Restoring Morality

The restoration of morality in Russia has been a major theme of the reformers since Perestroika began. Although this theme is often ignored in the western press, it lies at the heart of the “revolution of the spirit” which we have witnessed in Russia and Eastern Europe in recent years. Alexander Yakovlev, generally acknowledged to be the inventor of Glasnost, put it this way: “The final essence of the reforms set in motion by the April 1985 plenum is the restoration of morality… Life has painfully and obstinately brought home to us that political and economic successes are ephemeral, whereas man is eternal and his moral values are imperishable … Education in the meaning of the dignity of man is probably one of the most urgent tasks. It is inseparable from the notion of consciousness and the yearning for self-fulfillment, to fill one’s life with spiritual content” (Source: Basile Kerblay, Gorbachev’s Russia, p. 89).

Humanizing Technology

This same perception is evident among key Russian educators. Dr. Pavel J. Sarkisov, Rector of the prestigious Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology in Moscow, recently argued that it is essential to meld the skills of moral reasoning with the technical training provided to scientists. In his judgment, it was the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl which opened everyone’s eyes. “In Russia we don’t have the educational system that you have in an American liberal arts college. We prepare specialists in narrow areas of specialization … But we are trying to increase the breadth of education to include business training and to make more room for the humanities. This direction in Russia now is called the humanization of technical education … It is hoped that through this we will educate a more well-rounded student; a better, more ethical businessman; a scientist with a broader world view” (Source: Insights on Global Ethics Newsletter, July 1993, p. 1).

The Response of the West

In light of these desires to reform Russian society and overhaul its educational system, what has been the response of the West? Professor Suzanne Massie, a Fellow of the Harvard University Russian Research Center, accurately summarized it in these words: “During 20 years of regular visits to the old Society Union, I read daily vilifications of the United States. The propaganda campaign failed … What the Communists failed to do in 74 years, we accomplished in three. Today Russians identify us with the ‘money disease’ that has swept their country, bringing greed and crime in its wake … How did we manage to do this? … It lies in an obsession with economics that often make us seem more Marxist than the Soviets ever were … In espousing the market economy as panacea for all of Russia’s woes, we dismiss the Russians’ passionate search for identity, their striving for the spiritual and the gathering strength of religion” (Source: Washington Post op-ed, December 31, 1993, p. A21).

The Post-Communist Transition

The difficult struggles which Russia is experiencing now should not deter us in our efforts to build mutually beneficial partnerships. The daily news reports can be very discouraging, but we must not forget the unprecedented nature of this transition of a post-Communist society. Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor and currently a professor at the The Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, put it this way: “The post-communist transition currently affects several hundred million people. It is being undertaken, by necessity, without either a guiding concept or an exemplary model. The post-communist reformers are, in effect, pioneers in virgin territory. No major study of contemporary economics or of comparative politics contains any systematic analysis or prescription for how to transform a statist, initially revolutionary and later corrupt totalitarian system into a pluralistic democracy based on a free market system. As a clever observer once put it, there are recipes for making an omelette out of eggs but no recipe for making eggs out of an omelette. And so far there is also no actual model—that is, no precedent of relevant historical experience—on which to base a comprehensive, long-term policy for a successful transformation” (Source: Brzezinski, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century, pp. 167-8).

And Back in the U.S. …

These sobering remarks highlight the critical nature of the changes which Russia is undergoing, changes which affect the basic structure of future Russian society. Their crisis is plainly evident. Yet we are experiencing a similar crisis in this country, but, as Neil Postman has observed, we have not fully realized it because “we are amusing ourselves to death.” I am convinced that the West has much to learn from the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The big question is this: do we have the eyes to see what is unfolding before us?