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Jewish World Review April 25, 2001 / 3 Iyar, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Guide to a Collapsing Society -- IN the fall of 1983, I spent three incredible weeks in Russia -- incredible not in the sense used by the travel posters, but incredible as in mystifying, arduous, ghastly and mostly inexplicable.

I had prepared for the trip by reading the latest highly acclaimed books about Russia, none of which prepared me. Those best sellers had been written by American political correspondents stationed in Moscow. I soon realized that it was like reading books about the South by New York Times reporters stationed in Atlanta.

Once in Russia, I understood only that I didn't understand. Several times a day -- in the street, at a market, on a train, in a park -- I would simply stop still in bewilderment, and wonder at what I was seeing and not believing: The pyramid of burnt-out light bulbs for sale in an open-air market, the stairs in our hotel that led nowhere, the friendly conversation that was suddenly cut short by a squad of militia ... .

I had taken a course in conversational Russian before I went. It, too, turned out to be useless. My guidebook Russian made it possible to open conversations that never went on. People seemed to talk only after the sun had gone down and the vodka had begun to flow. Or they would make appointments to meet in parks or plazas not likely to be bugged. Russians did speak openly on the endless Trans-Siberian railroad, for there was nothing else to do but watch the birch trees go by till world's end.

That is what a collapsing society feels like when no one expects it to collapse any time soon: mystifying. Only looking back do the pieces fall into place:

The burnt-out light bulbs could be used to replace good ones stolen from the office or factory. (Although in the Soviet Union of unblessed memory, was it really stealing to steal from a state that stole from everybody?)

Stairs led nowhere because the state planned them, or imported entire hotels from the West but then couldn't assemble them properly. They called it Soviet engineering. (They called anything worthless Soviet, as in Sovmedicine or Sovjournalism.)

People were arrested for talking to an American not so much because they might get ideas, but because they might be trading rubles for dollars. And it was the dollar that was considered the truly subversive influence. It was worth something, unlike the system that was collapsing all around.

All of this came back on reading the news, or just the propaganda, from the world's remaining evil empire. For there was indeed one sure guidebook to Big Brother's Russia, and I had read it many years before my trip.

It was a book written by someone who'd never visited the Soviet Union but somehow had intuited all the nuances of a modern totalitarian system, especially its language. Or rather the non-language used to transmit non-thought. I am referring of course to George Orwell's "1984.''

In still Red China, it's still "1984.'' You can tell by the doublespeak and doublethink of the communiquis issued in the wake of the foofaraw over the American aircrew now freed from captivity.

The twists and turns of the party line sounded remarkably like those I heard in Russia in the fall of 1983 just after a Korean airliner was blown out of the skies:

It was really a spy plane, shot down by a heroic Soviet pilot. The West really should apologize. It was really an accident. It's really a matter for negotiation. Soon a resumption of amicable relations will really be possible. Mir y Druzhba! let us lift our glasses to Peace and Friendship!

In short, what was true yesterday must be wiped out and replaced by today's truth, which will be further adjusted tomorrow. And one after another each will go down the memory hole. That was Winston Smith's job at the Ministry of Truth in "1984'': to bring the always mutable past up to date, so that the Party would always appear right.

In Russia, in 1983, the people had stopped listening long ago. I remember, in the airport in Irkutsk, passing a rack of what must have been 24 different newspapers, all of them Pravda in a different language. Pristine, glossy, they all said the same thing in different words, none of them believable. An occasional tourist might buy one, but the locals certainly had no use for this propaganda.

At the end of the day, still untouched, for they were good only for souvenirs, the papers would go down the memory hole, to be replaced by the next day's Truth.

Correction: On an early morning run through Baku, I did see a local pick up a copy of Pravda with care, even reverence. He carefully opened its pages out on the ground as if he were going to pore over every word -- and then used the newspaper as a prayer rug as he faced Mecca for his morning devotions.

By 1983, the whole system was cracking. Although the labor camps were full, some people insisted on thinking, even whispering what they thought. Although every typewriter was supposed to be licensed, an underground -- literaturesamizdat -- was flourishing in a way literature never does in a free country.

Even though any book that smacked of freedom or just Western prosperity was confiscated at Customs, people were passing around copies of Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago'' and asking Westerners if they'd brought any books, newspapers, real news ... .

As one Russian writer put it, even if the whole world were paved over, somewhere a crack would develop, and in that crack a blade of grass would sprout. Have you ever seen the roots of a tree, spreading with the sheer force of life, buckle a concrete sidewalk? It's only a matter of time.

It was a losing fight the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was waging in 1983. It is a losing fight the People's Republic of China is waging now. It's no longer a matter of licensing typewriters or jamming the Voice of America. Some of the Internet sites in China are getting 10 million hits a day. How police them all? The state is running out of monitors to keep the chat rooms in line with today's official Truth.

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