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THE FINAL CURTAIN : THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SOVIET EMPIRE : Sifting the Ashes of an Epoch

December 31, 1991|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — "Time has finally run out for communism.

But its edifice has not yet crumbled.

May we not be crushed beneath its rubble instead of gaining liberty."

-- Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, "Rebuilding Russia," July, 1990

Maria Mironova was fighting her way across Palace Square. A biting wind was sending icy snowflakes cutting into her face. The winter dusk had turned all the vibrant yellows, blues and greens of the square into a gloomy gray. In the distance she could see the line at the bread store growing, and she began to hurry to get two loaves for dinner.

But it was Solzhenitsyn's warning of a year and a half ago that was on Mironova's mind. "That we will be crushed, that is the great danger now," she said. "Communism is gone, the Soviet Union is gone, and everything is falling down around us. It is not that socialism was a good system--it wasn't. It did terrible, terrible things to people. But we do not know that what is coming will be better."

Mironova, 54, a professor of mathematics, the mother of two, a survivor of the World War II siege of Leningrad, a Hero of Socialist Labor in the old Soviet Union, is not a whiner. Although a Communist Party member for nearly 20 years, she rejoices over the collapse of the Soviet Union and welcomes the rebirth of Russia as a modern democratic state.

"Everything that has happened is good, for we are finally free of a system that had enslaved us to an ideology that had failed," Mironova said. "The Soviet state could not save itself, and the people did not think it worth saving. It died, and I am not mourning. . . .

"But just how do we get to this new paradise of democracy and full markets? This is where my optimism gives way to a profound pessimism because I doubt that we know the way or will find it easily."

Across Russia and the other 14 republics emerging from the ruins of Soviet socialism, the excitement of new beginnings is alloyed with apprehension such as Mironova's over the uncertain future.

They are celebrating the advent of democracy in Russia, a land that has never been free, and they welcome the dynamic economic development they believe it will bring after years of stagnation and now collapse.

But the Soviet system's cancerous decay has sapped everyone's energy, and the agony of the system's final months left many unable to appreciate a change as likely to shape the 21st Century as the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution here shaped the past seven decades.

"To comprehend the scope of the change is hard--it gathered speed so quickly, it is so all-encompassing and, most of all, it is so fundamental," Otto Latsis, a leading political economist, commented in Moscow. "To say the changes under way are historic is to minimize them. It is truer to say that yesterday was another country, that the Soviet Union was another epoch."

One of the great political, social and economic movements of the modern world has failed, and the consequences will touch the lives of almost every person on Earth.

Socialism had grown at one point to govern the lives of almost half of humankind, it had seriously challenged every rival system--notably the West's capitalism--and in this it had dominated much of the history of the 20th Century.

Even in its defeat--and the struggle by its domestic and foreign opponents had lasted its entire 74 years--Marxism-Leninism is becoming an object lesson.

Communism is condemned not only as a failure but as inhuman by the West's politicians, economists and philosophers, all now more secure in their own beliefs thanks to the disappearance of the alternative political system.

The Soviet Union's disintegration is also studied closely by those worried about destabilization in a world where the East-West power balance gave a measure of security. Where there had been one Euro-Asian superpower, there are now four new states armed with nuclear weapons.

Finally, Moscow's "mistakes" are being scrutinized by those nations--China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam--that remain on the "socialist road" and want to avoid the fate of the nation that once so proudly called itself "the first country of socialism."

"We were a sociopolitical experiment on an unprecedented scale, and we failed," Alexander Tsipko, a leading political philosopher in Moscow, commented. "But the failure of the socialist hypothesis means that the rest of the world can, and should, now explore different options. Russia was the guinea pig for Marxism's laboratory test, but it nearly killed us."

The wreckage that socialism left here is fearsome, whether it is assessed in economic decline and national impoverishment, in a political system not able to cope with the country's multiple crises, in an environment poisoned beyond all measurement or in the broken lives and pervasive alienation that result.

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