Life-Death Struggle for the Soul and Center of Soviet Union : Russia: Clear and current peril--life-expectancy down, agriculture destroyed, prospects dire. Change-makers battle to build a democratic future.

Alex Alexiev is a senior analyst of Soviet affairs at the RAND Corp

Last week's stunning electoral victory by radical reformists is a watershed event signaling the Eastern European revolution's arrival in Mother Russia--birthplace and bastion of Soviet totalitarian socialism.

Soon that parliamentary triumph will bring into focus a momentous struggle long brewing under the surface: the future of Russia, a clash between two diametrically opposed and equally committed views of what Russia is and should be.

In a sense, this is a battle resulting from a fundamental soul-searching, the kind of catharsis that brings about national renewal--but also civil wars.

The eventual outcome will dramatically affect what happens to Russia and the Soviet Union. More, it will affect the world beyond.

The impetus for the struggle over the soul of Russia was a growing realization that 70 years of communist rule had brought a poverty of goods and spirit. Nominally the overlords of the Soviet empire, Russians have in fact been treated like colonial subjects themselves and may be worse off than most. In most aspects of socioeconomic and cultural life they face dire current austerity--and dismal prospects if change does not come soon.

The once-vibrant countryside has been devastated, its productive agriculture destroyed. In the cradle of Russian civilization, tens of thousands of villages have been abandoned, a vast depopulated wasteland. Decades of rapacious plunder of natural resources and irrational industrial policies have left the country in despoliation.

While economic decline can eventually be reversed, repairing the damage to society may not be quite as easy. Following the denial of its traditional culture and religion, Russian society seems to have lost moral fiber, afflicted with numerous social ills: destruction of the traditional family; rampant alcoholism; pervasive corruption and exploding crime rates.

One of the consequences is a demographic crisis of frightening proportions. Russian women, each burdened with an average of six abortions, have a fertility rate among the lowest in the world--significantly below replacement numbers.

As a result, the population will enter a period of steep decline soon, at least 30 million in the next 50 years. The demographic problem is aggravated by pandemic alcoholism that, according to some experts, is now threatening the genetic pool of the Russian people.

With an estimated yearly consumption of 17 to 21 liters of pure alcohol per capita (about 40 bottles of vodka for every man, woman and child), the Russians may be drinking themselves to extinction.

In Moscow, as many as eight out of 100 children are said to suffer some degree of mental retardation and more than 50% of the young people are unable to master high-school material.

Infant mortality is about three times the average Western rate; Russia is one of the few nations that has experienced an actual decline in life-expectancy during the past two decades.

While there is little disagreement about the peril, causes and likely cures are widely disputed. On one side are self-styled "patriots," including many prominent writers.

They believe Russia is a victim of a sinister conspiracy by foreign and home-grown elements that share an unremitting hatred for Russia. The most extreme "patriots" do not hesitate to name the main conspirators--Jews and Freemasons. Some even claim the Bolshevik Revolution was little more than a cunning Zionist plot to destroy the nation.

These chauvinist forces reject the Western economic and political model-- its concern for individual rights--as decadent. They propose rejuvenation by revival: "Russia was and remains a unique source of spirituality for world civilization. As long as Russia lives, so will the Earth," said one spokesman, almost echoing old Nazi cries for the transcendental superiority of German kultur .

While chauvinists occasionally criticize the communist system, their programs accept many of its structures as necessary. They call for the preservation of state ownership of industry and collective agriculture; they denounce the open market and private property. They see the empire as Russia's historic patrimony, to be preserved at all cost.

Though noisy and frightening in their rhetoric, these people do not enjoy much popular support. One might dismiss them as reactionary crackpots but they are also sustained by powerful conservative elements in the party, the military and the KGB.

The armed forces, in particular, increasingly embrace the chauvinist agenda as they openly criticize current policies they see destroying the cohesion of the empire and their role as its guardians. Unabashed paeans to chauvinism and militarism now regularly appear in military publications.

Opposing the chauvinists are growing legions of democratically inclined Russians who see the issue in starkly different perspective.

These liberals perceive the real enemy as the Soviet totalitarian system. They believe its complete dismantling is a necessary precondition for regeneration. They also see the need to restore traditional culture, religion and a healthy patriotism, but they hope to bring about renewal by relying on principles that have universal validity.

Political democracy, a market economy and respect for individual rights are their aims. Most important, more and more of them realize that Russia itself cannot be free as long as it oppresses others. They are willing to let go of empire for the sake of a free and democratic Russia.

Last week's elections give them the first real opportunity to start change from inside the system. The political tide runs their way; like Eastern Europe earlier, Russia seems poised to shake off the long totalitarian nightmare and join the community of free nations.

What is still unclear is whether the new hate merchants will allow the process to take place peacefully or, in collusion with guardians of the old order, whether they will push Russia into one last violent spasm.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World