The foreign visitor to the U.S.S.R., especially one who comes as a member of a tourist group, finds few opportunities to talk with ordinary Soviet people.
"Ordinary" in the sense I use the word means people who aren't part of the huge Intourist organization. Indeed, this was the situation of my wife and I during our recent tour of Siberia, via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. We were both the beneficiaries and the prisoners of the standard Intourist hospitality embrace.But we did meet a few such "ordinary" people, well-educated Soviet citizens who spoke English reasonably well. One conversation in particular will remain in my memory for years to come.
A friendly Soviet woman in one Siberian city asked me what I liked, and what I didn't like, about Siberia and the Soviet achievements there.
"I've seen a lot that has surprised and impressed me favorably," I told her. "First of all, the remarkable cities across Siberia that you've built. I didn't even know Ulan Ude existed, and yet it was so large that it took our train about half an hour to cross the city from one end to another. Irkutsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk ("New Siberia"), and the others are huge, each of them. Giant factories, one after the other. I doesn't quite fit my perception that Siberia was little more than a wilderness with an occasional frontier settlement. An extraordinary achievement!
We didn't travel on the regular Trans-Siberian Railroad, but on a special train chartered from the Soviet Union by a U.S. travel firm, Society Expeditions Inc. The excursion began at Ulan Bator, in the Mongolian Peoples Republic, traveled up to Irkutsk and then 5,000 miles west to Moscow. It was a very fine and comfortable train.
"Did you meet any Russians?" she asked.
"Many. We had casual encounters. We talked pleasantries," I replied. It was practically impossible to have serious conversations with Soviet people like you'd have with people in any other country.
Despite our enforced separation because of the tourist program, I added, we did see a lot of the Soviet Union. You can't travel 5,000 miles on a train anywhere and not form a lot of impressions."
"Like what?" she asked.
"For one thing," I replied, "the Trans-Siberian Railroad itself. I never saw in the United States a railroad like it. I had imagined it would consist of only two parallel tracks through the vast forests and fields of Siberia. But we watched the other track. Trains went past us in the opposite direction every five to seven minutes. I timed the intervals. It's a well-run and heavily used railroad. The roadbed was smooth and steady, even at high- speed.
I noted that those two parallel tracks branched into four parallel tracks as the train approached a city. Then the four tracks became eight. The eight branched into 16 parallel tracks. Finally, in several cities, the 16 tracks became 24. I had never seen such intensive rail development.
It's true that few paved roads or highways exist in Siberia because of the severe climatic conditions. Rail transportation, therefore, is more important. The Soviets have every reason to take pride in their railroad industry, the more so since the entire Trans-Siberian line is electrified.
What else did I admire in the U.S.S.R., the Soviet woman inquired? The construction of new housing. Its scale staggers the Western imagination. In every city you see dozens of huge new apartment buildings. Although they appear to have been designed from the same blueprints, they are more attractive to the eye than those that were built a dozen years ago. Balconies are common. Color is occasionally seen, although no architectural detailing. Characteristically, the buildings are 15 stores high, perhaps 250 to 500 feet long.
"Standard Issue" apartments can be seen in every city, from the newest frontier settlements in the east to old cities like Leningrad where you would think no more space is available for construction. From the outside, it appears that no consideration is given to the varying requirements of different climates or of local cultures. Standardization reduces design and construction costs.
My new Soviet acquaintance was beaming with national pride. "But surely you've seen some things you didn't like?"
"There are two especially," I told her. "The worst is food shortages. In every city we visited, we saw long lines outside the food stores. We saw lines outside food stores even afew blocks from Red Square in Moscow. There are lines even in the very cities of Siberia where the government is trying so hard to improve living conditions in order to attract workers from European Russia.
"You seem to have shortages everywhere and of every food except bread, I said. It's pretty disgraceful to consider that after 70 years of Socialism, your government can't manage to eliminate the food shortages.
"Also, I noticed that it's the women, not the men, in this country, who do most of the waiting in line. I know that in the U.S.S.R., women work in the same numbers and percentages as men. Waiting in line can't be easy for the women at the end of a long working day. And we were told that when you finally get to the head of the line, you can't buy enough food for tomorrow because they don't have it. So you are back in line again tomorrow. That isn't a very great achievement of Socialism, after all these years."
Her one-sentence answer astonished me. In retrospect, it is my most important impression of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
She said, with a half-smile whose meaning I could not decipher, "Yes, and our leaders think that we'll be willing to wait forever!" Not the apology or defense I would have expected from a Soviet citizen speaking to an unknown foreigner.
Despite all the great construction of cities, factories, and railroads, food remains in short supply more than 30 years since the end of World War II and almost 70 years after the Great October Socialist Revolution.
I got the impression that my Soviet acquaintance simply accepted it passively as a fact of life about which she could do nothing.