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PERSPECTIVE ON RUSSIA : Give Us a Hand, Not a Handout : The people wish to improve their lives but not lose their souls to Western commercialization--to put up rainbows, not Golden Arches.

March 15, 1992|YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO | Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russian poet and filmmaker, is the author of "Babi Yar," among many works. He screened his film "Stalin's Funeral" in Los Angeles last week and received a freedom award from Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills

MOSCOW — Russia today teeters between dictatorship and chaos. The changes of the past several years, as radical as they have been, are not irreversible. Former U.S. President Richard Nixon is right to warn that a "new despotism" lurks in the shadows. If our young, inexperienced democracy fails to provide a better standard of living, the ghosts of the past will be even more monstrous when they return.

Our situation today looks like a great tragedy. The Soviet Union was a kind of Tower of Babel, and when it collapsed, some people were wounded, some crushed, in the ruins. Many illusions and false ideas were also buried in the rubble.

All of us are hostages in these ruins of our own creation. But as always it is the children who will pay for the guilt of their ancestors. They are the most tragic victims of any kind of transition. However, I do have hope for our children's future. Sometimes the most beautiful flowers grow out of the ruins of dictatorship.

As a Russian, I can't complain if a foreign country gives me only stale crust and not a fresh loaf of bread. We know we created our own deepest problems. Nonetheless, if I were an American, I would agree fully with Nixon's criticism that the present level of U.S. aid to Russia is "pathetically inadequate," if only from the standpoint of calculated egoism.

If America adopts an inward-looking nationalism now, during the still treacherously slippery slush of the first spring after the Cold War, it will betray its own national interest. And America is not the only country that will drown if, as the current election campaign portends, it dives too deeply into the waters of internal preoccupation. Without the embrace of mutual destiny, we should not doubt that the whole world can be dragged back into the past, even into fateful rearmament.

I don't believe in hand-outs. I do believe in giving a hand. With a hand, Russia could become part of civilized Europe and join the vast zone of market democracies that peacefully stabilize the Continent.

Russia's potential as America's partner in helping to fulfill this vision of a stable European continent is great. Russia is a giant, resource-rich field for joint ventures. And, with ideology out of the way, the compatibility of American and Russian psychologies, long evident to me and other writers despite the Cold War, can take its natural course.

Taste for Discovery

As Walt Whitman wrote long ago, our fundamental compatibility lies in the fact that both Russians and Americans are children of great geographical spaces, and thus both pioneers who know the wonderful taste of discovery in the wilderness.

As a poet and a Russian, though, even in these desperate times and even when we have all accepted the virtues of the market, I must stress the importance of joint ventures rather than a mentality of wholesale buyouts. This is especially true in culture. Here I share the forebodings of the Mexican poet Octavio Paz:

"Today literature and the arts are exposed to a new danger; they are threatened not by a doctrine or a political party, but by the faceless, soulless and directionless economic process of the market. The censorship of the market is not ideological. It has no ideas. It knows prices, but nothing about values."

A form of this new danger is already taking shape across Russia and Eastern Europe, especially as subsidies for the arts are being slashed. I call it "The McDonaldization of European Culture."

If the Golden Arches become the monument of our post-Cold War times and replace the rainbow of cultures, the world will fall into an autistic trance of psycho-boredom, consigning national cultures and artistic risk to the margins.

Who then will want to travel to Moscow, Warsaw or Budapest? What will become of the wonderful Polish katchka when Big Macs and Kentucky Fried Chicken capture the local palate? What will become of such great filmmakers as Poland's Andrzej Wajda or Hungary's Istvan Szabo if Hollywoodian cops and robbers are the only images to grace the theater marquees of Warsaw and Budapest?

I especially oppose the beautification of war on the big screen, which I call "warnography." Russians could make great films with Americans if we cooperate on a mutual basis instead of merely being asked to provide the backdrop for trivial comedies and spy-thrillers. Whispered conspiracies over Pasternak's grave at Peredelkino or dodged explosions on Red Square do not approach the rich possibilities that true joint ventures in the arts could achieve. Why not reach for the rainbow instead of the Golden Arches?

In the absence of such cooperation, it would be a mistake to allow artists of the East to become orphans, now that we are nearly broke and subsidies have been divorced from state control. In Russia, we must be concerned first with medicine, then education, then the arts.

The Abyss of Pink Clouds

In such uncertain moments, who can say whether he is an optimist or pessimist? I know that I am against professional pessimists. In this at least, I agree with President Bush's recent remarks about Russia. I am also against professional optimists. Both push humanity into the abyss.

Professional optimists, under whom we have suffered more in Russia than in America or anywhere else, push us into an abyss full of the pink clouds of social and political deception. But, after we dive into these clouds, it is very difficult to pick up the remains of our disastrous illusions.

Yet the dark prophecies of professional pessimists push humanity into the abyss of disbelief, of mistrust in ourselves. It is time now to climb out of the abyss. It is time to trust ourselves without illusion.

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