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A great feeding frenzy

A recent poll in Moscow asked a cross section of teen-age girls what job they would most like to have. The leading answer: international prostitute. Young women working the tourist bars of Moscow's international hotels can make $100 in a night. At current black-market rates, this is more than ordinary Russians make in a year.

In the twilight of Soviet Communism, as Western leaders ponder their response to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's request for financial support for his country's transition to capitalism, an old Marxist idea is getting a new lease on life. Everybody understands, more or less, how capitalism works _ but how does it start?

Primitive accumulation, said Marx, and it isn't pretty. The nobles throw the peasants off their land; the Spaniards take the gold of the Incas; shipmasters capture slaves in Africa and sell them to the West Indies; Dickensian villains make little children work 14 hours a day in dark, satanic mills.

Capitalism has settled down in the West these days. There is nothing primitive about the way the modern businessman or woman accumulates profits. But things are different in the Soviet Union. There, a social system based on the denial of private property is falling apart, and a new group of capitalists is struggling to be born. It's a very primitive process, and there is nothing pretty about it.

Capitalism is like wine; it gets better with age. Banks, courts, philanthropies, independent universities _ none of these priceless assets spring up overnight. Without them, an advanced industrial democracy is difficult to imagine.

For 70 years, the Bolshevik dictatorship labored to extirpate all memory of these institutions and cultural qualities from a society where their roots were shallow to begin with. For 70 years, churches, synagogues and mosques were suppressed. Spiritual formation of children was taken from religious institutions selected by parents and handed over to schools and youth groups controlled by a corrupt and murderous party with totalitarian designs on the human personality.

Soviet society faces a spiritual crisis as serious as its economic problem. There is no magic, in markets or anywhere else, that can produce a peaceful, stable, happy and rich society from this history in any short period of time. The Soviet peoples must find their way to a spiritual rebirth. The way out of the Soviet morass, if indeed one can be found, will be long and difficult.

The Soviet system makes criminals out of its citizens. Shortages of essential goods in the official shops make it impossible to live without buying on the black market. But Soviets don't make enough money to pay black-market prices _ unless they also sell there. This means stealing.

A young worker in a Leningrad vegetable stand explains the system. He makes 150 rubles a month from his job, but his living expenses are 600 rubles. How does he make up the difference? Simple: He short-weights his customers and sells the pilfered goods on the side. This is standard behavior in the Soviet Union _ everyone from janitor to minister has some kind of angle. This petty, personal dishonesty allows Soviets to get by in a difficult situation, but the personal and social cost is high.

Retail dishonesty is only a small part of the Soviet problem. If business is outlawed, only outlaws will do business. For two generations, business has been against the law in the Soviet Union. Successful businessmen were those able to steal on a large scale and bribe the authorities. There are no Rotaries and Better Business Bureaus. Businessmen operated on the margin of the law, concerned with quick profits rather than with a reputation for honesty and reliability. Psychologically, the pioneers of Soviet business resemble American drug dealers more than the Jaycees.

Western ideas about business ideals are sometimes hard for Soviets to grasp. People educated to believe that employment is a synonym for exploitation have difficulty with the concept of an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. Most Westerners instinctively understand that the best business deal is one that pleases both parties; many Soviets think that of the two parties in any transaction, one is a knave and the other a fool.

Now a society whose ideas of ethical conduct have little relevance for life under capitalism is preparing one of the great transfers of wealth in world history. Privatization in the Soviet Union means the rapid transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets under chaotic conditions. It will inevitably be administered by a bureaucracy both corrupt and incompetent, and it will be supervised by a legal system utterly unprepared for a task of this magnitude.

It will be one of the great feeding frenzies in world history _ and neither the virtuous nor the deserving will make off with the lion's share of the prizes. More scum than cream will be rising to the top.

The nouveaux riches of the Soviet Union who emerge from the struggle will shape its government and its culture for some time to come. They are unlikely to be committed to democratic politics, humane values and the rule of law. Their approach to international politics is unlikely to be either subtle or farsighted.

Westerners don't like to think about problems like this. We want a clean solution to the Soviet problem. Reforms, free elections, a few years of transition and all will be well. Now, as Western political leaders attempt to respond to Gorbachev's call for economic assistance, our wishful thinking could be dangerous.

Debates over the amount and timing of Western aid to the Soviet Union are based on illusions. Those favoring immediate aid seem to think that if we just kiss this frog hard enough, it will turn into a prince. The hard-liners want to wait until it turns into a prince and then kiss it.

The stark truth is that neither the United States nor anyone else knows what the Soviets should do. The Germans now say it will take at least 10 years and could cost $1-trillion to reform eastern Germany; the Soviet Union is twice as poor and almost 20 times as populous as the old GDR. The Poles know as much about dismantling communism as anyone else and they sum up their experience in a new proverb: "You can turn an aquarium into fish soup easier than you can turn fish soup into an aquarium."

The debate over Soviet policy should not be about how to turn the Soviet Union into a prince, but about how best to live with a frog _ a restless, ambitious, frustrated and heavily armed frog. There aren't, unfortunately, any easy answers to this one.

Walter Russell Mead spent much of last year traveling in Eastern Europe and is working on a book about U.S. foreign policy for the Twentieth Century Fund. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.