Beyond Boris

It's going to take more than one man to make Russia work, but the ranks of Russian leadership may be too thin "for the task. It's not just that two world wars and 70 years of purges have left a gaping hole in the size of the male population--rather a new generation of men, raised with fear and with out fathers, lacks the psychological stuff for leadership. And the equivalent generation of women is only now becoming conscious of personal, let alone political, power.

In fact, the economic and emotional health of the country now lies almost totally in the hands of the family, not the state. Specifically, says San Diego psychologist Kenneth Byers, it is in the unrelenting grip of the grandmothers--the tough old women who don the traditional kerchief tied under the chin, in what some see as a symbolic knot of resistance to anything new or hopeful.

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Because housing is notoriously difficult to come by, the babushkas (accent on the first syllable means the women; on the second, the scarf) exert their absolute control over a three-generation roost. But they do it with accumulated anger and mistrust of the visible, male-dominated power structure superimposed on the more traditional family weapons of guilt and intimidation.

Russia's young men wind up with a fatal wound to their self-esteem and masculine identity; they are psychologically impotent. Byers calls it the "Babushka Syndrome."

These men are not likely any time soon to heal their wounds in relationships with women. So absolute is the rule of the babushka that the men come to see all women in her image and, with whatever is left of a self, feel competitive toward them.

In psychology seminars he recently led, along with four other Americans, from Leningrad to Irkutsk, Byers observed a hyperfragility between the sexes, with little real communication and almost nothing penetrating the men's emotional vacuum.

That's one reason why alcohol abuse is so rampant. By some estimates, alcoholism afflicts 90% of the male population.

Men and women do equally share some forms of powerlessness, however. Both have zero confidence in their education. Because all research was adjusted to party doctrine for so long, they can give no credibility to anything they have been taught.

The very ubiquity of the babushka (she commonly appears in American newscasts standing in line to buy some household essential) is a symbol of the absence of the fathers. The babushka may lead the country back to its traditions and a spiritual awareness, but she cannot give the Russian social system what it badly needs today--restored masculinity to her sons and grandsons.

That's where the Americans and the Russians really ought to work out a trade agreement. By a totally different route, America has become a society wounded by father-absence. The Babushka Syndrome is a mirror of our own problems. By studying the syndrome and exchanging information about men's issues, both countries can reinvent psychologically healthy societies.

PHOTO (COLOR): MOTHERS OF CONVENTION: Russia's babushkas carry the culture.

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