Bullish on the bear

February 15, 1997|By Hal Piper

THE LATEST LETTER from Natasha in Moscow is like the others. Things are bad and getting worse. ''We don't know what will become of us.''

Russians were always a pessimistic people, but then they have always had much to be pessimistic about. A Moscow joke: The optimist sighs, ''At least things can't get worse.'' ''Sure they can,'' beams the pessimist.

Liberation from communism has been a mixed blessing. Russians lost an empire and an ideology. Most Russians were savvy enough to mock the state myth that they were history's favored children, leading mankind's happy march to a radiant future. Still, they did feel that they lived in an important country, an actor in the world, not a victim.

Now it turns out that everything they knew was a lie, and ''imperialist'' America was the guardian of truth, freedom and prosperity. But capitalism hasn't prospered many Russians, or even made them feel freer. So many are dispirited. One consequence is demographic collapse.

Russia actually lost population last year: Deaths exceeded births. Families languish: The number of marriages declined 14.2 percent last year. Russian women would tell you that Russian men aren't worth marrying: Alcoholism and suicide have cut the life expectancy for Russian men from age 65 seven years ago to 58 today.

Not all the economic news is bad. Inflation, having destroyed savings and pensions, is no longer ruinous. Stores are well supplied with goods, for those with the briefcase-loads of rubles needed to buy them. (One dollar buys 5,640 rubles. The currencies were nominally about equal in 1989.) There is no famine, as was widely forecast a few years ago.

But salaries aren't being paid. A few weeks ago there was a story about workers in a women's-clothing factory being paid in brassieres, which they could sell or barter. Less humorously, thousands of teachers, unpaid for six months or more, marched in Moscow last month. Storage of nuclear materials is in jeopardy, a government official warned recently. And the great Tretyakov art gallery may have its utilities shut off for non-payment of bills.

The shrinking economy

The Soviet Union was reckoned to be the world's second-leading economic power, behind the United States. After several years of contracting by as much as 20 percent, Russia's economy has fallen to No. 10. The statistics are somewhat misleading, because much of that former economic might counted goods produced that were unwanted and unused, and because of the growth of an unmeasured (and untaxed) underground economy.

The weakness of the state has left Russians vulnerable to crime. In the past two years about 200 bankers and businessmen have been murdered in Russia, mostly in turf and gangland battles. A score, at least, of journalists investigating the crimes have been killed, which is a way to silence a nominally free press.

Curiously, none of these crimes has produced a conviction, or even an arrest, either because the police and judiciary are corrupt, or because they are intimidated.

Is a strongman needed to restore civil order? How long can Russia live with chaos? Well, it lived with communism for 74 years, but communism had some successes. It made Russia an educated, urbanized, literate country. Even during the worst of the terror, life was getting better for many Russians, compared to their peasant grandfathers.

And for some Russians today, in spite of everything, life is still getting better. Natasha is an office worker. Work is going badly, too, her letter said, but she did manage some travel in the past year -- a business trip to China and vacations in Israel and the Canary Islands. Perhaps the optimist is right about Russia.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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