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Avid Russian Pupils at U.S. School for Capitalism


"Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" question asked of witnesses appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.


Sergei Krasavchenko says he is not now, but once was, a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He chairs President Boris Yeltsin's Committee on Economic Reform and Ownership in the newly constituted Russian Federation.

Mr. Krasavchenko and nine other top advisers to Mr. Yeltsin participated last week in a "Free Market" workshop at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Four previous workshops were held in Moscow, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The Russian delegation is receiving a crash course in capitalism. To help get the message across to a larger audience, the Russian Federation's new national television network is expected to broadcast soon a special seven-part series on free-market economics, provided by the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Krasavchenko tells me that "it is evident we have seen the end of communism as a system." He says disillusionment with communism is now widespread throughout the Soviet Union because it failed to provide basic economic, social and spiritual needs.

"Real life toppled over the containers into which people had placed their hopes for a better life," says Mr. Krasavchenko. "Living standards were low, but people knew the material resources existed. Now, these material resources are being depleted and people are ready to look elsewhere."

Asked what the Russian delegation wants the United States to do, he responds magnanimously: "The U.S. already has done quite a few things. First, the example the U.S. sets is a very good one to follow. Its economic example, based on private property and private ownership is good, and its political system is an example of a democratic society."

No one should expect the transition in Russia or in the rest of the Soviet Union to be easy. A titanic struggle has begun, the outcome of which is unclear.

Mr. Krasavchenko likens the process to a train leaving the station. The engine is in need of repairs and fuel. Its destination is not certain, but the engineer knows he must get out of town. Meanwhile, some of the passengers are trying to pull the emergency switch to stop the train and make it go back. Others want to continue the journey, dangerous as it may be.

This is a generational as well as political and economic struggle. Most of the younger reformers want a genuine transformation from seven decades of stagnant, oppressive communism to real freedom.

The considerably powerful old guard, which still controls the military (and all of those missiles pointed at us) and the KGB, wants to either slow down the process or reverse it. The old guys fear they'll have to give up their perks and get real jobs.

Washington last week finally began paying more attention to Boris Yeltsin as President Bush invited the newly elected Russian president for a high profile visit to the White House.

The last time Mr. Yeltsin was in Washington, he was brought into the White House through a side entrance. This time, he got the red-carpet treatment.

The State Department and other "go slow" types in the administration think our troth should remain pledged to Gorbachev. They are wrong. American values are based on ideas, not personalities, and U.S. policy should promote those ideas through people who share them.

The Russian reformers advocate a complete break from communism and a rapid move to a free market economy. They do not think communism can be reformed, as Mr. Gorbachev believes. They think it should be buried.

Some, like 27-year-old Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion and one of the "young Turk" reformers, have said that American and European support for Gorbachev actually impedes the drive for democracy in the Soviet Union.

Arkadi Murashev, 31, a people's deputy, has his office decked out with pictures and memorabilia of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Mr. Murashev's goal is a Russia composed of democratic leaders with no previous ties to the Communist Party.

It is still too early to pour Western capital into a not-yet-reborn Russian or Soviet economy and a political system still dominated by Communists, but educational help such as that given by Heritage is essential if the transition is to be made.

If this transition is successful, Russia, with its huge land mass and large amounts of natural resources, could emerge in the next century as the most influential nation in all of Europe.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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