Things are changing in Russia. Until recently, Soviet authorities allowed only 100 copies of the International Herald Tribune to be flown in each day. But inlate September, they agreed to raise the newspaper's quota by 80 percent.
Among the Soviet Union's 270 million citizens, an estimated 8 million people read English. Foreign travel is an impossible dream for most of them. Ordinary people share with visitors a deep desire to learn more about the Western world and, particularly, about the American way of life.This is what they do not know: Each of us in the West lives under a set of economic rules that are alien to the average Soviet.
Americans can go into a bank and change their dollars into Japanese yen or any other of the world's major currencies. Since it makes no sense to walk around with foreign money, except perhaps when planning a trip, people generally forego that right. For the most part, they leave currency speculation to the traders and make do with dollars.
In Russia, however, just about anything worth having - from caviar to stereos - can be bought solely with dollars or other so-called "hard" currencies. The problem is that only the upper crust enjoys access to dollars; for most, it's illegal to own anything but "soft" rubles.
When the negotiators who brought the extra 80 Tribs into Russia returned to their Moscow hotel, they settled their accounts in rubles that had cost them $1.60 apiece. Yet if they took their spare rubles home (also against the law), they would have been lucky to get 12 cents apiece in exchange. That's what Western bankers think the ruble is really worth.
And that's one big reason why Mikhail Gorbachev's reform drive is stalled: A currency that can't be used to buy the goods people want and that can't be converted freely into others isn't money in the true sense of the word.
In the West, markets link supply with demand and so help create goods that people seek to own. In the Soviet Union, the market does not set prices. Instead, planners say what everything should cost - from bread (which has been frozen at the same low price since 1962) to color TV sets (which cost an average worker eight months' salary, break down often, and cannot be fixed).
Gorbachev says his purpose is to make the system work and not to get rid of it. Perhaps we should take Gorbachev at his word and then ask him why he has put off his promised price reform until 1991.
Like Peter the Great, another Russian reformer, Gorbachev wants it both ways: he seeks to forge a modern economic society but have it adhere to a single-party state. Experience suggests it won't work. Sooner or later, something must give.