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The Past Has a Strong Effect on Soviet Policy

November 17, 1985

Lawrence R. Klein rightly draws the attention of those who wish to understand today's Soviet Union to Russian history prior to the 1917 Communist revolution. Although the ideology often does play an important role, the Soviet Union, its society and domestic and foreign policy are a fairly direct outgrowth of the country's past. Communism itself, at least in the form it exists in the Soviet Union or has been imposed on its satellites, resembles the bureaucratic Czarist empire of old much more than an egalitarian state envisioned by Karl Marx. Even the fact that the nation clings so stubbornly to last century's economic precepts, which were proven many times over to be a dismal failure, may in itself be a manifestation of the Russian character.

As Klein notes, the Soviet preoccupation with its border security comes from being repeatedly ravaged by foreign armies. Klein mentions the 17th-Century Polish invasion, but there have been others both before it and after. Today, of course, these fears are mostly imaginary: The Soviet Union maintains a standing army of 5 million men and has long achieved nuclear parity with the United States. Yet, it still overreacts every time it perceives trouble on its borders.

At the Geneva summit meeting later this month, Mikhail Gorbachev will want to diffuse the U.S.-Soviet tensions, so that he could free some of the resources now used in the military for his laggard civilian economy. He would also want American technology, without which the Soviet economy probably cannot be modernized.

Yet, no nation can escape being a prisoner of its own past. In recent years, hopes of reaching an understanding between the superpowers were dimmed by the invasion of Afghanistan, the imposition of the martial law in Poland--done with Soviet approval, and the shooting down of the South Korean airliner. Gorbachev, even for the sake of a vitally important agreement with the United States, won't be able to change the nation's psyche, and the agreement therefore may not be in the offing.

This will probably mean that U.S. budget outlays for defense won't be reduced any time soon. On the other hand, it will force the Soviet Union, too, to keep allocating more resources to its military, a sacrifice it can ill afford at present. As I pointed out in "Deep Structural Problems May Doom Reforms" (Viewpoints, Oct. 13), continued Soviet economic weakness may be to America's advantage: a stronger Soviet economy will only make the U.S.S.R. a more formidable adversary.

ALEXEI BAYER

Economics Writer, A. Gary Shilling & Co.

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