Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin came to New York recently to explain how Americans can best relieve the sufferings and revive the hopes of stricken Armenia. His hosts were the Interchurch Appeal to Conscience Foundation, repository for the holy spirit, and Paine Webber, citadel of the acquisitive itch. A Communist catastrophe had put God and Mammon together in affecting conjunction.

The occasion was nonetheless a sad one and made sadder still because Dubinin did not seem quite to know what anyone could do to help. He preferred instead to say how highly “the Soviet leadership appreciates this humanitarian assistance,” which he took to be a reflection of “improved Soviet-American relations” and a response to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new vision of the world.”

The sense grew that, hard as he tries to adjust to new visions, Dubinin remains yoked to the old Soviet habit of enjoying the rhetoric too much to bother with the reality. It is, after all, no large compliment to imply that, if Americans did not so much like Gorbachev, we could excuse ourselves from caring about 700,000 homeless Armenians.

A veteran in the labors of catastrophe relief told the ambassador that he had been particularly impressed by the speed the Mexican and Colombian governments had brought to enlisting the inhabitants of the afflicted areas in the struggle to recover and rebuild after their earthquakes. What, he wondered, is Moscow doing to mobilize Armenia’s local institutions?

Dubinin replied that Armenia will be rescued by leadership operating “at the highest level” under the personal direction of Mikhail Gorbachev himself. The ambassador was reciting the tired gospel of the governmental process as a succession of mandates dictated from above. The Soviet economy has been all but disabled by the command economy, and Armenian relief appears to limp as lamely with command relief.

Soviet journalism has been remarkably candid in describing a scene where victims wander about, numb between helpless endurance and unfocused anger, with no notion of what they can do for themselves and no clear message from anywhere else of what can be done for them.

Every now and then the tones of false confidence resound as of old: the manager of the choked freight complex at the Moscow airport proclaims that “We have altered the technology,” and Armenia’s permanent representative at the USSR council of ministers announces, apparently from Moscow, that crime has been “totally stopped.”

Here echoes the style of the commissars of tradition who used to say, “I have spoken and all is solved.” Those Armenians whose will yet survives pick at the rubble with shovels. We know again that when the Soviets speak of an autonomous republic, they refer to a province empty of the local institutions that we ourselves curse and depend on.

Armenia gives us cause to wonder whether the proper image of the Soviet Union may not indeed be Violetta’s in La Traviata, full-throatedly singing “I am revived” and then coughing and gasping for breath.

Gorbachev knows the desperation of his case better than we ever could, and, because he is so admirably aware of it, no public man could more deserve our prayers. He finds himself a stranger, if still unafraid, in a world he never made but has been handed to him in a cast too granitic for molding, and perhaps too adamant to break before being broken oneself.

He returned to Moscow enraged that so many buildings had tumbled down from having been constructed of concrete adulterated with sand. “[This] means,” he said, “that cement has been stolen? And by whom?” The Stalinism he detests invariably explained the results of incompetence as the consequences of sabotage. When Gorbachev’s circumstances drive him to putting his questions even fleetingly in this key, we begin to sense how terrible are the dangers for his hopes.

December 22, 1998

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January 19, 1989