Three Years That Shook the Soviet Union Changes And Remembrance

August 04, 1991|By SCOTT SHANE

Moscow. -- On a half-dozen tables outside our Metro station, the booksellers of the new age have spread their wares.

Here, and not in the Kremlin two Metro stops south, may be the best place to take measure of the earthquake of change that has transformed this country since we landed here in April, 1988.

There is Freud: "Introduction to Psychoanalysis" and "The Interpretation of Dreams." There is religion: "The Bible for Children," "Foundations of Buddhism," and "Aum -- Synthesis of Mystical Teachings of East and West."

There is politics: "Speeches by Trotsky, 1918-1923," "The End of Beria" (on the arrest and execution of Stalin's secret police chief), "Essays on the Russian Revolution" (Typical first sentence, from the Christian philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev in 1918: "Russia has suffered a terrible catastrophe.")

There is business: three different Russian-language editions of Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People," "Effective Advertising," "How to Invest Money: A Practical Guide to Stocks, Bonds, Dividends, Interest," and "The Imperturbable Manager." There is sex: "Sex in Human Love," "Sex in the Life of Men," "The End of Iron Bella" (paperback with bare-breasted woman on cover), and "A Sensitive Woman -- The Head-spinning Tale of a Woman Who Lived for Sex."

On this head-spinning list, the diverse titles have one thing in common: When we moved here three years ago, none of these books could have been purchased legally in Moscow.

In 1988, most of them were still banned. Trotsky was a non-person. Sex was pornography. The revolution was a momentous turn for the better in human history. Stocks and bonds were mere ornaments for the "general decline of capitalism." Anyone printing or peddling such books would have risked an unpleasant encounter with the police or KGB, trouble at work, possibly a jail term.

But many politically innocuous titles for sale outside our Tsvetnoy Boulevard Metro station likewise were unavailable before. State publishing houses were too busy printing big runs of party bosses' speeches and leaden novels by Writers' Union big shots to cater to popular demand.

Now, market forces have taken over publishing like no other industry. Books can be sold for whatever people are willing to pay. Everyone with a printing press is churning out books to please the public, not the bosses: historical romances, cookbooks, astrology, detective stories, translated classics such as "Gone With The Wind" and "Catcher in the Rye."

You could call the Soviet book explosion a quiet revolution. Quietly people express their interests, which may be Buddhism or borscht or the bond market but which have nothing to do with the state. One guy goes for Trotsky, circa 1921; another goes for Iron Bella, circa 1991. The monopoly crumbles.

Before, people came from the Metro and saw, perhaps, a banner saying "The Party and The People Are United," or they saw Pravda ("Truth"). Those were lies -- they were never united, and it was rarely the truth. But just as important, they were mono-declarations, the monolithic state pretending to speak for everybody.

Karl Marx's dictum that under communism the state would wither away appears to be working in reverse: as communism shrivels, so does the totalitarian state. It is butting out of people's lives, no longer telling them what to think, where to work, whom to vote for, whom to hate.

So now, people come out of the Metro and see a picture as variegated as they are. The book market holds up a mirror, and as Nikolai Gogol said: "Don't blame the looking-glass if your mug is crooked." Some of the newspapers on sale alongside the books are fascist hate-rags. But then again, another one on sale is called "The Jewish Newspaper," and there is a brochure explaining "Jewish Traditions," and those could not have been published before either.

The political scientists call this "civil society," which is what grows wherever totalitarianism isn't. Ordinary people here call it "a normal country," for which they have yearned a long time.

They will have to keep yearning for some years to come, as the Stalinist economy crumbles and the Communist regime in its death-agony lashes out violently. Within a hundred yards of the book tables, an hour-long line for sausage is standard and the bakery is running out of bread ominously early in the evening. But despite the chaos, I look at the book tables and I think that what things are coming to in the long run is a normal country.

A few minutes walk from the Metro is a group of intriguing old buildings that are collapsing, which seems to be the normal state of architecture under Soviet socialism. My wife, Francie, and I looked around one day and saw a notice identifying the buildings as the wine cellars and out-buildings of the Hermitage restaurant, a landmark of 19th-century Moscow where the young Anton Chekhov, a medical intern training in a nearby hospital, used to hang out.

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