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Readings on Russia

Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope
By Francine Du Plessix Gray
New York: Doubleday, 1989
213 pages, $19.95

Francine Du Plessix Gray travelled throughout the Soviet Union in 1988, meeting with women of various ages and professions. She says she encountered people with a "curious blend of conservative and progressive ideas."

The most common word Gray heard during her travels was "overburdening." Nearly all women have fulltime jobs and are responsible for the majority of the domestic duties as well. They complained constantly of having no leisure time.

The flipside of "overburdening" is an unusual assertiveness among Soviet women. "Throughout all levels of Soviet society, one is constantly awed by women's keen sense of their greater patience, diligence, optimism, endurance, shrewdness and self- esteem apparently heightened by the very arduousness of their daily life," Gray writes.

The 1917 revolution led to the implementation of laws designed to protect the rights of women, such as liberal abortion and divorce laws and guarantees of equal pay for equal work. After slippage under Stalin, the laws were again liberalized.

Soviet women occupy technical and physical jobs at high rates, but they do not fill a proportional number of supervisory positions. Women comprise 90 percent of conveyor belt operators and two-thirds of highway construction crews. Over 80 percent of teachers, but only one-third of principals are women; 70 percent of engineers and skilled technical workers are women, but they constitute only 6 percent of their work's collective leadership.

Despite liberal laws, concerns about a shrinking workforce are leading Soviet officials to restrict women's reproductive freedom. Until recently, the Ministry of Health refused to disseminate any birth control information, arguing that such measures would slow the nation's birth rate. Only 18 percent of Soviet women practice any birth control at all, and only 5 percent use modern methods such as the pill or IUD. Not surprisingly, the Soviet Union has the highest abortion rate in the world; the official rate is two or three abortions for every birth, but a gynecologist who Gray interviewed estimates that the actual rate is between five and eight for every birth.

Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev's Reformers
By Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989
339 pages, $19.95

In his introductory essay, Stephen Cohen argues that following the ouster of Nikita Krushchev in 1964, rivalries within the Soviet Communist Party led to something similar to what Westerners call "party politics." Three groupings emerged: anti- Stalinists, who wanted to relax state control; neo-Stalinists; and conservatives, who wanted to maintain the post-Stalinist status quo. Aided by a generational change in the early 1980s, the reform movement gained control with the intensification of the economic stagnation and social degeneration which dates to the late 1970s.

Perestroika was an idea whose time had come, Cohen argues, but popular expectations have surpassed what Gorbachev has been able to deliver. International successes have buttressed Gorbachev's position, but the key to his survival has been the reform "party" at home. Gorbachev will need a strong boost from below, Cohen believes, to counter his main threat: Russia's tradition of bureaucratic state power reigning over society, a tradition which dates back centuries before the 1917 revolution.

In Voices of Glasnost, Cohen and vanden Heuvel interview a group of 14 people ranging from high-ranking officials to journalists and an actor. Many of them note the roots of Gorbachev's reforms in Krushchev's efforts. Indicating that they do not believe perestroika to be irreversible, those interviewed express the belief that the Soviet Union faces social and economic stagnation if perestroika fails.

By Mikhail Gorbachev
New York: Harper & Row, 1988
296 pages, $9.95

Gorbachev addresses this book to all the people of the world, discussing the restructuring of the Soviet economy while also addressing important foreign policy issues, especially relations with the United States. Although updated in 1988, parts of the book are already dated; Gorbachev emphasizes that his reforms do not constitute an abandonment of socialism, an assertion which is becoming increasingly muffled with the design of the "500 Days" plan for a transition to a market economy.

Still, much in the book remains relevant. Gorbachev makes no attempt to cover up the problems facing Soviet society. Applying the same principle to policymaking, he explains his belief that the level of civic awareness in the Soviet Union is of critical importance; he wants the people to know and understand policy debates, and he realizes that any economic plan develops through the actions of the people.

Regarding the economy, Gorbachev states that "the emphasis will be shifted from primarily administrative to primarily economic management methods at every level." He focuses on the need for cost accounting and for individual enterprises to be self- financing. He also highlights the need to cut defense spending and reallocate resources into the production of consumer goods.

Politically, Gorbachev advocates the return of power to the soviets, giving them the authority to control and coordinate the activities of enterprises and organizations in their area-- though it is doubtful this will occur under the 500 Days plan. Additionally, Gorbachev seeks to restore the power of trade unions in order to give workers a voice during the process of economic restructuring.

Inside Perestroika: The Future of the Soviet Economy
By Abel Aganbegyan
New York: Harper & Row, 1989
241 pages, $19.95

Written by one of Gorbachev's chief economic advisers, Inside Perestroika marks the Soviet leadership's economic thinking one year ago. Aganbegyan notes that perestroika is a constantly evolving program, and it has evolved considerably since the publication of this book. Even in this book, however, the moves to a market economy and away from socialism are apparent.

Aganbegyan provides an overview of the massive changes envisioned for the Soviet economy. He says, for example, that the process of price formation must be decentralized, with price subsidies lifted. He projects that central plans will serve as guides instead of detailed instructions.

Abanbegyan states that previous Soviet economic reforms, notably those made under Krushchev, have been reversed, but he believes Gorbachev's will be permanent. First, they are radical, affecting not only the economy, but the political, legal and judicial systems. Second, they aim to completely remove the administrative system. Third, most importantly and distinct from Krushchev's efforts, Gorbachev's reforms are democratic, which will make it difficult for administrative power to be reimposed on economic enterprises.

The Soviet Union's place in the world economy is also being drastically revised. Abanbegyan says that the U.S.S.R. is seeking to insert itself in the international division of labor and reconsidering its attitudes toward organizations such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The Awakening of the Soviet Union
By Geoffrey Hosking
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990
182 pages, $19.95

Hosking locates the roots of the Soviet Union's current economic and social crisis in its faltering economy and an increasingly urban and professional social structure. The time is ripe for fundamental reform, but standing in the way is the remnants of the country's "totalitarian" system.

Hosking insists that "totalitarian" is the best term to describe pre-Gorbachev Soviet society, but argues that this does not mean the system was static and unchangeable. The totalitarian legacy is a huge, self-interested bureaucracy which impedes reforms and a Soviet mindset which tends toward monological thinking, even among those who disavow the Communist Party.

The increasingly vibrant Soviet civil society germinated in the Brezhnev era, first with human rights organizations, and later with groups promoting nationalism, diverse cultures, religion and environmental protection.

The several successes of the environmental movement demonstrated its significant influence; it countered the Communist Party's longstanding relentless drive for economic growth at all costs. The 1987 government decree banning tree felling around Lake Baikal and ordering a large mill to stop producing cellulose, and the government's shelving of plans to divert several northern rivers to flow south constitute two of the environmental movement's biggest victories.

Hosking cites the Soviet Union's potential to be the economic miracle of the twenty-first century, but he sees two major threats. First, the party apparatus may overcome and turn back reform efforts. Second, the overthrow of the historic Soviet system may not be accompanied by a viable replacement.

- Compiled by Katherine Isaac, Leslie Woodside,
David Eisner, Jenny Kassan and Jonathan Dushoff.

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