Russia may be a mess…..but do you remember the Soviet Union?

I get very excited when I pick up a book that has the following characteristics:  (1) totally unknown, (2) contains a contemporary discussion of a time past, (3) no one has probably read it in years, and (4) it’s on a subject that interests me.

This time it is “An American in Leningrad” by Logan Robinson.  In 1976, Robinson, then a recent Harvard Law graduate, had the opportunity to spend a year doing research at the Civil Law Institute of Leningrad State University. In 1980, he traveled back to Leningrad to see some of the people he had spent his academic year.  Then he wrote this book to set down his experiences. (Now, I see on the internet, he’s a law professor in Detroit, and before that served as the general counsel of Chrysler Motors.)

It may be hard for some to remember the Soviet Union in the 1970s.  It was the era of Brezhnev and the Cold War.  It was also the era of the refuseniks.  Carter was our president, and he was trying to accomplish the contradictory goals of improving the American relationship with the Soviets and, at the same time, increasing American support for civil liberties world wide.  The 1970 Soviet communists were not interested in civil liberties.

Stalin had been dead for over 20 years and with him the purges, mass relocations and liquidations.  Khrushchev had come and gone. Brezhnev was in charge…….and so was the Soviet bureaucracy.

For in the 1970s, the Soviet bureaucracy was at its strongest, the Soviet economy was collapsing, the Jewish refusenik movement threatened the monopoly of Soviet power, and the Russian leaders were trying their best to maintain absolute control under an atmosphere of increasing paranoia as they attempted to stifle any possible indication of dissent.

A few examples —

Bureaucracy:  Robinson’s application to spend time studying in the Soviet Union was lengthy, detailed, complicated, with some items needing to be submitted in 30 copies.  Think of Robinson’s surprise, therefore, when he got to Leningrad, proceeded to his dormitory, and found that no one he could find even knew where the law school was located. (It was located on a higher floor of an unmarked building on Vasilievsky Island.)

But his surprise at the difficulty in finding the law school paled before what happened next.  When he arrived at the law faculty, he learned that no one at the law school knew he was coming and therefore no preparation had been made for his course of study or for his research, for the appointment of an adviser/mentor, or far the development of an annual plan that was required of all Soviet University students.  The plan in theory was prepared to demonstrate what the student attempted to accomplish, and what tools he would need to satisfy his goals.  It was a lengthy and complicated exercise.  Robinson’s had to be put together in five minutes.

Paranoia:  Robinson was assigned to a dormitory set aside for foreign students.  But it was not only for foreign students; each foreign student apparently had one or two Russian roommates.  The assumptions of course were that the dormitory was bugged and that the roommates were informers.  This was undoubtedly true.  It was also the case that the Russian roommates were each and every one of them just that — Russian.  There were no ethnic minorities living in the foreign students dorm – no Ukranians, Lithuanians, Jews, Uzbeks, or others, although the city and the university were extremely multi-ethnic.  (Robinson’s roommate spent his time drinking – as did so many of the people Robinson met in Leningrad)

Scholarship was difficult for Robinson and everyone else in the law faculty.  Books were often impossible to find – even books written in Russian and published in the USSR.  They might be available in Paris or London or Boston…..but not in Moscow or St. Petersburg.  Books could not be checked out of the library, and often the library was inaccessible in its entirety.  Virtually nothing could be done without a multiplicity of approvals, approvals often impossible to obtain.  As in any bureaucracy, the chances that a bureaucrat would get in trouble by saying “no” was much less than the possibility of getting in trouble saying “yes”.

Bureaucratic reasons for denial were not always easy to comprehend.  The example Robinson gives is an English example he learned at law school, by analogy, but is worth repeating:  “….a man was accused of borrowing his neighbor’s kettle and returning it cracked.  In answering the complaint, the man argued that, first, he had not borrowed the kettle, second, it was already cracked, and third, when he returned it, it was not cracked.”

And of course, scholarship that resulted in anything that did not conform to the government’s point of view could not exist within the university community.

Even in apartments, Leningrad residents were concerned that they were being bugged. To speak, they would first turn on a radio or phonograph loudly, so they could not be overheard.  They would speak on the street, but not in their homes.  The assumption was that anyone could be, and probably was, an informer.

Housing:  Housing – that is decent housing – was, of course, almost impossible to find. Families were crowded into single rooms, in dilapidated buildings, with common baths and sometimes common kitchens, five and six story walk ups.  The foreign student dorms provided better housing than most Russians were able to obtain.

Food:  Often not available.  Long lines in the stores.  Long lines. And often nothing at the end of them.  All year, bananas were available in Leningrad only one day. In the winter, it was potatoes, cabbage and nothing else.  Robinson discusses this in his chapter on life in his neighborhood.

Hard currency:  Of course for foreigners, things could be different.  Foreigners could have hard currencies (forbidden to Soviet citizens, except for the very elite), they could stay in decent hotels (not great, but decent, and certainly bugged and filled with informers), eat in hotel restaurants, and buy food, alcohol, souvenirs, and other items at hard currency stores, to which Soviet citizens had no access.

Humor:  The one thing that the Soviets did have was humor, and Robinson repeats several of the jokes that were going around.  Such as……

“One of my favorites had three very old men, one American, one French and one Russian, reminiscing about the best day of their lives.  The American, in lengthy detail, describes a sophisticated stock market manipulation which made him a small fortune in a single day.  The Frenchman, thinking the American somewhat the philistine, describes in even greater detail the moonlight seduction of a beautiful woman he had pursued for months.  The Russian listens politely and then explains that these stories are nothing compared to the best day of his life.  Shivering in his six-story walk up, one room cold water flat on a winter night in 1937, he heard a Black Maria prison van screech to a halt outside his building.  As he lay trembling, the sound of jackboots rose floor after floor.  The dreaded knock came, the door was kicked open, and the secret police officer barked at him, “Ivan Alexandrovich, come with us to the gulag.” Whereupon the Russian squealed with glee, “I’m not Ivan Alexandrovich but Alexander Ivanovich. Ivan Alexandrovich lives up one more flight.”

Refuseniks:  Foreign students did have the opportunity to meet Russians on the street.  And Robinson met quite a number, some of whom he became close to, and he was able to give a fairly full discussion of the home life of young couples.  Some of these were Jewish and applied for exit visas.  Even when the visas were approved (by no means certain), the approval would take ages, often years.  And, once the exit application was submitted, the submitter would lose his employment and basically be reduced to deep poverty.  Interestingly, between 1976 and 1980, a number of these Soviet citizens received their exit visas and were allowed to leave the country.  But this is another story for another day.

Last point:  the third chapter of the book, “Venice of the North” gives the best history of Leningrad/St. Petersburg that I remember reading.  The entire book is worth reading, but if were not, it would be worth having for this chapter alone.




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