The idea that the Soviet Union is an exceptionally conservative society, in which changes take place at a snail's pace, if at all, is one to which most experts tend to subscribe.
The secretiveness of the place, its aurthoritarian quality, and the apparently immutable symbols of Kremlin power all seem to produce a melancholy sense of time standing still.
World War II is still the subject of daily radio and television shows and of films and books. It is presented as one of the watersheds -- sometimes the watershed -- of human history, as though nothing has happened since.
Yet the current public debate on the institution of marriage and the role of women reveals not only a generational change but also the deeper social and and economic problems emerging in this increasingly complex society.
The fact that one in every three marriages in the Soviet Union ends in divorce within a year suggests something new and emancipated about Soviet women in contrast to their parents who submitted to traditional patterns.
Another interesting statistic shows that at least one in five divorces in this country is phony, with partners seeking dissolution to obtain economic or other benefits while continuing to live together.
Such manipulation of marriage, once the source of stability in Russian life, reflects growing consumer expectations and pressures in a centralized economy that somehow, despite great natural wealth, remains incapable of satisfying the needs of the population.
The phony divorces involve both younger and older couples.
One newspaper recently cited the following example: a couple married for more than 30 years was told that their home would be razed to make way for urban development. They were offered a small, two-room apartment. Their daughter was to be given an efficiency.
The couple immediately filed for divorce. Once the marriage was leagally dissolved, each was eligible for separate accommodations. After some complex maneuverings and exchanges of apartments, they wound up a happy family again -- in a large apartment.
The phony divorce is a device also used to gain residence permits. Students from Siberia, for example, after completing their education in Moscow must leave the city unless they have residence papers. The easiest and quickest way to do that is to get married, obtain residence papers and get divorced as if nothing had happened.
But in most cases, a divorce is used to improve the couple's economic lot. The husband and wife claim irreconcilable differences, have their marriage dissolved and then continue to live normal lives together while benefiting from the advantages accruing to divorced persons.
The soaring divorce rate among newlyweds is a cause of considerable official concern. With the population growth rate almost at zero, the family is needed not only as a basic unit in a stable society but also to raise children.
But there is a beginning here of a feminist mood, despite the fact that the country's political and social life remains male-dominated. Soviet women today are better educated and more career conscious than earlier generations. They are also less willing to put up with the strong tradition of male chauvinism.
Soviet men, in turn, have entered public polemics about the subject with letters and articles that display the enduring assumption of male superiority. lThat assumption lingers in folk sayings, such as "a wife is not a jug -- she won't crack if you whack her" or,"a dog is wiser than a woman -- he won't bark at his master."
One Moscow newspaper recently printed an article written by V. Petrovsky that concluded that divorce is "economically advantageous" for women.They keep the children and receive about $68 a month in alimony from the state for each child. By disposing of the husband," he said, "she has less domestic chores to do."
Another writer explained his divorce in terms of his wife having "turned my home into an office, constantly writing or reading or conducting business over the telephone. She had no time to cook and shop."
Yet another writer added this clincher to a similar argument: "It came to the point where my son had to do the shopping."
According to Russian tradition, housework is considered demeaning for men.
There have been no passionate feminist response to these and similar statements. Officially, women enjoy full equality here. In practice, they have to maintain the household, mind the children, wait in lines to buy food and hold a job. The latter has become essential to maintaining living standards.
One of the main reasons for divorces, apart from the increasing assertiveness of women, is the problem of drinking that is so widespread among men.
Ads written in a lonely-heart style almost invariably refer to the issue.
"Interesting brunette, engineer phycist. Wants to meet a person willing to start a family. Anyone given to drink should not bother to make contact," reads a typical ad.
A man described himself as having "solid character, nondrinker" and wanting to meet his future wife "no children, not older than 27."
The lonely hearts columns in themselves are an innovation that reflects the increasing problems of loneliness and family instability.