While millions of Soviet citizens enjoy comfort and convenience unprecedented in their country's history and the Kremlin's military power and influence abroad are growing, life here, paradoxically, seems harder for many than when Leonid Brezhnev came to power 15 years ago.
Material conditions have improved markedly. Yet, as the Soviet Union celebrates its 62nd anniversary this month, there is a palpable sense of life going stale ans sour for many here. Truthfulness, purpose, direction and honest reward -- qualities of life impossible to measure but essential in generating new energy and spirit for any society -- are under increasing assault. Cynicism and self-interest are pervasive.
Social indicators that can reveal truths about the inner nature of any nation show much is amiss in the Soviet Union. Urban crime waves, increased alcoholism, accelerated family breakup, illegitimacy, decline in worker productivity -- ills of industrialized Western nations such as the United States that the Soviet joyfully label the inevitable product of evil capitalism -- are among the indices of trouble to be seen here. The soviet press and the Communist Party itself are talking about these problems with growing urgency.
Meanwhile, inflation gnaws at the pocketbook of this supposedly inflation-proof country. The cost of autos, gasoline, jewelry, dining out have skyrocketed in official prices. Unofficial prices for many foodstuffs also have climed sharply. At the same time, chronic shortages of even the most basic goods plague everyone.
Increased buying power has been accompanied by a Western-style consumerism new to this country. People who have far more than their parents did want even more for themselves. Their increasingly sophisticated hungers are sharpened by shortages. Cheating, bribery, black marketeering, profiteering, influence peddling and na levo ("on the left") deals of every sort have risen to astonishing levels, many say.
As so often in economies with chronic shortages, all these factors come together most visibly in the marketplace.
"I sometimes think we've exchanged the front door of the shop for the side door," one Russian remarked with disgust about the growth of back-room transactions at the expense of over-the-counter customers.
His condemnation of cheaters and bribers is characteristic of many Soviets, who in private conversations said they are disheartened by what they see as a loss of honesty in the Brezhnev era. Yet to get what they want, many enter into shady deals that violate their long-held precepts.
The Kremlin leadership clearly is alarmed by the combination of rising consumerist appetites and a readiness to get through the side door what cannot be obtained through the front. In a tough, 5,700-word resolution issued this spring, the Central Committee demanded that the nation declare war on "money-grubbing and bribery, the desire to grab whatever one can from society without giving anything in return, mismanagement, wastefulness, drunkenness, hooliganism, red tape, a callous attitude toward people and violations of labor discipline and public order . . . "
The edict also admonished the party faithful to instill new vigor in the masses by promoting "an active outlook on life as a major task of moral upbringing." The directive is not the first of its kind issued during the Brezhev era, nor is it likely to be the last. But repetition has had little impact. Regional party committees have responded with opaque pledges of greater honesty that few read and fewer heed.
Despite a cynical reaction to the preachings of the 16-million-strong Communist Party, the Soviet Union's 263 million citizens -- most knowing no other kind of society -- show no sharp disagreements with the policies of their totalitarian state. Within the terms of their restricted lives, many find material sustenance and well -being.
As a Muscovite laborer once said: "I have a roof, a wife, a job, healthy children, enough to eat. That's enough, isn't it?"
But in the Brezhnev era, with its emphasis on detente and expanded trade and cultural ties with the West, Soviets in all walks of life are increasingly caught up in Western-style consumerism. It is an irony of the times that they are led by an elite army of technocrats that has grown in direct response to Brezhnev's policies. These middle-level cadres have knowledge of the West unimaginable when Brezhnev first came to power in October 1964.
The Brezhnev bureaucrats, scientist, trade representatives, journalists and diplomates are the secret tastemakers of the Soviet Union. In combination with rock-music-happy Soviet youth, they have shown how it is possible with currency all but worhtless outside its own borders to obtain goods from the West and vastly enrich their own lives.
Tens of thousands of Soviets travel abroad annually. They bring back precious capitalist artifacts such as jeans, stylish shoes and coats, steroes, records and clculators. All can be bartered or sold at many times their orgiginal cost for such chronically scarce good as beds, carpets or shelf systems.
Each one of these transactions adds its own weight to the burdensome knowledge here that Soviet living standards are still far below the West's.
An older scientist described the revolution in his own thinking about the West over the years.
He made his first trip abroad in the mid-1950s and recalled how he scuttled down the streets of major western cities, refusing to look in the store windows, just as his KGB "adviser" had instructed him.
When he went again in the 1960s, he surreptitiously brought back a pocket calculator, some batteries, and other small items. Today, he dresses in fine cashmere turtleneck sweaters, stylishly cut trousers from Europee and a handsome sheepskin windbreaker. He laughs at his own sophistication.
Meanwhile, the flow of foreign tourists into the Soviet Union climbs yearly. The national travel agency reports that in 1964, just more than a million foreigners made journeys here. In 1978, the total was 4.4 million, or better than 12,000 a day.
For a nation with closed borders and whose people are warned constantly to be suspicious and wary of foreigners, these traveling millions are an exotic ingredient in Soviet life. Although largely isolated from much of Soviet life through restricted hotels, package tours and indoctrinated guides, the foreigners have contact with Soviets as never before.
The 1980 Moscow Olympics will attract about 300,000 outsiders here and the impact they are sure the have on Soviets is likely to be greater still.
Such contracts increase the Soviet citizens' appetite for consumer goods, and this worries the party leadership. Politburo member Vladimir Scherbitsky, the Ukrainian party boss, recently attacked the trend toward "consumerism," which he said was a tool of Moscow's ideological opponents to undermine the state.
The problem for Scherbitsky and the rest of the leadership is that endless shortages have become a spur to acquiring Western goods.
One stauch party supporter described it this way: "Your society was based almost from the beginning on an economy of abundance. You could get anything and that explains why Westerners spend their money in ways that seem foolish or unnecessary.
"On the other hand, ours is an economy based on deficit, and that explains the growing, intense craving for things -- anything -- and mostly things from the West. They are sick of waiting for it and knowing they may never get it."
Despite all its criticism fo consumerism, the Soviet leadership, well aware of the craving for Western goods, tolerates a lively black market to relieve this pressure. The extent of penetration of Western goods is astonishing. Early this year, for example compact portable stereos made in Japan with an American label were being hawked, still in the box, at an impromptu curbside market in the northeastern Siberian capital of Yakutsk.
Meanwhile the normal state stores and outlets are beset with problems. Even in the capital, people say the list of deficit items is longer than ever in the past five years. Continued shortages of red meat in the outlying countryside has driven even more peasants than usual into the city looking for sauage and meat.
Last winter there was a potato shortage in Moscow that caught many households unaware. There also have been shortages of fresh fruit, eggs, milk, pencils, cosmetics, eyeglasses, vacuum cleaners, soap powder, toilet paper, toothbrushes and garden tools.
Two years ago, Brezhnev assailed the footwear industry for making shoes no one wanted to buy. He observed that in 1977 the Soviet Union produced three pairs of shoes for every citizen. Yet a shoe shortage persisted, because people refused to buy the kind of shoes that their country produced. Brezhnev directed that immediate improvements by made.
A factory worker recently described her fruitless search across Moscow for suitable winter boots for herself and her child. They found plenty of sturdy Soviet-made boots.
"But I want something stylish and so does my child," the woman said in frustration. "A Westerner could get them easily 'outside,'" she added with a gleam.
Two weeks ago, in an interview in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Nikolai Cherkezishvili of the Russian-language party organ Zarya Vostoka, piously decried the younger generation's avid hunger for stylish Western jeans.
During the war, he reminisced, people would have been more than happy to buy the Soviet-made clothing buy they now disdain.
"What's the black market price of a pair of American jeans?" I asked him.
"I have no idea."
"Do you have any American jeans yourself?"
"No." He paused. Then came a guffawed confession: "From Finland!"
One party member grumbled recently: "Whenever there is a gathering of officials in their Western-made Saville Row-tailored suits, I sometimes long for a return to the old days of isolation so they would have to wear the baggy suits of Russians."
In September, Konstantin U. Chernenko, a Brezhnev confidant and a fellow Politburo member, writing in a party theoretical magazine, urged the party and other state organs to work at "overcoming consumer tendencies" and the accompanying greed, unscrupulous attitude toward work and a petty bourgeosis desire to get something for nothing from society.
It may fairly be asked whether anyone is interested in listening to this kind of exhortation. In the years to come, the cynicism that came into the daylight during Brezhnev's tenture is sure to grow. It is the dark side of an ideology gone flat.