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For The Sake of Argument : People Polemics in Pushkin Square

September 25, 1988|Michael H. Haltzel | Michael H. Haltzel directs the West European Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

WASHINGTON — The international conference would not begin until dinner, so in mid-morning I decided to take advantage of Moscow's brisk September weather to stroll around the downtown area. After walking up Gorky Street from the Kremlin, I arrived at Pushkin Square, recently a favorite gathering place for discussions and demonstrations. A crowd of several dozen citizens had gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Moscow News, which has used Mikhail S. Gorbachev's glasnost to earn a reputation for hard-hitting journalism. Most of the people were absorbed in reading that day's edition of the paper, posted in display cases, especially two articles on the sensational corruption trial of Leonid I. Brezhnev's son-in-law Yuri M. Churbanov.

After managing to squeeze into the throng to read the articles, I turned to continue my walk when a medal-bedecked veteran in his 60s turned to me, shaking his head, and asking: "What's the use of these kind of articles? Whom do they help?" Amazed that he didn't immediately recognize me as a foreigner, I answered that although I can speak Russian I wasn't a Soviet citizen; it really wasn't for me to say.

"Where are you from?"

The United States, I told him.

"Oh, America. Why do you go around the world messing into other countries' business?" His initial belligerence had turned into a growl.

I said American troops weren't the ones in Afghanistan. That made him angrier: "You and Pakistan are helping the dushmany (a derogatory term, meaning bandits); we're helping the people! And you Americans fought in Vietnam!"

By now several other newspaper readers had gathered around us. When I explained that many people all over the world, in fact, compared Afghanistan to Vietnam, there were murmurs of agreement. A shabbily dressed bearded man, looking like a character from Repin's 19th-Century painting of the Volga boatmen, declared that the invasion of Afghanistan had been a bad mistake. The discussion took off, and more and more bystanders joined in:

"Who will win your election?"

"Is it for real or only a charade?"

"Of course it's for real. They have a genuine democracy over there."

In turn, I asked what they thought of restructuring. Buzzing all around. One man replied that Gorbachev had been very good when he first took over but that soon he had been co-opted by the system. Another said that after the first day of last June's special Communist Party conference everyone knew that it would just be another "spectacle." When I asked whether the new structure of soviets (councils) that had emerged from the conference would be an important change, there was general laughter.

The jovial mood changed; a yuppie-like man in his 20s sneered at the generally critical "Volga boatman" and snapped, "You should restructure yourself!"

"Who are you to tell me that?"

"Your kind only complain."

A powerfully built man declared, "We don't need perestroika . We need another revolution." I gulped.

A Central Asian asked what would happen in America if a suit in a clothing store didn't sell at a given price. I told him that the store owner would lower the price until the suit sold.

"Well here they let suits hang on the racks for 10 years at the same price." Again, widespread laughter.

I asked whether I might ask a sensitive question. "Of course."

In the West we read a lot about Soviet nationalities problems, I began. For example, I couldn't understand why the Soviet government did not prevent the bloody anti-Armenian pogrom in Sumgait, Azerbaijan, last February.

The dam burst. "You can't imagine the bureaucracy, the inertia here," one man answered. A second shook his head and complained that ethnic hatreds were widespread. A third pressed a piece of paper into my hand and asked me to read it later. Fearing a setup, I refused and asked him to say aloud what he wanted. He said he was a Russian who was for the cause of the Crimean Tartars, but then he quickly vanished.

I asked what they thought about the anti-Semitic Russian nationalist group Pamyat (memory). Everyone seemed to know about the group; everyone who spoke deplored it. One person said that there seemed to be a universal human need for scapegoats. Another said that the group's leader had only a fifth-grade education and that the organization had already split up into two rival factions.

A red-haired engineer, speaking in the rough accents of the Baltic, mentioned McCarthyism and the Ku Klux Klan and asked whether I believed fascism was a danger in the United States. I told him that crime and drugs were the real domestic threats in America, not fascism.

Was it true that almost anyone could buy a gun in the U.S.?

Yes. I began explaining the history of citizen gun-ownership.

"We know about your Constitution," someone broke in.

"If we could buy guns there'd be a civil war," ventured a voice from the crowd.

"No, owning guns is a bad thing," said another to general agreement.

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