At The Crossroads
By Steve Brady
The author, pictured outside the KGB headquarters, the Lubyanka, in Moscow
RUSSIA TODAY has the atmosphere of a beehive the day after the queen has died. The workers wander aimlessly, the intricate social mechanism, which none really care to keep going any more, runs listlessly down to a stop. Yet there is expectancy in the air too. Soon, from the cocooning cells in which they have long slept, the new queens will emerge, and contest the heartship of the hive.
In the streets of Moscow and Leningrad, the soldiers and the police still swarm. But to little purpose any more. The black market, once furtive, operates openly on the Leningrad streets. Outside the city's main bookshop, Dom Knigi Nevsky Prospekt, and in the heart of the capital, across Gorky street from Pushkin Square and outside the grand and ornamental Arbatskaya Metro on Kalinin Prospekt, dissidents openly sell the proliferating journals of a dozen opposition groups, from Trotskyite to racial nationalist.
Journals which once would have circulated, if at all, as underground samizdaty, those involved risking years in a labour camp, now carry the name, address and phone number of the editor. Russians who not five years ago shied fearfully from foreigners now swarm around them, offering everthing from 'military watches', 'Russki souveniry' and changing money, to outspoken and often bitter criticism of the regime, Communism and the society in which they live.
Not that the black market in currency is worth bothering with any more – the official exchange rate for the rouble has collapsed from R.1.06 to the pound to R.9.87 in a few months. At the airports, the customs and Interior Ministry troops who once meticulously checked foreigners' possessions in and out of the country now lounge around smoking and waving everyone through.
There is a general air of slackness and listlessness, tinged with expectancy. Something is going to happen soon. The question is, what? The failure of the old system is everywhere apparent. In a rich land, with talented European people, the shops are half-empty. Queues are everywhere – for fresh fruit, for beer, even for teapots. If two people stand in the street and one of them opens a carrier bag, dozens throng round to see what is about to be sold.
No-one, as far as one could tell, believes in Communism as a political ideal anymore. On the giant buildings of Leningrad, the tired old slogans still stand: "Glory to the working class!", "workers of all lands – unite!", "Forward with Leninism!" and so on. But no-one seems to bother replacing the lights in them when the bulbs fail, any more, so after dark a few isolated Cyrillic characters spot the sky above the dark street corners, on which the workers stand in groups, talking, discussing, arguing.
In Moscow, the slogans on the building proclaim a different creed: "Enjoy Coca- Cola - Coke!" lights up Pushkin Square, opposite "Macdonalds!" (with a Soviet flag surmounted – in triumph? – by the 'Big Mac' logo), and the buses carry commercial advertisements for Western sunglasses (surely about as relevant to grey Moscow as ice cream in Baffin Land!) In both cities they queue to buy not just teapots and booze but posters of Samantha Fox and Sabrina – and Michael Jackson. And the longest queue of all, dwarfing that for Lenin's Tomb, is for a Big Mac and Fries in Pushkin Square.
Moscow, photographed in 1990 by the author
Scroll down for rest of article after the images
The Cosmonautics Memorial, Moscow, commemorating Konstantin Tsiolkovski, Father of the Russian space programme
The benefits of western 'freedom': outside the Museum of Soviet Economic Achievement Russians queue to ogle Samantha Fox overfilling her mammary quota.
Above: the queue for a Mac 'n' Fries in Pushkin Square is considerably longer than that for Lenin's tomb is Red Square, below.
Offering a third way – dissidents sell papers in Leningrad's Nevsky Prospekt.
Dissident poster in Moscow's subways.
FIGURE OF COLOUR
After seventy years of drab greyness, even Ronald MacDonald is a figure of colour, and light and life. Or so it seems to many Russians at the moment. They too believe that because Communism has lost the Cold War, Capitalism must have won. Instead of building Socialism, the important social task now is to equip every Soviet citizen with a Sony Walkman and a Prince cassette. To pay for which Russia must be sold off to Wall Street and Tokyo ASAP.
Yet, for all the greyness and the Gulags, the poverty and the terror and – resented by most thinking Russians, it seems – the endless, dinning chorus of stupid intelligence-insulting lies doled out day after day, year after year, decade after decade by increasingly corrupt nomenklaturi bosses who knew they were lying, to an increasingly cynical public who knew it too, for all the evils and follies of Communism, by swapping it for Capitalism the Russians would be making an evil bargain. As the more thoughtful among them, from Solzhenitsyn down, realise.
For, now it is no longer a threat to us all, one can see that Communism was not entirely bad. Indeed, much that was bad was there before 1917: the bureaucratic police state, the massive State ownership of land and industry, the restrictions on internal movement and still more on travel abroad, the whole tendency to what Marx called Asiatic despotism.
In many ways 1917 was as much Russian as a revolution. Since 1917, Communism has given Russia materially law and order – little old ladies are not mugged, partly because there are no immigrants – import of Coloured labour on a huge scale is a Capitalist vice – and partly because the people, even teenagers, are well-behaved.
In contrast to the filth-strewn freak show that is central London, the streets are clean, until recently free of graffiti, the people are respectably if not richly attired, no dossers or beggars lurk in shop doorways.
Even the Moscow Metro is a showpiece – clean, spacious, frequent trains running on time between stations which are veritable cathedrals of marble and chandeliers, their walls and ceilings adorned sometimes with magnificent mosaics depicting inspiring scenes from Russian national, not in the main Communist, history. As you wait the couple of minutes for the next train you can behold Yuri Dolgoruky founding Moscow, Dmitri Donskoi riding forth to smite the Tartar race-foe, Kutuzov standing indomitable as Moscow burned and Napoleon retreated.
Every Muscovite gave a day's work to build what they still proudly see as their Metro. To thus bring a glimpse of beauty and glory into the everyday lives of ordinary people ordinarily commuting to work on the Tube bespeaks a mentality not altogether ignoble.
And today, for all the shoddiness and the shabbiness, the shortages and the queues, everyone enjoys the basic necessities, food, housing, free medical care. It should, of course, be made clear at this point that the 'Marxists' of the East have for some decades had little in common but the name with those of the West. There are no loony 'Libs' in Russia – the antics of Britain's Labour Councils would cut little ice – though their authors might end up digging much salt – east of Brest-Litovsk.
For example, homosexuality is a serious offence contravening Article 121 of the USSR Criminal Code, whose penalties are a good deal harsher than those of Thatcher's feeble Article 28! And Russian schools promote Russian heroes, culture and values, not those of Africa and the Punjab.
Spiritually, Communism for all its often bloody brutality has kept alive in the Russian people something – nobility of spirit, cultural pride, national awareness – the West has largely lost. The Russians as people seem more alive, more individual, more filled with character, as well as generally kinder and more friendly, than the mind- and soul-rotted drones on our side of the crumbling Curtain. They also nurture a deep, burning patriotism and love of the Motherland matched in the West only in such embattled outposts as Ulster.
Culturally, instead of lounging around soaking up American TV trash ordinary Russians go out to museums and art galleries, or walk in the countryside. No doubt they could be corrupted into gawping at US brain-rot on the box – but hitherto the State very wisely has denied them this dubious delight.
Thus in Leningrad's magnificent Hermitage one may see an immaculately uniformed Soviet Army officer showing a pretty girl round the paintings, a group of earnest young people discussing a sculpture, ordinary working-class Army and Navy cadets spending their free time absorbing our European heritage. And Yank tourists inanely gawping as they chomp gum, the Negroes amongst them visibly bored, their Walkmen blaring, chittering Japs giggling; the contrast is illuminating.
PURPOSE IN LIFE
The reason for that contrast is not far to seek. The society of the East tried to imbue its members with a purpose in life, a common dream, a vision, a hope, a sense of travelling together toward a new society, a new world. That that dream, that vision, that hope was empty, founded upon a fundamentally false understanding of the genesis of human nature, leading to the futility and failure the visitor sees in Russia today is a tragedy.
For it risks undermining in the mind of the Russian people the good that lies in teaching them that there were – and could be again, on a truer foundation – goals higher than their own petty self-gratification, that the collectivity – the society, the nation – which can live forever matters always ultimately more than the individual, who will surely perish.
That their lives had a meaning and a purpose, even the humblest, transcending themselves. That there was a point to it all. That people should work together as comrades in a community toward a common goal, rather than fight each other in competition for selfish ends. The common goal – Communism – unattainable. But a better society than we, for example, live in is not.
And not all the Soviet State taught was a lie. Culture and art and science, are worthy and honourable in themselves, not merely as ways of making money. The heroic paintings and sculptures of the Socialist Realists were better artistically than the meaningless self-indulgent daubings and lumps of Western modernists, better above all because they served the common good, mobilising and inspiring the people in the sacred mission of social advancement.
A sacred mission embodied in the starward surge that sent forth the cosmonauts and the space probes and the space stations, a vision embodied in steel in the skyward soaring of the Tsiolkovski Cosmonautics Monument in Moscow. It was the wrong dream, and so it ended in failure. But it was not wrong to dream, not wrong to offer ordinary people a goal beyond themselves and their own little self-gratifications. All it takes is finding the right dream.
Capitalism, in contrast, has no dream, no vision, no ideology. Only the unlimited worship of unrestricted individual selfish greed, the glorification of self-gratification. Its 'freedom' means only being able to do what I want, to make me 'feel good'. It is not real liberty to think and speak out freely for the good of society and the advancement of science, art, and philosophy – indeed the West punishes dissidence from the assumptions underlying society as effectively as ever the East did.
Western 'freedom' is just a licence to be selfish. Selfishness pollutes the life of the individual – relationships are valued not in themselves but for what each side can get out of them for him or her self, the family is seen merely as a mutual-benefit association for the self-gratification of its members – Love and Honour are not valued in themselves, nor are children valued as the assurance of the Race's immortality, merely as a form of cuddly toy.
Everyone plots and schemes to compete, to 'get ahead', to 'make money', not to co-operate in the service of the community and the nation. Selfishness pollutes the life of society – art and culture are reduced to a lowest common denominator of profitability, the public brainwashed into buying mindless American Negroid junk jungle rhythms and the pictorial and literary equivalents.
They could equally be educated – as the Russians are – to value genuine Art, embodying higher values of Beauty, Truth, Nobility and Social Progress – but there is no money in that. Communism offered a false cause. But Capitalism offers no cause at all, beyond the self. And that is the greater evil.
AT THE TROUGH
George Orwell saw the leaders of the East turning themselves into pigs. The leaders of the West are turning us all into pigs, motivated by no higher or nobler motives than those of a row of swine shoving and grunting at the trough, their highest dream a gut-full of swill. Communism, however much it oppressed the body, failed to warp the spirit. Capitalism seeks to bribe the spirit to warp itself. Capitalism indeed pollutes, poisons and perverts everything and everyone it touches, it is evil in a way that Communism never was.
The distinction, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is that whilst both Capitalism and Communism were lying in the gutter, the latter was at least trying, however blurrily and wrong headedly, to look up toward the stars.
Capitalism revels in the filth, and seeks only to wallow deeper in it, in degeneracy and self-indulgence. Once basic needs are met, the material prosperity Capitalism offers is not the blessing the Russian in the queue for a teapot today imagines. As the Russians will find.
Theirs is still largely a Christian country, so perhaps Russians will hearken to that religion's founder's wisdom when he asked "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" That is the Devil's bargain Capitalism offers, to societies and nations as to individuals. If they take it, one day Russian hearts will be emptier than their shops are today.
Russia has suffered too much, and achieved too much, to sell herself for a mess of plutocratic pottage. To sell her children into a bondage of the spirit more inwardly burdensome than any of the body. Capitalism's Gulag of the soul.
To see her ancient and proud culture sink into a swamp of cosmopolitan sleaze. To bespatter her streets with foul graffiti and tawdry posters extolling greed and its gratification.
To import the mugger, the child-molester and the share-shark – and no doubt the Coloured Immigrant – to pollute her society.
Mother Russia has served so long as a slave. It would be a tragedy indeed if she now sold herself into whoredom. Let her instead search the soul, not the body, of her society, and seek within herself a new dream, a vision not Eastern or Western but national, Russian, toward which to begin again, this time on the right path, her long march futureward.