Glimmers of Hope on Russia's Horizon
by Steven R. Van Hook
Santa Barbara News-Press
November 26, 1993
There is a Russian word -- "koshmar" -- meaning nightmare, a horrendous, terrifying dream. It's a word I heard often during my extended assignment in Moscow over the final months of Gorbachev's rule in 1990 and '91. Russians young and old used it to describe their dreary, hopeless life amid the turmoil and uncertainty.
It certainly was a bad dream. The most basic of life's staples were difficult to come by. Billions of rubles were recalled, life savings snatched away. Any hope that remained for reforms had been blasted by the tank fire on Baltic citizens protecting their reach for freedom. Soldiers once again patrolled the streets of Moscow. The stateside corporate office closed our TV news bureau fearing for my staff's safety. I returned home despairing for Russia's future.
But here I was again in Moscow watching the military ring the Parliament building. The circumstances seemed so familiar. Here was this very same structure -- the White House -- which once sheltered Boris Yeltsin's nascent democracy from the old-guard communists staging their unsuccessful 1991 coup. Here again today were tanks prepared to fire upon the recalcitrant deputies inside refusing to relinquish their power (and their substantial perks). Here again seemed to be a defining moment dividing Russia's future from Russia's past.
Yet just a half mile outside the perimeter of all this turmoil and media hype, the Russian mood was one of resolute indifference. The people I spoke with now in Russia are more concerned with the day-to-day difficulties of existence.
"I'm a patriot, but not to my country," said Oleg, a young Russian who with his new bride joined me for dinner. "My allegiance is to my family, earning money, finding food, taking care of my own. I have no time to think of anything else."
This is the new Russia the young will inherit; devoid of communism's stifling yet secure grasp, and bereft yet of a free market's abundance. But from this has come the understanding that political systems are not changed by changing politicians, but by changing the will of the people.
A new spirit of initiative and self-improvement has settled on Moscow. While the government factions fight for their rule, business is finding its way. Today's Russia underscores the adage, "Capitalism is what happens when you leave the people alone."
Everywhere you see new signs of successful entrepreneurship -- hundreds of street kiosks selling everything from bananas to boots, shiny new western autos, glitzy nightclubs, well-stocked mall markets. Granted much of this is far outside the financial reach of your regular Russian household. And granted much of this falls under the control of the Russian mafia dealing in bribes and broken limbs. But nonetheless there is a smell of commerce in the air. Like awkward teenagers, they will mature and learn better balance.
The December 12 election throughout Russia for a new Parliament bodes well if truly democratic and reform-minded officials are brought to power. But this is not from where the salvation of Russia will come. The young people recognize this.
"I don't care if they're communists, socialists, capitalists or anarchists -- just give me good business," says young entrepreneur Sergei Orlov.
Well-meaning Western executives and technicians are volunteering their expertise through programs such as the Peace Corps, the Krieble Institute, and the Citizens Democracy Corps, teaching basic business principals and production skills to young and eager students throughout the former Soviet empire. Western companies are braving the vagaries of the region to form joint venture operations and establish corporate footholds in the fertile financial soil.
Far in the distance, perhaps a decade or so past the peaks, you can see dim horizons of hope. New visions, new relations between governments, new technologies tapping the skills and resources of this rich country are moving it into new realms of possibility.
Koshmar is a word I heard not once during my most recent stay. Instead, one catches tentative talk of hopes and dreams that may yet come true.
Indeed, perhaps around the world we can now let go of the long night's ghastly specters, wipe away the sleep still clouding our eyes, and plan for the new day ahead.