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Topics : CIVICS : Helping Emigres Fight Cultural 'Paralysis'

July 07, 1994|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most citizens of the former Soviet Union desperately want democracy, says Sophia Balakrishnan, 55, a Soviet emigre. Over the past several decades, however, entiregenerations have grown up in a society that undermined individual accountability by demanding deference to the Communist state.

As a result, the principal hurdle for residents of the former Soviet Union is not economic or political but, rather, psychological, Balakrishnan says. Citizens who formerly relied on the state to regulate nearly every aspect of their lives, she says, must now learn self-reliance.

That state of affairs prompted Balakrishnan, a translator and former tour guide who emigrated to the United States in 1976, to start the Center for the Psychology of Democracy in Westwood four years ago.

The center, run with a staff of one--Balakrishnan--is a nonprofit organization of academics that sponsors seminars and workshops throughout the Southland. It seeks to foster civic education and self-reliance among Russian emigres, and deepen American understanding of the problems Russians face.

Such learning, Balakrishnan says, is crucial. Without it, Balakrishnan says, residents of Russia will line up behind totalitarian demagogues promising to restore old-style "law and order." And many Russian emigres here, clinging to their old ways, will become a welfare-dependent underclass.

Says John D. McNeil, a UCLA professor emeritus in education and a volunteer adviser to the center: The center "provides civic education at its best, both for the Russian emigres and for us to understand them. Balakrishnan brings in a very unusual and solid perspective on all this."

In Russia, Balakrishnan was an official tour guide for, among others, Nixon Administration officials and the American press corps. She says she found herself increasingly drawn to Americans' individualism and can-do attitude. After the ouster of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and the subsequent restrictions on Soviet contacts with foreigners, she left the tour company, then decided to leave the country.

Taking advantage of a Cold War thaw in 1976, Balakrishnan applied for an exit visa, listing fictitious relatives abroad who would sponsor her. After a nail-biting eight-month wait, she was given permission to emigrate. Five years later, she became an American citizen.

Even so, fearing the long reach of Soviet authorities, she worked here under an American pseudonym for a time.

After receiving a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University, Balakrishnan moved to Santa Monica and began helping fellow emigres. However, she soon found that their problems were more than a matter of learning a new language and customs. Rather, she found that emigres' expectations of the world were completely different from those of Americans, resulting in a pervasive "paralysis."

For example, she says, Soviet emigres often do not even know how to begin looking for a job, let alone how to start their own businesses.

In the former Soviet Union, she explains, a person's profession was determined in school in accordance with society's needs. The schools, in turn, were linked to professional institutions, and the students "graduated" from school to a job.

A future engineer would not look for a temporary job outside his field just to make money, nor would he think to create his own job. The old order rewarded those who went along with the bureaucracy, and punished those who took the initiative.

So in Russia today, budding entrepreneurs often face hostility from fellow citizens, many of whom regard such activity with suspicion.

"Freedom is equated with stealing or cheating," Balakrishnan said, and individuals thought to be making too much money often receive death threats. "Shops have been burned, people attacked and abused because they are more enterprising than others."

That rubs off on emigres, Balakrishnan said. Many renew their dependency on government by going on welfare. And even those who find jobs remain affected by their life under a totalitarian regime.

"Ask American business people who deal with (Russians)," she says. "They will tell you that the (Russians) do not look into your eyes while talking; instead, they look away from your face and mumble something. This behavior has become a habit. Because punishment followed so readily from self-expression, they are afraid of showing what they think and feel."

As a result, she said, "most (Russians) do only exactly what they have been told to do; they do not take any initiative to do more, to improve their way of doing the job."

Such questions have been the subject of numerous workshops and seminars conducted by the center. Recommendations arising from those sessions are being put to use.

McNeil, for example, says several of his graduate students now include civics instruction while teaching English to Russian emigres in the Fairfax area. Soon, he said, his students hope to offer such courses to emigres in West Hollywood.

The center has also begun a study of the psychology of democracy in association with Pepperdine University and the prestigious Association of Humanistic Psychology. The study will focus on the adjustment problems faced by current residents of Russia and Russians who have emigrated to the United States.

Said Balakrishnan: "We can send the Russians 5,000 pairs of shoes. But when the shoes wear out, they will be in the same place they are today. We must help these people make the transition, both in Russia and here. The consequences, if we do not, can be very dire."

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