I recently returned from a visit to Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev, and there is no question about there being more freedom to express ideas. But reports of change are exaggerated. There are still no nongovernmental publishing houses. Two of the more popular journals, Ogonyok and Literaturnaya Gazeta, are sold out quickly and there is a waiting list for subscribers. More are not printed because of a supposed “paper shortage,” though every kiosk in Moscow is well-supplied with Lenin’s works. And no publication, no matter now adventuresome, attacks Gorbachev.
I could purchase Russian language editions of dead literary greats like Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, or Bulgakov in the state-run shops open only for foreigners with foreign currency. These same books were unavailable to the Soviets at their own bookstores. All of these books would sell on the street for at least ten times their shop price. Bibles on the street would sell for about one-fifth of an average monthly salary. I stayed at major Intourist hotels, but none of them had European editions of American or even European papers. I could not find them at airports, train stations, or major newsstands.
When I returned home I read an AP story of a visiting Soviet official who said his country is “as open as the Wild West once was” and how the “USSR now has limitless opportunities.” That’s ridiculous. Soviet consumers still stand in long lines. I went to an expensive private cooperative restaurant in Leningrad where, though the food was good, the waiter apologized profusely because they were not allowed to sell any alcoholic beverages. This was not the case at the state-run hard currency Intourist restaurants.
Clothes are shoddy and expensive. I saw a suit at GUM (“the world’s largest department store”) that cost 200 rubles ($350 at the official exchange rate) that might sell for $125 in America. Their cheapest car, the Lada, sells for 10,000 rubles ($16,500 at the official rate), while the average worker makes 2,700 rubles a year. In the larger cities there are state shops that sell better-quality goods at cheaper prices, but only for foreign currency. In effect, the Soviets run their own black market, though people on the street continually offer to snap up foreign currency at two or three times the official rates. (If the Soviets allowed the ruble to be bought and sold internationally, the exchange rate in relation to the dollar might increase from $1.65 to the ruble to at least 3 to 4 rubles per dollar.)
The Soviet Union is not the Wild West, or the Wild East, and there are no indicators it will become so.