Soviet economy is declining anew
Soviet economy is declining anew
Perestroika fails to restructure the entrenched injustices of communism
By THOMAS P. SLAVENS
Despite the magnificent palaces of the czars and czarinas, cathedrals being returned to the church, museums filled with sumptuous art and artifacts, the Moscow subway with mosaics, as well as the impeccably kept Kremlin with cathedrals, governmental buildings, and lavish gardens, the economy of the USSR in this period of transition is deteriorating, with a lack of clear-cut goals and objectives, creating tremendous insecurity for the citizens.
This decline is evident on the Aeroflot airplanes and in the airports marked by cracked cement and weeds. The drab, state-owned flats, in which most of the people live, are in various stages of disrepair but have long been waiting lists of would-be occupants. The physical plants at such great educational and cultural institutions as the Lenin State Library, which houses one of the major book collections in the world, and the University of Moscow, the flagship institution of the USSR, have deteriorating facilities and are years behind such institutions in the West in most technologies. Even an exhibition park built as a showplace for the economic and technical achievements of the country is crumbling. Even more disturbing is the depression and anxiety of the people during this period of economic and political instability.
In the presence of large numbers of police, illegal activities are conducted openly with black marketeers selling in the streets without the required state licenses. People remove such appliances as radios and windshield wipers from their automobiles in fear of robberies. Prostitutes and illegal entrepreneurs meet visitors at the front doors of hotels and follow them into the elevators, offering their goods and services.
Despite the introduction of a restructure for the economy, most of the people do not welcome this change, thinking that their standard of living was better under totalitarianism. Many aspects of the old system are extant, with the dictatorship of the proletariat much in evidence. Workers, for example, make about three times the salaries of the intelligentsia; and workers in the defense industries earn more than those people involved in the production of consumer goods.
At the top of the economic heap are the “millionaires,” of whom there may be as many as 10,000 in, Moscow. They even have a millionaires’ club in that city. Many of these people are former officials of the Communist Party,
who sell state property to the citizens during this era of privatization. At the bottom of the economic ladder are the unemployed, a new class created by perestroika. Some of these people have resorted to begging.
Although stock markets are developing, the devaluation of the ruble has been devastating to many. The ruble is becoming of such limited value that many hotels will not accept it; even the prostitutes are called “hard currency girls.”
To start a business, one must apply for a license from the state and wait for the bureaucratic machinery to respond. When it does, the fees for the license are negotiated rather than being set.
Although it is now possible to purchase a flat, most people are unable financially to do so and choose to live in the apartments rented by the state for approximately $5 a month with small additional fees for utilities. Medical and educational expenses are available without charge, but people are now allowed to pay for medical and educational services deemed to be of better quality than those offered by the state.
For most people, shopping is a time-consuming venture in food and department stores. Much of the food, for example, requires rationing stamps issued by the government. When entering a shop, one stands in line to select a loaf of bread and to determine its price, moving to another line to pay for the item before returning to the milk counter to restart the procedure. These inefficient procedures are followed in the department stores, although those people prepared to pay more can now circumvent the lines by going to shops in which more privatization has taken place.
The country is fascinated with the United States, with approximately two-thirds of the movies in Moscow coming from Hollywood. Many of the television programs are also American; one channel, for example, carries CNN. Many of the worst aspects of American life, such as violence, greed and promiscuity, are presented through these media.
Glasnost and perestroika are at work in the USSR, but the future probably lies in return to dictatorship or the development of an economic system unique to that part of the world. If the United States is wise, it will assist this former superpower in the development of a truly open, free, stable, and democratic society.
Thomas P. Slavens is a professor at the University of Michigan. This was written following a trip to the Soviet Union this summer.