WE ARE ON the trans-Siberian railroad in December, a few days before last year's Russian parliamentary elections that would revive the once sagging fortunes of Soviet communism.
Natalya Slesarenko, a pensioner, by chance has found herself in the same third-class car with an American who would like to know what she thinks of the coming elections. She is illiterate, but has always voted as far back as she can remember. She will vote this time, too, probably for the Communists as she always has before. Times are hard now. During the war you had a ration card that guaranteed you enough to eat.
It still seems cruel to me, and also a little bit strange, that a ration card has become the symbol of brighter times in a memory closed in by age and poverty. But something much stranger is taking place in Russia's collective consciousness than the small matter of a few old pensioners who have been left to while away their years in poverty, growing nostalgic for a life that never really existed.
Even among younger generations who can only faintly remember Leonid Brezhnev, memory has been up to its old work again, leaving only guaranteed apartments and cheap sausage behind. Better than a ration card, but still not much. Apparently, people lived in a totalitarian society for 70 years without even noticing it.
Just how it can really be this way is something of a mystery to those of us who live on the outside -- something that Russians sometimes like to remind American visitors. The subject can come up at odd times, as it did during a conversation with a film critic about the Russian film, ''Burnt by the Sun,'' which won an Academy award last year for best foreign film.
Judgment on the system
Eduard Korchamaryev, who looks to be in his late 50s, said he was surprised by the West's wildly enthusiastic reception of the film. It didn't quite ring true with Russsians. Or if it did, they were uncomfortable with it because it passed judgment on the Communist system.
''Most people see the crimes of the Communist regime as belonging to Stalin and his times, not the system itself,'' Mr. Korchamaryev said. The same system that sent millions into the gulag also decreed that pensioners would be able to afford sausage, and that everybody would get an apartment if they waited long enough. But to many Russians, sausage and the gulag have no relation to each other.
A more accurate depiction of life inside the Soviet Union was the American film, ''One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' directed by an Eastern European film maker of some renown. It was much closer to Mr. Korchamaryev's heart, because it showed something that the millions of Americans who watched Jack Nicholson lead a nut-house revolt, did not see. Namely, that totalitarianism isn't that bad. Or at least those on the inside might not think so.
''The film couldn't have been made by a Western director,'' Mr. Korchamaryev says excitedly, grabbing my arm to make the point. ''It had to be made by somebody who had lived through all of it himself -- who can understand how a person can live within a totalitarian system and see it in a positive light. It's something Americans will never understand.''
That is the hardest thing for us. Aren't the Russians terrified of what they lived through? How can they not be? The usual suspects of social and economic instability are usually trotted out when trying to find answers to satisfy Western minds. In fairness to conventional wisdom, there is plenty of objective evidence to prove that Russia has fallen on hard times. Life expectancy is at a record low, crime is up, and a large segment of the elderly population lives in poverty.
But the strange thing is, when you go digging through the layers of nostalgia trying to find some fossilized truth someplace about the Soviet era, you come up empty. For all Russia's afflictions, it seems that times have never been better. There has never been so much personal freedom, consumerism, openness and yes, money, with all its seductive pleasures, as there is in the spring of 1996.
Was it really better?
Was life really better then? I have now been up, down and across the country, and without many exceptions, the answer is yes. I ask Slava Korenev, a radio reporter in his early 30s, what he thinks.
''That's a difficult question,'' he says, as if still deciding whether it is worth trying to answer a question that people like us don't understand. ''It was a simpler time. For people who only cared about vodka and cheap sausage that must have been made out of some kind of toilet paper, it was fine. . . . Of course I was only a teen-ager back then, but the impression that remained with me is one of a giant boredom that filled everything. There was absolutely nothing to do if you cared about anything besides cheap vodka and sausage. Maybe you could read interesting books if you managed to find them.''