Visiting Soviet Sees Humor in Changes Brought by <i> Glasnost</i>


Ernest (Eric) Shiryaev, associate professor of psychology at Leningrad University, thinks communism is a joke.

But Shiryaev, a 30-year-old academic whiz kid, author of several books and fan of blue jeans, running shoes and rock ‘n’ roll, isn’t trying to be a comedian when he relates tales that make fun of--and heap scorn on--the Soviet state. With pointed humorous jabs at his native land, Shiryaev, a visiting teacher at UCLA, seeks to give Americans glimpses into the burgeoning diversity of the Soviet Union in the era of glasnost.

Jokes are especially useful, he says, in showing that many of his fellow citizens believe “communism is a sort of hell.”

“President Bush, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and French President Francois Mitterrand take a break from a summit in Moscow. They go for a drive in the country, where their security guards are overwhelmed by Russian gangsters and their limousine is wrecked. The three Presidents run for their lives. But the pursuing gangsters gain on the world leaders.


“In desperation, Mitterrand pulls out his check book, writes a check for a million francs and drops it behind him. A villain grabs the check and tears it up, barely slowing down. Bush tries the same thing, only his check is for $1 million. Again, the gangsters are unimpressed. Gorbachev reaches into his pocket, pulls out a grubby piece of paper and scrawls on it hastily. The thugs pick up the scrap, read it and immediately turn and flee in dismay. ‘What did you say?’ asks Bush. ‘I told them we were on the road to communism,’ Gorbachev replies.”

Shiryaev’s repertoire also includes staging mock trials of the Soviet Union for crimes against its own people--and the world--and role-playing of a gallery of Soviet citizens to illustrate the social and political divisions in his country. (He also will happily put capitalism on trial to make a point.)

Indeed, Shiryaev, at UCLA as part of an exchange program with Soviet universities, represents what seems to be a new Soviet man--the entrepreneurial psychologist.

Working with Barry Collins, a UCLA psychology professor, Shiryaev wants to smooth the road to perestroika with the soothing ministrations of his profession. Specifically, the two hope to use weekend encounter sessions to sensitize both U.S. and Soviet politicians, business people, educators and students to the new, complex realities behind lingering Cold War stereotypes.

First, the two plan to bring together American businessmen and representatives of the Soviet Union’s capitalist-style cooperatives for workshops exploring commercial possibilities between the two countries.

Ultimately, Shiryaev and Collins foresee a network of Soviet and U.S. psychologists helping to increase contact and collaboration between the two countries.

Shiryaev says he represents a cooperative of about 20 to 30 Soviet psychologists interested in developing exchange programs with the United States. Psychologists in his country are just learning to emerge from their academic niches and adapt to the more free-wheeling ways spawned by economic and political restructuring, he says.

For the next few years, at least, Shiryaev--who earned his doctorate from Lenningrad University in 1983 and has won teaching and research awards from Soviet educational associations--expects the practice of psychology to be a growth industry in his country. In the cities, more and more Soviet citizens are availing themselves of psychological counseling, particularly to deal with a divorce rate now hovering at about 50%, he says.

Moreover, Shiryaev says he has conducted extensive role-playing sessions for local political organizations in the Siberian city of Omsk to help politicians there adjust to a more open political process. “Their attitudes . . . were only black and white: ‘This is communism, that is capitalism,’ ” he explains.

He remembers asking a retired Red army colonel in one such group to play a role critical of his profession. “He told me, ‘No, no, I can’t do this,’ ” Shiryaev recalls. “I said, ‘Please, this is your role.’ ” After much persuasion, the reluctant colonel managed to get into the spirit of things, he adds wryly.

Shiryaev believes similar role-playing exercises in the proposed U.S. workshops will help break down long-standing misperceptions held by Americans about a supposedly monolithic Soviet Union.

“A Frenchman, an American and a Russian are asked to talk about the happiest days of their lives. The Frenchman says it was the day a beautiful woman came to his apartment asking to stay a few days. The American says it was the day he inherited $1 million. The Russian says it was the day the KGB knocked on his door and asked for Comrade Ivanov. ‘ “You have the wrong apartment,” ’ the Russian recalls telling the security police. ‘ “Comrade Ivanov lives upstairs.” . . . Now that was the happiest day of my life.’ ”

As part of their plan to bring Soviets and Americans together, Shiryaev and Collins staged a practice session in Los Angeles last weekend, drawing about 20 students, psychologists and others for a day of role-playing, discussion and lectures on the startling changes unleashed by Gorbachev’s reforms.

One of those attending was Sonya Balakrishnan, who said she left the Soviet Union 14 years ago and now is a graduate psychology student at Pepperdine University. “I’m interested in the Communist personality, which I distinguish from the national (Russian) personality,” she said, adding that she wants to “explore the effects of the Communist system on the human mind.”

In that vein, Shiryaev presented a series of character sketches of contemporary Soviet citizens that depicted a society driven by doubt, fear, greed and anger.

Standing in front of a TV showing videotapes of Soviet television, Shiryaev was alternately intense, sincere, indifferent and timid as he role-played his way through the sketches of citizens grappling with a riptide of change.

His depictions included a person who has given himself totally to making a living through the Soviet underground economy: “I think people in Russia are crazy now . . . I have faith only in myself,” he declaimed. “I don’t care whether we have fascism, communism or capitalism . . . I am a self-made man, I can do anything I want to.”

In fact, every character portrayed by Shiryaev was molded by the uncertainty of the future, including a Jewish doctor who would prefer to emigrate to the United State rather than to Israel.

One of Shiryaev’s characters pleaded for the Communist Party to be given another five years to rehabilitate the Soviet economy and warned: “There are too many extremists in the Soviet Union.”

Another worried that the Soviet Union may collapse into “a bloody revolution. . . . The rich people will kill the poor people, the poor people will kill the rich people and the Red army will kill everybody.”

Still another scoffed at widespread complaining about the long lines Soviet consumers endure to acquire necessities and restrictions on travel abroad. “The only lines are for vodka,” Shiryaev’s “optimist” declared. “You are not starving. I don’t think you are suffering. You can travel around Siberia . . . I have been in Poland. I am free.”