As part of their plan to bring Soviets and Americans together, Shiryaev and Collins staged a practice session in Los Angeles last weekend, drawing about 20 students, psychologists and others for a day of role-playing, discussion and lectures on the startling changes unleashed by Gorbachev's reforms.
One of those attending was Sonya Balakrishnan, who said she left the Soviet Union 14 years ago and now is a graduate psychology student at Pepperdine University. "I'm interested in the Communist personality, which I distinguish from the national (Russian) personality," she said, adding that she wants to "explore the effects of the Communist system on the human mind."
In that vein, Shiryaev presented a series of character sketches of contemporary Soviet citizens that depicted a society driven by doubt, fear, greed and anger.
Standing in front of a TV showing videotapes of Soviet television, Shiryaev was alternately intense, sincere, indifferent and timid as he role-played his way through the sketches of citizens grappling with a riptide of change.
His depictions included a person who has given himself totally to making a living through the Soviet underground economy: "I think people in Russia are crazy now . . . I have faith only in myself," he declaimed. "I don't care whether we have fascism, communism or capitalism . . . I am a self-made man, I can do anything I want to."
In fact, every character portrayed by Shiryaev was molded by the uncertainty of the future, including a Jewish doctor who would prefer to emigrate to the United State rather than to Israel.
One of Shiryaev's characters pleaded for the Communist Party to be given another five years to rehabilitate the Soviet economy and warned: "There are too many extremists in the Soviet Union."
Another worried that the Soviet Union may collapse into "a bloody revolution. . . . The rich people will kill the poor people, the poor people will kill the rich people and the Red army will kill everybody."
Still another scoffed at widespread complaining about the long lines Soviet consumers endure to acquire necessities and restrictions on travel abroad. "The only lines are for vodka," Shiryaev's "optimist" declared. "You are not starving. I don't think you are suffering. You can travel around Siberia . . . I have been in Poland. I am free."