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Perestroika Finds a Niche in the Arts : If Poets and Painters Can Light the Way, Will Industry Follow?

<i> Geoffrey Hosking is a professor of Russian history at the University of London's School of Slavonic Studies. </i>

Whatever the Central Committee or the Supreme Soviet may decide, perestroika-- the decentralization and democratization of decision-making--seems in practice to be making quite slow progress in the industrial sector of the Soviet economy, where it is most urgently needed.

Factory managers, used to carrying out ministerial commands and to receiving ministerial subsidies, find it hard to change their spots and make serious decisions that risk jobs for some of their workers or even the bankruptcy of their whole enterprise.

But there is one area of Soviet life in which perestroika is going ahead full steam--and, moreover, on the initiative not of the government but of those lower down who will have to live with the consequences of their own decisions.

This area is culture. Writers, musicians, painters and so on have good reason for reformist zeal. For most of their working lives they have suffered from censorship and petty bureaucratic tutelage that is both spiritually deadening and economically ruinous. This obstructionism is especially damaging for young artists, who have the greatest difficulty in exhibiting their first pictures or getting their first musical works performed.

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To undermine the arbitrary bureaucrats who dog their lives, some leading cultural personalities have been quick to seize on Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s buzz words, glasnost and perestroika . When, for example, Elem Klimov--himself the director of several banned films--took over the chairmanship of the Film Workers Union last year he immediately summoned a team of like-minded colleagues and set about drafting a completely new constitution for the film industry.

Their proposals would sharply reduce the power of Goskino, the state authority that has hitherto directed and financed the entire film world. Instead, all studios are to become autonomous, to decide for themselves which films to mount, and to raise the funding themselves--at least after an initial “bridging” period. This they will do by concluding purely commercial contracts with the distribution network, which will in turn deal with the cinemas.

It is even intended that individual directors, actors and cameramen will receive personal copyrights for their contributions to the final product. Such a provision is likely to prove hard to formulate juridically, but it reflects the high priority currently accorded to ensuring freedom and due reward for talented people.

The theater world has been undergoing a similar emancipation. Last year the Ministry of Culture announced an experiment that would allow some theaters more scope to determine their own choice of plays. If this were successful, the new system would be extended to all theaters by 1989. Oleg Efremov, the director of the Moscow Arts Theater, realized that in order to face both the risks and the opportunities offered by this experiment it would be necessary to reorganize the whole theatrical profession.

“Under the present system of cultural administration,” he warned, “a new Moscow art theater would never even get off the ground.” He spearheaded efforts to establish a new Union of Theater Workers, whose electoral system was so devised as to exclude people not actively involved in the theater (that is, cultural bureaucrats) from responsible posts in it. Every branch of the new union is to have the right to appeal against “irresponsible administrative decisions” to a special conflict commission, staffed by the union’s highest officials.

By comparison, the Writers Union, the best known and the oldest established of all the “creative unions,” has been more ambivalent in its approach to reform. Even here, however, certain editors like Sergei Zalygin of Novy Mir and Grigory Baklanov of Znamya have converted their journals into bastions of relative free thinking, publishing works long banned in the Soviet Union--notably Boris Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago,” announced for next year. There are also plans afoot to set up a cooperative publishing house owned by shareholders, who would elect an editorial board to decide what to publish. The grand old man of Soviet letters, Veniamin Kaverin, has sponsored the project, recalling his youth in the 1920s--the last time Russian writers were free to publish outside the state network.

The emancipation of cultural life still has a long way to go. Below the surface remain unofficial rock groups, painters whose pictures are exhibited only privately, poets who read their works in each other’s apartments. A whole bubbling alternative culture is struggling to reach an audience thirsty for the color and variety that until recently was so lacking. As an economist would say, there is no shortage of either supply or demand.

Might the example be contagious? It would be ironic if unbusinesslike painters and poets proved more adept at economic reform than the stone-faced men from the industrial ministries. But perhaps that is why, after spending his first year in office preaching in vain to the latter, Gorbachev has now turned with such panache to the former. It could turn out to be an unexpectedly effective way of creating a public-relations success for perestroika.

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