Fyodor Dostoyevski looked back in The Possessed upon 1868 as the delusory “time of the first rumors about the emancipation of the serfs, when the whole of Russia suddenly rejoiced and was making preparations to be completely regenerated.” In that immemorial key, Andrei Makarov recently told a New York Association of the Bar seminar that “the Soviets have a tendency to praise all new phenomena to the skies and be surprised when they fail.”

As Tolstoy is to Russia’s hopes, Dostoyevski is to Russia’s hopelessness, and his note still so defines a yet-to-be-changed history that Mikhail Gorbachev seems to struggle with ghosts not merely as vivid as Lenin and Stalin but as dim as the tsars.

The bar association had invited nine Soviet attorneys to discuss the reforms that perestroika and glasnost have so far brought to the Soviet legal system. The seminar chose for emphasis the new measures for relaxing restraints on domestic entrepreneurs and foreign investors.

Makarov’s assigned topic was what he called that “panacea for all our troubles”—the joint venture program to revive the Soviet economy with Western capital. Joint ventures have twice been elaborately made law by the Council of Ministers and formally exist in 2,000 registered partnerships between Soviet entities and foreign corporations. Only forty are operative in fact.

“And so,” said Makarov, “you can see how willing investors are.”

Soviet lawyers are as far outside their system as American lawyers are inside theirs. Makarov’s tone had the slightly sardonic cast common to the spirit that has endured a whole life under the command of those for whom the proclamation amounts to the performance. He spoke with the authority of failure by no means of his doing, but nonetheless an irreducible encumbrance. Its output of cynics seems to be the largest item of increase in the gross national product of the Soviet Union.

The October Revolution is seventy-odd years old, and its inheritance is a social structure whose governors offer no shinier attraction for Western capital than the size of their market and the cheapness of their labor. They take care, Makarov observed, “to forget to talk about the quality of our labor.”

The Soviet lawyers had expected to provide details of two new laws, one “On Corporations” and the other “On Property.” But the law on corporations died in the Soviet parliament, and even the deputies who voted most enthusiastically for the law on property are not quite sure what it means.

There is a stock market of sorts, licensed by decree of the Council of Ministers, and the factories that have been issuing stock to their employees include, in a number of cases, those that have long been running at a loss and carried by loans from a state bank whose patience is exhausted. One conspicuous Soviet capitalis development would appear to be the junk bond.

Aleksei Rogatkin was asked whether the new property law would permit a labor collective of workers in the Hotel Ukrainia to sell it to a private investor. “I would not,” he replied, “recommend buying the Hotel Ukrainia. It’s a loser.”

The Soviet lawyers were by no means dismissive of glasnost, which they can thank for permitting them to establish their own Union of Advocates, a step toward independence effectively resisted by the Ministry of Justice until it was overborne, as Felix Kheifets put it, by an “important Party leader—I don’t want to mention his name.”

The surmise was inescapable that this nameless savior had to be Mikhail Gorbachev. Russians under the Soviets, as under the tsars, remain dependent on the wisdom and survival of just one man. So Dostoyevski hasn’t yet been wrong, and we must still wait and hope for the day when Tolstoy turns out to have been right after all.

Copyright © 1990 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

April 26, 1990