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Moscow Takes a Flyer

September 21, 1987

Waiting in line for everything from fresh food to shoes is a way of life in the Soviet Union. Now Soviets queue for a new item. A recently implemented law permits the average Soviet citizen to apply for, and receive, a passport for foreign travel. It is not yet in full force; travel abroad is still largely restricted to faithful members of the elite ruling class--the Communist Party. Nevertheless, granting Soviet citizens of all stations the privilege to travel to foreign countries is a most fascinating byproduct of General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost , or openness.

For decades common Soviet citizens were in practice forbidden to leave the Soviet Union. For a long time Soviet officials feared that exposure to Western culture would contaminate the Soviet citizens' strictly socialist upbringing. Behind official doctrine also lurked the fear that those who traveled to the capitalist West would not return. Membership in the Communist Party, however, usually guarantees a measure of loyalty in a citizen. It provides enough assurance that party members leaving for the West are likely to return to the privileged life that membership affords them.

In allowing only proven Communists to travel, the Soviets underestimated, perhaps unnecessarily, the loyalty of their own rank-and-file citizenry. Stung by several key defections, Moscow has been loath to risk the possibility of even a modest exodus from its borders. But to many Soviets travel abroad would be nice, but to live and die in the Soviet Union is the ultimate patriotic gesture. And Soviets are very, very patriotic.

Now we have a remarkable gesture of faith, or rather confidence, from the Kremlin. Remarkable not because it blithely professes that the Soviet Union is a paradise from which no sane individual would consider leaving, but because it leaves the choice to its citizens.

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