DURING the first years of Soviet power we got used to having to "overcome difficulties," to living in constant turmoil, and to a perpetual state of mobilized readiness. And so when we go abroad now we still carry with us this same "readiness to overcome." We are always responsive to the "orders of the Motherland" -- but sometimes the Motherland doesn't even order -- and we still can't seem to do without it.

In Yugoslavia I had a conversation at our embassy about our tourists. The embassy complained that the tourists behaved noisily, erratically -- sometimes unacceptably uncontrolled, almost embracing the first person they run into, at other times just the opposite, fearful of somebody or something, depending on what kind of a group it was, where it was coming from and who led it.

But the main thing was -- the shopping. In an assault upon the shops all our complexes are reduced to one: "buy stuff!" And if time and money are short, they swoop down and grab the first thing that comes to hand -- just so long as it's cheap. And Yugoslavs notice that kind of behavior. A guide asks, "Are you going straight to the shops, or would you actually like to see some of our sights?" Shameful! But what do you expect? This kind of raid on the stores is due to the shortage of similar goods in our own stores. And that will be resolved only when the ruble can be freely converted into hard currency.

From the dawn of the Russian state, all countries abroad -- that is, everything that was beyond the control of our border patrols -- have more often threatened us with trouble than with blessings. From ancient times we Russians have had inculcated into us a feeling of apprehension and distrust towards "abroad." We also developed -- not so much among the people, but among the nobility and nouveau riche -- a fawning, grovelling sense towards foreign countries, especially towards "enlightened Europe."

The attainments of the Great October Revolution, however, represented an unparalleled raising of our national dignity. It changed our psychology in general, and our psychology towards foreign countries in particular.

But alas, our victories and our power had to share room with feebleness, decline and delusions. No, we were not able to be first in everything. We could have, but we didn't know how -- for both objective and subjective reasons. The despotism of the cult of the personality regenerated within us the old complexes, suspicion of foreign countries, a lack of self-confidence. Indeed, we have outstanding missiles and ballets -- we recognize this and take pride in it -- but when we step into a store and look on the shelves, what pride can we find there?

Abroad a business-like manner is especially important. A business-like manner strongly suggests competence. But we've never displayed enough of it for the simple reason that we've never taken seriously enough the task of studying foreign ways. We've often just judged them by the stereotypes that we've created for ourselves. For example, we've consistently underestimated -- which means we've never understood -- foreign religious movements, among which is Islam. And as events of the past decade have shown, such ignorance entails serious problems.

Traveling around other countries, I am occasionally struck by the incompetence of some of our overseas officials. A writer's delegation which I had joined, gave a press conference in the capital of a developing country. One member of the delegation was asked what he thought of the works of Solzhenitsyn. That individual undertook to denounce them. Subsequent questions, however, left little doubt that our colleague hadn't read Solzhenitsyn at all and his judgements were based on mere hearsay.

One of our sad legacies of the era when the rule of law was suspended is mistrust of the individual. It was precisely at that time that incredibly complex questionaires were dreamed up in which the individual was examined backwards and forwards, from head to toe -- down to the wrinkles on his face. After that we were dispatched abroad -- bearing ideas of high communist justice -- not to forward our ideas, but sheathed in defenses. When I took my first assignment abroad they warned me: "Once you are there abroad, you are not to reveal to anyone that you are a party member. Special conditions exist abroad!" -- As if I were a member of some secret organization of dubious reputation!

What we're talking about is the need to get rid of the accumulations of stereo-typed thinking which have only made us more primitive and denied us the chance to show our better qualities.

At one point, as a result of our simple-minded propaganda, we had somehow grown convinced over the years that we Soviets are beloved the world over, that people are enraptured with us and try to imitate us. Of course, there are the imperialists, the warmongers, they hate us and are ready to stick the knife to us, but "the simple people," especially the black-skinned and all coloreds -- they are all for us. But it turns out that far from everybody, not even the "simple people", not even the Africans all love us; many simply hardly know anything about "Soviets."

The events that are in fact now taking place in our country are unfolding under the constant scrutiny of the whole world. And there are different kinds of scrutiny: some well-wishing, some mildly curious, some hostile. Traditionally we have always passionately desired applause from abroad, we expect it, and if we don't get it then we hasten to arrange it for ourselves -- at least a few claps. So wouldn't it be more in keeping with our feelings of national worth now to show just a little more restraint in our self-esteem? After all, are there grounds for boasting when only now we're beginning to reform -- so very late in the game?