Last October I journeyed to Moscow by invitation for a conference on conversion from military to civilian production. Upon arrival, my colleague, Professor Constantine Danopoulos of the political science department at San Jose State University, and I were informed that the meeting had been shifted to December to coincide with the Congress of the Supreme Soviet. Rescheduling and canceling without warning are typical Russian failings that they must somehow overcome if they are to bring in Western investment.
The question was what to do in Moscow in what proved to be a week of early winter, indeed the earliest winter in 20 years. Our contact, Vladimir, was resourceful—he is something of a “wheeler-dealer”—and we had a most interesting meeting with Father Gleb Yakunin and two Russian Army colonels, Colonel Mikhail Kuznetsov and Lieutenant Colonel (Colonel-select) Boris Lukichev. Vladimir speaks excellent English and proved to be an able translator. (I assume that he was honest and accurate. Even today, one is wise to be at least a little suspicious.)
First we took the Metro from our lodgings at the Gorbachev Foundation to Red Square and the GUM state department store. It was strange to see the white, blue, and red flag of the czars flying over the Kremlin on that chilly, overcast morning. The last time I was there, in early June 1970, the hammer and sickle were firmly ensconced, seemingly forever. GUM, which lies on the other side of Red Square, was then something out of the 19th century. Although it still is to a considerable extent primitive, the modern vies with the antique. For example, PlayMobil toys, German stereos and camcorders, and Italian shoes are sold (for hard currency only) right next door to Russian shops selling Matryushka dolls (stacked dolls-within-dolls). Before returning to the hotel to meet Vladimir, we took the Metro to Dzerzhinsky Square, or rather Lubyanka Square as it is now called. Before the coup attempt, a gigantic statue of “Iron Felix” stood in the center of the square opposite the infamous Lubyanka, headquarters of an insurance company before the revolution and later headquarters of the Cheka/KGB. It was pulled down and destroyed at the time of the coup and replaced with a crude cross.
Father Gleb (Russian Orthodox) had been a dissident who was quite independent of the KGB and who spent years in the labor camps for his vocal opposition and religious practices. A man of striking appearance and presence, he is now a people’s deputy in Parliament and an important figure in “military reform.” Although he did not mention it, Father Yakunin had just returned from a conference convened in Washington by the Institute on Religion and Democracy—”More Than Just a Constitution: The Future of Democracy in Russia and America”—where he had received the IRD’s 1992 Religious Freedom Award. Our meeting took place in Father Yakunin’s office in the Russian White House, the Parliament building that served as Boris Yeltsin’s redoubt during the aborted coup of August 1991. From an upper-story window our hosts showed us the scene of Yeltsin’s standoff with the tanks. The window also overlooks the ill-fated American Embassy building, riddled with KGB “bugs,” whose security design earned a State Department official an award.
Upon entering the Parliament building, we immediately spotted life-size paintings of the Russian czars, which only recently had replaced similar paintings of Bolsheviks and communist party apparatchiks. Our Russian hosts, who repeatedly referred to the “spiritual rebirth of the Russian Armed Forces,” were mainly interested in two aspects of military reform: civilian control of the armed forces and the creation of a military chaplain corps to replace the old political commissar system. Colonel Lukichev cited the results of a recent poll which indicated that about 10 percent of the officer corps is strongly religious and that about 25 percent is religious, but not as strongly. About five percent are atheists. Colonel Kuznetsov challenged these figures, claiming that as much as 35 percent is strongly religious, but he did not tell us how he arrived at his numbers. In any case, the Russian Army seems on the way to establishing a chaplain corps with genuine religious freedom for Baptists, Catholics, Muslims, etc., as well as for Orthodox Christians. In the course of conversation I suggested that they might wish to consult Cardinal John J. O’Connor about their proposed chaplain corps, since he has served both as U.S. Navy Chief of Chaplains (as far as I know the only admiral ever to become a cardinal) and as a military vicar of the Roman Catholic Church. The Russians were interested, and so I pursued the matter after returning home. I ultimately spoke to the senior chaplain on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon who informed me that, yes, conversations with the Russians about forming a chaplain corps had taken place.
The conversation on civilian control of the armed forces proved to be more nebulous, I suppose because of the nature of the subject. A retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel who was also present cited the example of George Washington’s refusal to have anything to do with military rule as an important precedent in the American subjection of the military to civilian control. Colonel Kuznetsov also cited the brutal hazing to which Soviet Army recruits have long been subjected. It turned out that his son had been drafted into the Russian Army, and he was concerned for his son’s safety. The meeting ended in the coffee shop of the White House where Father Gleb served us tea or coffee and the Russian version of “crumpets.” It is hard to find people more friendly than the Russians, and I was saddened to leave the meeting.
That evening Danopoulos and I were invited to the home of one of his Moscow friends, an Armenian editor, Vagan. His wife, an attractive and intelligent Ukrainian, had prepared some delicious salmon, which must have cost them a great deal. Their apartment, which they own, would be considered small in America but is decidedly plush by Russian standards. During the course of dinner Vagan was called away to the telephone. While he was gone, his wife proceeded to tell us what atrocious husbands Russian men are. Her first husband, a Russian, was unable to stay away from the bottle. Whether he beat her, too, was unclear, since her ability to converse in English was somewhat limited. She did say that her Armenian husband, like most Armenian men, is a workaholic.
The next evening Vladimir took us to an Uzbek restaurant, which turned out to be a hangout of the Moscow Maha. Indeed, some of the denizens were caricatures of the Sicilian/American Mafia of the 1920’s, complete with dark hats pulled down over their eyes. After a delicious (for Moscow) dinner with wines and the inevitable vodka, a “girly show” began—risque for the Russians, although quite tame by American standards. The act included a magician who called me to assist him. I could not quite follow what he did, especially after the wine and vodka, but it was impressive. When the show ended the girls came down onto the floor and joined some of the (Mafiosi-occupied) tables, evidently the customary practice.
Danopolous and I met with a retired general (Major General Nikita Chaldymov) who now heads a school, the Humanitarian Academy of the Armed Forces, charged with teaching and applying the “social sciences” in the armed forces. He was the principal organizer of a meeting in November 1991 entitled “The Armed Forces and Military Service in a Democratic State,” to which I had been invited. I could not attend because I was unable to get confirmation until the price of the airline ticket had escalated by $1,000. Again, a typical Russian failing. The school, formerly the Lenin Academy of the Armed Forces, was a training ground for political officers before the coup. Now it is geared toward the social sciences—sociology, psychology, and economies—as they apply to the military. Chaldymov emphasized the necessity to “departicize” the armed forces. We replied, “Oh, you mean depoliticize.” “No,” the general said, “We do not want to depoliticize because the army must always be the servant of the state.” On that note we agreed—just a matter of semantics—and departed. I noticed the reception hall more upon leaving than entering; it was entirely empty. Not a single display or artifact was in place. Danopoulos, who had been there the year before, told me that the room was then still full of Party propaganda displays.
We did most of our traveling about the city on the Metro, one of the most outstanding municipal transportation systems in the world. Although neither Danopoulos nor I speak Russian, a mere knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet is sufficient to navigate the system. Much of it deep underground for security purposes, it is one of the legacies of Stalin in much the same way that the German Autobahn system is a legacy of Hitler. The stations are kept clean, and the tile work is in reasonably (for Russian) good condition. Moreover, they arc safe, which cannot always be said for many parts of present-day Moscow. The cars are also clean and modern for the most part, and they arrive every few minutes—almost no wait. A warning for the traveler, however: many of the stops have been renamed since the failed August 1991 coup; heroes of the “Great October Revolution” are out, traditional Russian names are in. One of the most impressive pastimes of the people is their reading while riding or waiting. And not National Enquirer material, either. The Russians have always had a reputation as a nation of readers, which brings up quite a paradox. While the United States, the world’s technological leader, is almost a nation of illiterates, Russia, technologically backward in Third World magnitude, is highly literate.
Vladimir arranged a city tour for Danopoulos and me on Friday, the day before we left. Inevitably, we went to the Kremlin and its museum and cathedral. My wife and I had seen it in 1970, and as well as I can recall it has physically remained the same. The cathedral’s purpose, however, has changed, since it is occasionally used as a functioning church now that official atheism is dead. Our guide Vera, though an Uzbek, is a devout Orthodox Christian. This was evident in the reverence with which she treated the religious vestments and artifacts on display. Like many other non-Russians in Moscow, she appeared to harbor worries about Russian nationalism. She kept reassuring us and herself that being a citizen of Russia and a longtime resident of Moscow she had nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, she was worried.
What will happen to this unhappy country? Russia’s problems are so immense, and it has so little corporate knowledge of how to deal with them. By comparison, ours pale into insignificance. Yet the fate of Russia and of the other former Soviet republics affects us profoundly. As one wag has put it, thousands of books have been written on how to transform a capitalist system into a socialist system, but not one has been written on how to reverse the process.