By Powell, David E.
Insight on the News , Vol. 10, No. 30
I have just returned from my 29th visit to Moscow. The weather there, while dismal and depressing, was positively exhilarating in comparison with the near-universal despair I encountered among the people of the city. Moscow is always a gloomy place, but this time it was far more so than usual.
Men and women alike spoke of feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of the crises confronting them. They are especially concerned about the extraordinary upsurge in inflation (2,600 percent in 1992 and another 900 percent last year), which has priced most goods beyond their reach. The ruble has become almost worthless: The exchange rate one day in June was 1,952 rubles to the dollar, and Russian currency plummets daily.
People also are appalled by the dilapidated state of public transportation; air and water pollution that has made their city filthy and its drinking water unhealthy; the discovery of numerous nuclear-waste disposal sites within the capital; a visible increase in poverty, homelessness and prostitution; and the ineptitude and venality of their politicians.
Crime is a serious concern. The number of violent and property crimes has been increasing by 20 to 25 percent a year, and the homicide rate in the country passed that of the United States in 1989. These circumstances are due, in large measure, to falling living standards, as well as to the passivity and corruption of the police and the unraveling of communism's ability to enforce discipline.
As production levels continue to fall and prices continue to rise, the overall quality of life has eroded steadily. People now spend three-quarters of their income on food. As a result, they are unable to afford anything but the cheapest cuts of meat or sausage (which invariably contain more fat than meat), if they are able to purchase any at all.
Real wages continue to drop. But the best response the government has been able to come up with was a March 1992 promise that it would try to prevent wages from lagging behind inflation "by more than 30 to 40 percent." If unemployment, officially pegged at 3.8 percent of the labor force but actually two or three times that, is factored in, it is clear that the authorities have been unable to meet even that pathetic goal. The Ministry of Social Security says that "only" 20 percent of the citizenry live below the poverty line (defined, astonishingly, as mere "physiological survival"). But leading specialists believe that the real figure is closer to 90 percent.
According to Mikhail Rutkevich of the Russian Academy of Sciences, "History has never known such a decline in living standards during peacetime." Indeed, the fall in output is far greater than the drop that occurred in the United States during the Great Depression. Men and women increasingly are convinced that they have sacrificed their lives, have nothing to show for it and have little likelihood of ever extricating themselves from the awful situation. Has all the pain and suffering under Lenin, Stalin and their successors been worthwhile? Few people, and certainly none of the Muscovites with whom I spoke last month, thought that it was.
As a journalist recently wrote in the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, "I am not sure if anything I have done up to now has had any meaning." He spoke about "the incredible hardening of morality in recent years," that is, the violence and brutality he constantly witnessed, as well as the unending contest for "the survival of the fittest." Democracy, he concluded, "has not produced anything but volcanic eruptions of anger and harted. …