Perestroika, glasnost offer hope for dreams

Four years ago this week, I made an appointment to have photographs taken for my passport and visa. Now I know that’s a strange thing to remember, but it was a step toward a dream that I had been waiting for since my freshman year. I was going to the Soviet Union.

My father thought I was crazy. And the girl who sat behind me in French class decided that I would more than likely end up in some work/reform camp in Siberia. But despite all their words of encouragement, I finally made it there and back and lived to tell about it.

What brings all this to mind is the recent media attention and controversy surrounding Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost Americans have been receiving through television, magazines and newspapers.

I have always had an interest in world news, but since my trip, the Soviet Union has meant a little more to me. My ears perk up at the sound of familiar names and places on television just as my eyes scan magazines and newspapers for the same.

Three of the Baltic republics have been appearing in the news recently due to the development of Popular Front Movements in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and their support for perestroika. What unites these movements is the common goal of greater regional autonomy and nationalism.

What many Americans don’t understand is the fact that the Soviet Union is divided into 15 seperate republics, and Russia is only one of the republics, not the proper name for the country. Much like the way the U.S. is divided into states, the USSR is divided into republics.

The only difference is that many of the republics were once independent nations, and now they are forced to conform to the Soviet “nationality”, despite years of ethnic traditions and different heritages. It’s kind of like telling a Texas cowboy he has to adapt to the lifestyles and beliefs of an East coast ivy-league type.

In this week’s issue of Time magazine an Estonian activist said “the Popular Front was born out of the ‘alienation’ many Estonians feel toward existing social and political organizations.”

His remarks hit close to home and brought back memories of a night-long taxi ride I had while in Tallinn, the Estonian republic’s capital.

While searching for a local dance club, two friends and I jumped in a cab and asked to be taken to the particular club. But our driver informed us he knew of a better place and insisted on taking us there. We never made it to either club.

Instead, our driver took full advantage of his captive audience and joyfully practiced broken English and discussed politics. To this day, I still honestly believe he never planned to take us anywhere after he found that we were Americans. Needless to say it was a well spent evening and lesson from which I gained greater appreciation for my country, and in addition, better communication skills to say the least.

Our driver was an independent businessman of sorts. He used his job as a taxi driver to earn a living—legally, and as a means through which to sell black-market vodka—illegally. If he was caught selling the vodka he kept hidden behind a removable dashboard panel, the government would take away his only possession—his own car.

As we toured Tallinn, he explained that he sold vodka to earn more money. Driving a cab just didn’t cut it. He wanted the money to buy nicer things, not from the Soviet stores but foreign items, like American jeans and cigarettes.

But the real desire he explained to us, was his wish to be Estonian and not to conform to Moscow’s Russian standards. He wanted his government to understand that just because he liked American jeans and television and wanted to practice Estonian traditions, it didn’t mean he was against being a Soviet citizen.

Through the forces of the Popular Front Movement, there just might be a chance for my taxi driver’s hopes and dreams to be renewed again by glasnost and perestroika, and maybe even come true.