political weight can be an important input to a peace coalition.

It is precisely these four sectors of the American public that at various times have been alienated by Soviet actions. Instances of persecution and conspicuous hostility toward organized religion, especially minority denominations, have antagonized religious groups. Intellectuals were repelled by the imposition of conformity of thought by the outright lynchings of scientists, writers and artists, by demolitions of entire faculty institutes, even whole branches of sciences during the last years of Stalin’s reign. Business leaders were alienated by militant anti-business rhetoric, grassroots leaders by the suppression of all spontaneous political activity.

If perestroika and glasnost continue to expand, these obstacles to a peace alliance could be removed. The strongest ‘support for perestroika comes, I learned, from the intelligentsia, particularly the students. Support is coupled with clamour for “more”- an escalation to be welcomed Since the generation of positive, feedback IS essential to any re-structuring.

During my week at the Institute of System Research in Moscow, I lectured not only on “Applications of Game Theory to Biology” but also on “Problems of Peace Education”. In between the lectures several interviews And conversations with different groups Were sandwiched, In all the conversations, matters of central interest to Science for Peace were discussed depth. I had the feeling that the Institute is seeking areas of research, directly related to what they tall “mirotvorchestvo”. This means somewhat more than “peace making” — “mir” means “peace”, but “tvorchestvo” has the connotation in English of “creativeness”. The conversations were intense, frank and stimulating and the interviewers went, to the heart of matters discussed.

My strongest impression was that the new freedom is everywhere in evidence. De-Stalinization, which had been stifled after a half-hearted beginning in the 60’s, is now encouraged to go into high gear. A most remarkable film,“Repentance”(now showing in New York), portrays the transformation of a populist leader into a paranoid despot. This is an unmistakable allusion to Stalin. Central to the plot is the dogged determination of a woman who keeps exhuming the body of the dead dictator, insisting that she will keep doing this because “he is still among us”. The dialogue is in Georgian. The film, widely shown in the Soviet Union, is accompanied by a sound track on which the director eloquently reads a simultaneous translation into Russian. Major foreign films such as “Kramer vs. Kramer”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Amadeus”; etc., are widely shown.

Nothing of the past escapes scrutiny.I saw an article in Yunost’, a youth magazine, signed by two graduate students, castigating the teaching of ossified official philosophy. Even Lenin’s ill-tempered Materialism and Empirtocriticism does not escape criticism.

I saw a friendly article on “Old Believers” (a religious community) in Moscow News, a “radical newspaper”, which is sold out a few minutes after it appears in the kiosks. (Russians who read English, I was told, seek out and occasionally find the English edition.)

“Un-persons” have returned from oblivion. There is talk about rewriting history; this time, however, with an anti-Orwellian aim. Jointly written volumes by Soviet and Western authors are contemplated. One with the American Beyond War group had appeared in both Russian and English. Above all, there is a feeling of relaxation and hope, though the formidable difficulties that lie ahead are somberly contemplated and never minimized.

It seemed to me that people were more friendly, more smiling, less dead-pan. They even engaged in lively conversations on the subway escalators. The once ubiquitous slogans on buildings have disappeared — some Muscovites told me they missed them. They had added colour to the city.

This much is in evidence. It is a great deal. It bespeaks a revolution in “ways of thinking” in the making and the change may be irreversible.

– Anatol Rapoport

(Prof. Rapoport was a guest of the Institute of Systems Research of Moscow from Dec. 14-21, 1987.)

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