In addition to all the well-known problems affecting the former Soviet Union that are continually reported in the Western press—shortages of food and medicine, ethnic strife, political intrigue, and civil discontent—Russians are also suffering from the stress of what might be called psychic noise pollution. The newspapers and evening news used to offer a predictable view of reality, and history flowed in a quiet, steady stream. Now the reassuring hum of the old ideology has been replaced by jarring, John Cage–like compositions. The Soviet-Russian Empire’s “friendship of peoples” has become a Babel of warring nationalities, each with its own language and history of injustice, each demanding equal rights. Furthermore, problems that were once carefully hidden from view—pollution, homelessness, crime—are now all out in the open. As a psychologist pointed out in the January 28 issue of Izvestia: “When, almost simultaneously, people are confronted with new prices, empty shelves, the closing of nursery schools, conflict in Georgia, conflicts in Uzbekistan, border disputes, and then on top of this the harsh and not always timely declarations of the President, the speaker of the Supreme Soviet or other members of the government, they go wild.”
The August revolution delivered the final blow not only to the political power of the Soviet center, but to the hierarchic social order which shaped people’s values and consciousness; it attacked their very understanding of the world they live in. Russians of all political persuasions are having difficulty adjusting, and many are still trying to detect a coherent plot in the decentralized chaos they now feel surrounds them. In mid-January I visited an elderly Russian art collector and his wife, a former Party committee secretary, who refused to acknowledge the collapse of the Soviet Union: “It’s still our country, our homeland,” they said. Sinister forces were at work, they assured me—another occupation of the “USSR” was being planned. When I asked by whom, they responded with conspiratorial coquettishness: “United Nations troops, or perhaps even American troops. We’ve been occupied before, you know.”
Later that week, at a party of liberal-minded artists and architects in their mid-thirties, I heard at least five different versions of forthcoming catastrophe: a military coup was scheduled for February 5; a “reliable” astrologist forecast coups for March or October; war with the Ukraine was imminent. The “Moscow Tribune,” a forum for the Russian democratic intelligentsia, met in late January to discuss political strategy to deal with the growing influence of the nationalistic-fascistic right, and their predictions were equally gloomy. In this constant talk of coming coups d’état and hunger riots one sometimes senses more nostalgia for a stable world order with clearly delineated friends and enemies than analysis of the new balance of power. There are real dangers of reaction in Russia, to be sure, but the only truth that stands above the confusion of the moment to an outside observer is that no one person or group controls anything anymore: what Yeltsin …
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