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An American Meets Muscovites, Looking for the Limits of Glasnost

May 22, 1988|Brian J. Kahn | Brian J. Kahn is a Sonoma attorney, author and film-maker

SONOMA — Gorbachev-chic arrived on the American mainland at the December Summit. Glasnost and perestroika are rapidly becoming words in the American dialect. Even hammer-and-sickle T-shirts are selling here. Now, as the Moscow summit approaches, the question lingers--how much is substance, how much fashion?

For two months this spring I worked in Moscow as the first American to write a weekly opinion column for a Soviet newspaper. It was not my first visit; as a 13-year-old I had lived there six months while my father wrote a book. Since 1984 I have been to Russia seven or eight times to produce a wildlife documentary film and for journalistic work; I speak Russian with moderate fluency.

This last visit was unlike previous trips; I lived in an apartment, bought and cooked my own food, commuted to work. I ate lunch in the newspaper cafeteria, talking with Soviet colleagues. I interviewed a wide range of people, from cabdrivers to high officials, and dined in the homes of friends and acquaintances.

Much has changed in three Gorbachev years and much has not. To understand that contradictory reality, Americans must first face an unpleasant truth. For a long, long time we have not been really looking at the Soviet Union, but at our own false stereotype of it: a gray, monolithic state, good at making tanks and missiles, but nothing else. Its people, we were told and believed, were depressed and depressing. Repeated polls show we think Soviets are less patriotic, less caring about their families, less happy with their lives and work, less humorous. Less human.

In war, the opposition is inevitably dehumanized. And the Cold War has been no different. For four decades the Soviets have been our international adversaries and we have been treated to countless variations of the stereotype, from Boris Badenov to Ivan Drago: brutal, conniving, heartless, dishonest.

The more distorted the stereotype, the greater the reaction when truth emerges. And in that dynamic lies part of, but not all of, the answer about what has "changed" in the Soviet Union. Americans are now seeing a more dimensional picture; we see everyday Russians interviewed on Moscow streets by American newsmen; we listen to normal-looking Soviets sit on American talk shows, discussing human realities in human terms; we see a Soviet leader with an open, honest manner and a charming, intelligent wife.

A few years ago, Americans were not exposed to any of these things. Had there not been significant changes within the Soviet Union, we still would not be. My guest column for the Moscow News illustrates the point.

Two years ago I had dinner with a Soviet friend, a prominent zoologist. Sitting in his home, I asked if he thought Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms--decentralizing the economy, opening the media, the arts and the political process--could succeed. No, he said. "Many people around him nod in agreement. But they have their cars, their dachas , their privileges. In their hearts they do not change."

This March I asked him the same question. "It is very difficult," he said. "There is much opposition." Then I asked if, two years ago, he would have predicted what had already happened. He did not hesitate: "I would have said it was impossible."

The Soviet press is full of highly controversial material. In a society that loudly and long proclaimed the absence of serious crime, prostitution and drugs, articles and television programs about these realities are now everyday occurrences. A stunning about-face. What was for decades a press dedicated to official cheerleading has become, in terms of social exposes and criticism, more active than its U.S. counterpart. Typical American reports about corruption in government, for example, focus on the individual--who did what for how much money. The Soviet approach includes the culprit but then digs deeper to explore the economic or political organization that produced the scandal. Again and again, the refrain is that lack of democracy and public participation, control over the flow of information and of the press, breed dictatorial attitudes and moral decay. In a country long run by a privileged economic and political elite, that message could hardly be more dramatic.

The press is in some ways a microcosm of the whole country. Everyone knows that the limits of free speech have changed drastically. But where are the new limits? Even at the Moscow News, considered the "flagship of glasnost ," the question surfaces.

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