Space heroine as hard-line hopeful Russian election: Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to walk in space, is a top Communist candidate in the once all-powerful party's comeback bid in the Duma.

Sun Journal

November 14, 1995|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Svetlana Savitskaya has the same effect as a Soviet-era monument.

Steely, unbending and devoted to communism, she inspires the same sense of awe and a little fear that one feels when first confronted with one of this nation's statues of Vladimir Lenin boldly pointing to a future that's passed.

A living icon of the one-party system and its push for world dominance, the former test pilot and first woman to walk in space is now a top Communist candidate in the party's comeback bid for dominance in the Duma, or parliament.

A wave of nostalgia

The Dec. 17 election will have 42 parties and more than 1,000 candidates running for the 450-seat legislature. But the Communist Party is considered the front-runner, riding a wave of nostalgia for older, more dependable times.

Offering no dynamic personalities or new ideas, the party stands for the ordered Communist past in which life, while drab and oppressive, was full of such certainties as a decent salary, pension and social benefits.

That Ms. Savitskaya -- an oddity in Russia where women hardly drive cars, let alone supersonic jets -- was drafted for the "celebrity" spot on the Communist ticket says much about the kind of voters the party is appealing to.

Where other parties include fluffy, nonpoliticians such as movie stars and singers at the tops of their tickets for name recognition, Ms. Savitskaya's deadly serious, cosmetically unretouched image is what one political analyst calls an "imitation of a monument to the peasant worker."

Ms. Savitskaya, 47, is a symbol of the last of the Soviet "firsts." In 1984, she became the first woman to actually walk in space, on her second visit to outer space. She likes to point out that the first woman to go out into space also was a Russian, not America's Sally Ride.

Ever suspicious

While agreeing to an interview with a Western reporter, her obvious suspicion makes it feel as if the Cold War never ended. The interview is permitted only in the darkish winter light of an early Sunday morning, in overcoats and boots in the unheated cavern of a ballroom at an astronauts' official townhouse complex. The two-hour interview is recorded, at her request, by two tape recorders so she can be certain that her words are not twisted.

There's no smile. There are no sentimental footnotes. Ms. Savitskaya emanates a blunt honesty.

Did she grow up wanting to be a cosmonaut?

"Nyet."

Her power-grip of a handshake says right away there's not going to be any fakey political glad-handing. Indeed, asked whether she would attend last week's Bolshevik Revolution day Communist parade -- a big campaign media opportunity -- she simply said it was not something in which she usually participated, even in Soviet times.

She is the top candidate on the Moscow City Communist ticket -- by election formulas a guarantee of a Duma seat -- and her strong, patriotic image is calculated to draw on the Russian longing for stability that the new free market economy so far has not offered.

Ms. Savitskaya's conversation orbits around the past and the "betrayal" by "traitors" of the achievements of her parents' generation. It's the sort of talk that warms the hearts of elderly pensioners who fought bitter battles for the Soviet Union and who remember Ms. Savitskaya's triumphs in space as the fruit of their collective labor.

Ms Savitskaya's Soviet pedigree is undisputable. She and her husband, a disabled test pilot, have a 9-year-old son. Her father was a decorated hero of World War II and marshal of aviation in the Soviet Army. Her mother was a Moscow Communist Party leader.

They would suffer a "second death" if they were alive to see Russia today.

Ms. Savitskaya explains every point not in the sound bites of a politician, or in the blunt roger-over-and-outs of a test pilot, but in the formal speechifying of a Soviet apparatchik.

Soviet breakup lamented

Most unforgivable of the changes that have taken place is the breakup of the Soviet Union, she says

Noting that both her parents fought in World War II in Berlin, she says they were the ones "who were first in battle, first in work, who took more responsibility on themselves and didn't spare their own personal lives for the party and the country."

"It's difficult for Americans to understand because no other country saw such ruin as this one after the war. And Communists managed to build the country to conquer the virgin lands and we were the first to reach outer space," she says.

It's no wonder that Russia is traumatized, she says. Imagine how America's salt-of-the-earth -- the average people of the past and present -- would feel if the United States were dismantled into 50 separate countries and the whole social system changed overnight.

She says China's market reforms were handled the "right" way -- with strong state control that she believes ensured growth and prosperity for everyone.

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