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The Chaos of Freedom : NONFICTION : WAKING THE TEMPESTS. By Eleanor Randolph (Simon & Schuster: $26, 448 pp.)

July 21, 1996|Jane Taubman | Jane A. Taubman, professor of Russian at Amherst College, is the co-author of "Moscow Spring" (Summit Press, 1989)

The five years after the fall of the Soviet Union have brought social change of a scope and at a pace unrivaled in the 20th century, except perhaps during the five years after the October Revolution of 1917. Many Russians' accumulated life experience, goals and values have been rendered irrelevant--and it is still not clear what should replace them.

As in the first years after the Bolshevik revolution, it is the young who have proved most adaptable, the old (those over 40!) who find it difficult to abandon old ways and beliefs.

Eleanor Randolph, who was the Washington Post's Moscow correspondent from 1991 to 1993, gives us snapshots of this social revolution in progress in "Waking the Tempests." She takes her title from an 1836 line of Russian poet Fyodor Tiutchev: 'Oh, do not wake the sleeping tempests: beneath them Chaos stirs." It is a profoundly Russian point of view and one that few in the West wanted to understand in the euphoric years of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika.

Westerners, including most Soviet specialists, found their outlook colored by their innate notions of progress: Change is always good. Their best source of information about Soviet society, the dissident community, argued that the only thing wrong with Russia was the corrupt, stifling and counterproductive Soviet system. Remove it, and Russians' natural talent and ingenuity would flower. Few wished to consider that the Soviet system was itself a product of the same vaunted Russian ingenuity, or that many Russians rightly feared change as destabilizing, and preferred predictable stagnation to the uncertainties of political and economic freedom.

The recent Russian election returns have made it clear just how many Russians resist change. Almost a third of the voters who turned out for the first round on June 16 voted for Communist Gennady A. Zyuganov. But the generation gap is stark: Zyuganov's support comes largely from those older than 50 and from the rural areas devastated by Stalinist collectivization, which killed off or deported the most talented and energetic farmers. Those still left in the villages and in the Stalinist Rust Belt factories--largely the old, the alcoholic and the incompetent--will never have the energy or flexibility to make it in a free market society.

The young and the urban dwellers, often holding their noses, voted overwhelmingly for President Boris Yeltsin and continued development of a free-market economy.

Randolph's book helps us understand the voters behind those statistics. Her topical chapters survey everyday life in the first post-Soviet years: the new real estate market, the changing roles of women, the ruined environment, the crippled health-care system and the flowering of "alternative" therapies, changing sexual mores, the new openness and pride of the gay community, the crises in education, culture, religion and the legal system. Meanwhile, the West seemed to be dumping its worst on a gullible Russia: cigarette factories, pornography, self-serving evangelists, canned goods beyond their expiration dates. Old institutions vanished before new ones arose; a lawless, "anything goes" mentality reigned, and the "mafiya" often provided more effective security services than the local police force.

Randolph's account should make us stop and think about Western institutions we take for granted: How can you own a house or apartment if there are no laws on private property? Why have Russian women, despite their evident oppression, not rushed to embrace the principles of Western feminism? How and why does one go on living and giving birth in a town with pollution so severe that the majority of children are born chronically ill? Do we favor high-tech solutions to health problems just because they exist, ignoring far simpler traditional remedies that often serve Russians just as well?

One of Randolph's Russian friends pointed out a surprising virtue of the old system, with its endless lines for food and consumer goods: Chronic shortages provided a purpose in life for the "babushkas"--the retired older women (often no older than 55) who did most of that standing in line on behalf of their families while the younger adults were at work. The lines provided social contact, and the babushka's small triumphs of acquisition gave her heroic status in her family. "Your old people, they are sent off to Florida to rot," one Russian tells the author. Indeed it is these women who are the saddest victims of change: having sacrificed their whole lives in the name of a better future, they now see their grandchildren succeeding in the capitalist world they hoped to speed to its grave.

If the babushka is adrift in the new Russia, so is that other transmitter of traditional values, the educational system. As Randolph asks: "How would educators prepare the young for a world that they as adults could not understand? What subjects would a child need to succeed in a time of chaos?"

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