SMALL FIRES

Letters from Soviet People

To Ogonyok Magazine, 1987-1990

Selected and edited by Christopher Cerf

And Marina Albee with Lev Gushchin

Translated from the Russian

By Hans Fenstermacher

Summit. 303 pp. $22.95

ONE OF the more remarkable things about the current scene in the Soviet Union is the way in which events considered pivotal one day tend to fade into insignificance or oblivion a mere month or two later. Seldom has history moved so swiftly, and seldom has Soviet public opinion been so mercurial. In December 1988, during my first visit to Moscow in more than 10 years, I was struck by the excitement that greeted every disclosure of past or present iniquities, each new article, novel or film challenging official dogma. I felt that this process was bound to go on; what I could not foresee was that a year later the triumphs of glasnost would become part of the conventional order of things.

By March 1990, Gorbachev's star was waning, and anger and frustration filled the air. At the same time, there were the hopes generated by elections then sweeping the country, and by the victories of democratic forces in Russia, the Ukraine and other republics. Arriving in Moscow three months later, I found myself enveloped in an atmosphere of gloom and doom. The fact that democrats had won control of the Russian parliament and the city councils in Leningrad and Moscow was no longer a cause for rejoicing. The party apparat seemed as entrenched as ever, and Gorbachev -- such was the popular perception -- was ready to make common cause with his right-wing foes.

As the year drew to a close, my Soviet friends were hovering on the verge of despair. The economic paralysis, the ethnic conflicts and xenophobia, the evidence of collusion between criminal mafias and local bureaucracies and finally Gorbachev's increasing reliance on the traditional institutions of "law and order," such as the military, all seemed to relegate perestroika to but a wistful historical footnote.

The book under review offers a striking illustration of these dizzying trends. It comprises a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of letters to the Soviet weekly Ogonyok between the end of 1987 and the end of 1989. Once a shoddy party-line rag, Ogonyok became the country's most audacious and widely read magazine soon after Gorbachev's rise to power, when its editorship was taken over by the Ukrainian poet and writer, Vitaly Korotich. In the past, Ogonyok, like many other Soviet publications, would occasionally run some letters, most of them fraudulent exercises in "criticism and self-criticism" -- that is, carefully concocted attacks on individuals or institutions that did not properly execute the party's (infallible) diktats.

This came to an end under Korotich, his deputy editor, Lev Gushchin, and the young writer, Valentin Yumashev, appointed as director of the new Letters Department in 1987. The catalysts for the emergence of a genuine and increasingly daring readers' mail were, of course, the policies of perestroika and glasnost. The heavy legacy of fear could not be undone in one fell swoop. And just as Ogonyok initiated its glasnost policy by publishing works of banned authors and then ventured into expose's of Stalin's crimes and of ongoing problems such as living conditions, ecological blights and the powers and privileges of the ruling elite, so did the letters start with a modest trickle, gradually turning into a torrent: In 1986, the editors received a total of 12,000 letters; in 1989, 150,000 and a year later, as Yumashev told me in Moscow last March, the estimated total promised to be twice that many.

Small Fires, as I noted earlier, illustrates the rapidly changing patterns of Soviet politics; and it is so both by commission and omission. In 1987, the complaints were couched in relatively mild and occasionally petulant terms; furthermore, many authors pointed out that they were protesting against abuses of official policies -- that is, of perestroika (e.g., "this is a caricature of perestroika"), or of "socialism" (". . . dangerous to our development of socialism"). One bitter letter by a 50-year-old sailor who lost his job because of his "suspicious" (which is to say perfectly normal) contracts with foreigners pays tribute to those few "real Communists" who finally made it possible for him to get a job on a boat, though without the right "to call on foreign ports" (apparently the powers of "real Communists" were also somewhat limited). In time, however, the range of subject matter expanded, and the tone became sharper, more acrimonious, and devoid of obeisance to reigning shibboleths.

THE MOST heart-rending letters are those dealing with the hardships of Soviet life: read, for instance, the brief epistle on the horrifying state of the public health system, which starts with the words "SOS! We don't want to die!" and ends with the chilling "All we can do is wait for death to deliver us."

On a more cheerful note, there are the occasional flashes of humor, such as the response to a minister's wife who tried to justify her husband's privileges: "You didn't say what his salary is. Mine is 110 rubles a month. Your husband isn't by any chance the Minister of Finance? . . . You complain that every morning you leave for work at 7:30 . . . I leave the house at 7:15. But I don't have a black car waiting for me . . . Your husband isn't by any chance the Minister of Transportation?"

The omissions are no less interesting than the commissions. Why, for instance, were 19 out of 32 letters dealing with nationality problems -- including some of the strongest ones -- drawn from the unpublished files? The American editors thank their Soviet colleagues for sending them samples of the latter in order "to enrich and balance our presentation"; and surely Ogonyok has been anything but shy in tackling these problems -- in fact, on anti-Semitism alone the magazine has one of the finest records in the country. Why, then, this lopsided and indeed not particularly representative choice?

Yet another notable omission are the letters critical of Gorbachev personally. There are several in the book, but all from the unpublished files. Here, however, the explanation is simple: As the editor-in-chief, Vitaly Korotich, told me last spring, he was refraining from publishing such mail on the theory that it would play into the hands of Gorbachev's enemies -- that is, the enemies of perestroika.

Soon, it became open season on the president too. Indeed, it seemed as if nothing were sacred any longer: Lenin, Marx, communism, Gorbachev, the whole system -- all became targets for bitter no holds-barred assaults. This was true for Ogonyok as for many other liberal publications, and it was reflected as much in the letters from readers as in the contents of Ogonyok (and other journals) in general.

But how much longer? Surely the latest developments do not bode well for freedom of expression in the Soviet Union. With the right-wing forces and especially the military in ascendance, glasnost, too, was bound to suffer. As these lines are written, televisions's brash and popular show "Vzgliad" (View) has been taken off the air, without explanation, and there are rumors of other impending axings as well. In this atmosphere, will Korotich again trim his sails or will he opt for defiance? And will the letters -- the kind of letters the editors have encouraged and learned to expect -- continue to pour in? We shall soon find out.

Abraham Brumberg is the editor, most recently, of "Chronicle of a Revolution: A Western-Soviet Inquiry Into Perestroika."