It’s Up To All Of Us

A conversation about cultural differences and similarities

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 13
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Anatoly Belyayev is deputy secretary of the Soviet Peace Committee and editor of its Journal XXth Century and Peace. He has a considerable knowledge of Americans, since he has both lived in and visited the U.S. and is fascinated by the communication problems between our cultures. My conversations with this increasingly dear friend have thrown open many new doors in my perspective on Soviet psychology.

– Diana Glasgow

Robert: I see some people in the Soviet Union encouraging contacts with, for instance, citizen diplomats, and yet there are also policies that seem to discourage those contacts. I wonder if there are differences of opinion within the Soviet Union about how open the Soviet Union should be to contacts with the West?

Anatoly: Yes, concerning openness, it seems to me that we don’t blame ourselves for the closedness which you think is here. What do you mean by openness? For us, between us, we are open. I am open with you. The closedness, from your point of view, is a result of not knowing us, not understanding us.

Who prevents you from reading the books, the newspapers, and so on? I understand these books, newspapers, and I’m feeling as a citizen of my country that now all things are open. For many years – no, not many years but for the last few years – we can say this. It’s up to you just now to understand us. The closedness is a result of, how to say it?, not illiteracy but ignorance.

Just now if I read, for instance our Literary Gazette, Pravda, Isvestia, and so on, sometimes I want to close my eyes and rest in not knowing what is going on because of so much criticism. I even sometimes feel I must say to the journalists, don’t forget to be constructive. It seems to me that they are writing more for you than for me, because of so much criticism. For instance, they will criticize minister Ivan Petrovich, or the manager of some big company, or even simple people – it’s good, but you have to see the phenomena, not just the man. You have to know why he is behaving in such a way. Each criticism has to go deeper from my point of view. And of course, I understand that this is not understandable for you, because you don’t feel, you don’t touch the real life.

We have problems in our country, yes, but to understand us you should know that we also feel satisfied in our conditions of life. I don’t mean on the level of material – we want to be richer, this is normal – but from the point of social comfort, we are deeply satisfied. Of course you can find people who are not satisfied, but most of the people, a big majority of our country are satisfied. You should watch the discussion about the new law on proprietorship. Just now, our Supreme Soviet introduced a new law about individual activity.

Danaan: You can run your own business?

Anatoly: Yes, you can run your own business, but with your own hands. If you are for instance, an engineer, you have to use your time after your factory time.

Diana: Moonlighting?

Anatoly: Yes, moonlighting. Thank you. You can do something that’s up to you. You can repair apartments or cars or something – it’s up to you. But you have to make some arrangements with local authorities. You get some kind of business license. But without using hired help. You can organize some kind of a collective, but not like you are master with workers and so on. All is divided between all of them. And the reaction is very interesting from the people. Millions of letters, millions of letters.

Edith: For or against?

Anatoly: For and against. Maybe more against than for.

Danaan: So it’s an emotional subject?

Anatoly: Yes. You have to have in your mind that during many years we prevented such things. It’s bad because you want to be rich. From our point of view, the rich man is a thief.

Danaan: The Czar.

Anatoly: Yes. So the people are very careful about this. We’ll see what happens. Some people say it is against our collective approach. They prefer, maybe, to live with what they have just now, but on the collective base, not on the individual base, where one can get richer and so on. We prefer to be equal. Equality is a principle of justice, from our point of view, from the point of view of many people. Yet we have many people who are lazy, who live very well, because it is not necessary to work hard, and get the same money as the man who is a hard worker right beside him. We have a lot of such distortions in our life, and we are trying to do our best just now, very hard – Gorbachev is beautiful in this, you know – he’s trying to do a very good job. And he has a lot of people, the majority of people, on his side.

Danaan: Good. That’s good for us.

Anatoly: Yes, and it’s good for us, too, but there’s a problem. All of us are for positive changes in our life, but when you are sitting on this chair, and you personally have to change, to find a new approach, well, that’s a different story. We prefer that everybody else do it. And this happens in every area of our life just now.

I have a question for you. We have two different kinds of society. We are based in collectivism, you in individualism. In our society, we have the original connection between common property and the collective. It’s natural. I’m trying to understand what’s connecting your society, as a society, with individualism. From my point of view it seems that the church, for instance, plays a very important part, or some kind of sports groups, and so on, but there is no natural form of connection between you as individualists in society. You have artificial forms, but I don’t feel – I’m trying to understand, you know – what’s going on in your society? How do you form that society?

Robert: In a paradoxical way, even the individualism is one of the things that binds the society together. You have to look at it the way an anthropologist would look at it and see that the culture is richer and broader than the forms and institutions like the church, or sports, or things like that. There is a shared culture in the United States, but from inside it, you don’t see it so much. It’s like the fish not being aware of the water they swim in. But when you step outside, when you travel away, you can see the culture we do share.

Anatoly: So you have to develop these ideas in connection with the world. Humanity is humanity. Yes, this is a very important approach, a global approach. We have a responsibility not only for our country. We are patriots of our country and you are patriots of your country. Before the nuclear age, each could be devoted to patriotism wholly. Now, we have a responsibility to the whole world. We have to divide our responsibility.

Diana: But you know, don’t you think the ethic of the individual in some ways translates more readily to global citizenship, even moreso than the collective ethic, in this sense: that a lot of the feeling of individualism is a resistance to belonging to a group or identifying with the government, because that divides one from other groups. There’s a resistance to saying that you belong to a club or even a country. But there’s a great sense of the whole. Do you see what I’m saying?

Anatoly: Yes. Maybe for Americans, it’s easier for them to feel themselves a part of the world than a part of the country.

Diana: Yes, because we come from all over the world.

Robert: We are the people who left; you are the people who stayed. And even though there may be many generations since we immigrated, that still is very important in American culture.

Anatoly: You say that we have different histories because you emigrated, and we stayed for a long time. But you know, we are different from the Europeans, too, because Russia was a peasant country, and peasant community was a real community, which was destroyed in Europe hundreds of years ago. In Russia, till the revolution, it was a real community. It has deeply influenced the mind of the people. We are peasant country now.

Diana: But you know, sometimes I think we expect more difference between us than there really is. We were very surprised when we recently hosted the group of Soviet kids and adults from Novosibirsk, because we had this stereotype that they would be very group-oriented, very collectivist. Then the very first day we had the group, they went off in 30 different directions! We said, "Wait a minute, where’s the strong discipline, where’s the central leader, what’s happening?" [Laughter]

Anatoly: Being a journalist or correspondent, I used to travel alone, or with my wife in the United States, and it was so good for me, because I could arrange all what I wanted. Just now most of my travel in foreign countries is in groups. I don’t like the groups. You and we make the same mistakes. We arrange such a tight schedule. We are human beings, and we want to be alone sometimes.

It seems to me that we have a very interesting subject together, studying each other. It’s very important to understand each other. You know, sometimes I feel myself in touch with your people, and it so happens that just in a moment you lose contact. I understand for ten minutes and then, bah! it all disappears. And I try hard to understand what is going on, why it’s going on. The same for you when you speak with us or you have a relation with us. But nevertheless, I am sure that we have more in common than difference.

Edith: Anatoly, what is it that brings that break? Is it a word?

Anatoly: No, as a rule, logic of thinking.

Robert: I also feel that break sometimes trying to understand my fellow Americans. [Laughter]. I’ve heard the Europeans say that they often feel that we have a great deal in common, that from a European point of view, Americans and Soviets are like brothers who sometimes don’t want to speak to each other because they have so much in common.

Anatoly: You know, I have many years of experience with Americans, and I’m sure, I’m convinced that we have more in common than different. I felt very good in the United States. In England, when I’m behaving like in the United States, I felt "Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong." [Laughter] The people didn’t feel comfortable, and the same in other countries in Europe, as well. We have to develop this feeling we have in common.

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