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From Russia, with Insight: Reporter David Shipler Finds the Locals Are Happier Than You Might Think

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“From the time of the czars Russians have been sensitive about Western eyes looking at them,” says New York Times correspondent David Shipler. “They have an inbred instinct to conceal.” In Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams (Times Books, $17.95) Shipler, who was based in Moscow from 1974 to 1979, attempts to answer a couple of basic questions: What is the average Russian like? What does he think of his life? “It’s difficult, but understanding the Russians is a prerequisite to coexistence,” says Shipler. During 40,000 miles of travel through 36 cities, he encountered profound patriotism, food lines, an infatuation with American goods and a warm, diverse society with more political irreverence than he had expected. Shipler, 41, his wife, Debby, 40, and their children, Jonathan, 18, Laura, 11, and Michael, 6, now live in Jerusalem, where he is the Times bureau chief. He recalled his impressions of Soviet life for Senior Writer Kristin McMurran.

How did the Soviet Union differ from your expectations?

I expected a more oppressive society, so I was surprised to hear Russians telling political jokes. But they do it all the time, including party members. Soviet society is more diverse than it looks from the outside. Dissidents hold press conferences. People complain. The press is more critical than many Americans imagine. I used to believe that Russians were basically like us, that they craved freedom and wanted to be rid of their tyrannical dictatorship. After being there a while, I found this not to be so.

What do they think of their government?

There is in the Russian soul a very powerful yearning for strong authority and a passion for order. Many Russians feel that their own leadership is weak and irresolute. They believe that this partial vacuum has permitted the development of such social ills as economic inefficiency, corruption, embezzlement from the state. You hear significant numbers of Russians talking nostalgically about the days of Stalin when leadership ruled with a firm hand.

How do the Soviets view America?

They crave American things—jazz records, calendars, blue jeans, plastic bags. But they do not admire American political ideas. They see our democratic system as chaotic, disorderly and, ultimately, quite frightening. Russians don’t admire a system that allows many different ideas to fly around and compete. Our delight in self-criticism brings Russians close to revulsion.

What false notions of American society do they hold?

They see America in terms of a class conflict. They believe that poverty, racial discrimination, unemployment, expensive medical care and other ills are even more serious than they really are. They believe if you’re out of a job, you’re out on the street. They do not know that there are cushions built into our system to protect people.

How patriotic are Soviet citizens?

They have a mystical patriotism that transcends politics. Dissidents may detest their system, but many deeply love their country. I knew one who was exiled, and at the airport the customs officials confiscated two things: a book of Pushkin’s poetry and a small box of Russian earth. I’m sure the customs officials knew how much pain they were causing.

How does the average urban dweller live?

A doctor does not live in a different kind of apartment from a factory worker. The average apartment is quite small, two or three rooms. It is in a modern high rise on the outskirts of the city. There is plenty of heat, electricity and running water, but the walls have cracks, the stairwells are dirty, cold, dark. Many people own televisions and washing machines, but few have dryers. To buy an appliance you have to stand in line and fight with vicious bureaucrats behind counters. Rent averages about $25 a month. A factory worker earns a median salary of $300 per month. People are paid in cash; they don’t have checking accounts.

Describe the Soviet household.

The average family has one child. Husband and wife work because they need two salaries and because the society’s ethic holds that women should work. But the woman has a second job: to run the household. It is a male chauvinist society. Shopping is the task of the woman after work, and it requires standing in line and going from store to store, picking up rumors of what may be available here and there.

Do Russians eat well?

Breakfast is often kasha—boiled millet. In Siberia I saw people eating horse meat and kasha and washing it down with brandy. Meat is rarely available in most rural areas. In cities you can usually get meat or fish, but the fish is often frozen and the quality of the meat is poor. Butchers use hatchets to chop it, thereby splintering the bone. There are a lot of potatoes, beets, cabbage, rice. In the winter there is nothing green or fresh.

Is life in Russia as grim as it seems?

Many people display contentment in their personal lives, while grumbling about shortages and bureaucracy. There is no discernible urge to revolutionize life, but rather to make it better within its limits. If you can’t get meat, you don’t blame the system, you blame yourself for not living in Moscow where it’s available.

How do Soviet children differ from American children?

Russian children seem much less adventurous than Americans. There tends to be a lot of inhibition imposed on children’s play and little allowance for individual creativity or discovery. Grandmothers are regarded as indulgent softies. It’s a kind of smothering love—hovering around the child all the time and not letting him run free. “Button up your coat, Sasha.” “Don’t get your feet wet, Sasha.” If you sit in a park, you hear this constant, very kind badgering of children. In a way it’s a metaphor for the adult society where the state provides comfort and care, but in an almost suffocating atmosphere which doesn’t leave any room for people to wander.

What is education like?

There is strong emphasis on individual performance. Children are graded daily. Elementary classes are often divided into small groups which compete on grades, homework, behavior, neatness. A child not doing his homework is pressured to perform better by his group. Classmates scold the lazy and help the slow. This fosters a busybody-ness where everybody has the right to interfere in everyone else’s affairs, which determines the way Russians grow into adulthood.

How are careers chosen?

Young people are forced into making certain choices before they are old enough to understand them. After the eighth grade students choosing a vocational high school must pick a career for the rest of their lives. After 10th grade those going on to higher education choose an institute for engineering, medicine or history. There is no such thing as liberal arts. After graduating, Russians must take a three-year assignment wherever they are sent or lose their diploma.

What is life like in Siberia?

It is both an exile and a frontier, where life is so hard that political prisoners and criminals are sent there to live like the villagers as punishment. People live in wooden houses without running water, bathrooms or central heating. Wood stoves don’t keep the frost from forming on the inside walls. In the winter it’s so cold a rubber boot sole can snap in half and truck engines have to be kept running the whole season. But it is also very beautiful. Politically it is less oppressive than other parts of the country. Each time I visited I was struck by both the hardship and the excitement of the place.

How do Russians have fun?

They love to do things in groups: hiking, cross-country skiing, skating. The most popular films and literature deal with love affairs, families and problems between job and home. Restaurants are jammed, and they have loud bands playing awful music and people dancing awkwardly. There are lots of people who are not alcoholics but who get roaring drunk on Saturday night and consider it great fun.

Are there characteristic Russian vices?

Certain attitudes are shaped by the system. Hypocrisy and dishonesty are prevalent. Children are encouraged to say what is expected of them, whether they believe it or not, and this has become the Soviet style. There is a very serious alcohol problem among adults because drinking is a way of escape. There is a rising crime problem. The divorce rate is increasing. I would guess there is promiscuity, but sexual behavior is not discussed. Also, it’s not easy to find a place to have an affair. I’ve heard that some people take the overnight train to Leningrad and back.

How insulated are citizens from domestic and international news events?

It’s not easy for Russians to get information because the Russian-language Voice of America is now jammed in the U.S.S.R. Some Russians are very adept at learning about social problems by reading between the lines of their own newspapers. Any Russian who wants to be aware knows that Andropov is ill.

Are Russians fearful of nuclear war?

They are at least as afraid of us as we are of them, not only because of our technological power, but also because we have never had a war on our own territory. For the Russians, World War II still lives as a time of great suffering. They fear we are a bit cavalier about military matters because we have never suffered in that way. As they see it, the U.S. has provoked the arms race.

Is it true that Russians rewrite history?

There is a joke: “What’s the definition of a Soviet historian? A man who can predict the past.” This sums up the Soviet approach to history. History occupies an important place in a Russian’s sense of the world, and that’s why the government has to fabricate it.

What future do the Russians dream of?

They have a profound yearning for belief in a single truth. Communism has not satisfied that need. The country has stagnated, draining away the old conviction that it was moving toward a bright future. Now there is a growing, unofficial effort to redefine the future by rediscovering the past, to cherish Russian classics in literature and music and to look again at the church as a repository of all that is inherently Russian.