As Kremlinologists go, Zhores Medvedev may be uniquely qualified to profile General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
That's because Medvedev has to do less guessing than most practitioners of a discipline aimed to decipher the secrets of the Soviet political elite.
Unlike his colleagues, Medvedev has spent a good part of his life in the Soviet Union. After leaving for the West, he kept his contacts on the inside, contacts that include his twin brother, Roy, and, apparently, some high-placed sources in the Soviet society.
Thanks to those contracts and his own knowledge of the U.S.S.R., Medvedev was able to come out with the first work to assess the new Soviet leader on the basis of his background and performance rather than the image he projects in the West.
His conclusions may disappoint those who want to see Gorbachev as an urbane master of public relations and a tough hands-on manager; in short, a Great Reformer. The Gorbachev he portrays is refined on the outside, yet a traditional party functionary on the inside.
The 32 years between Gorbachev's graduation from college and becoming the general secretary are devoid of dramatic events--they consist of a list of positions he has held. Medvedev takes this potentially sleep-inducing history of the ascent of a Party apparatchik and asks:
"Will he be able to change the course of development of the Soviet Union? How wisely will he use the enormous power of his office?"
He concludes that it would be a mistake to expect too much from Gorbachev. Though he is more intelligent and more educated than his predecessors, he inherited the orthodoxy of their political thought and their ability to work inside the Soviet system. The most he expects from Gorbachev's government is a refinement of the image of the Soviet elite which, perhaps, could produce more flexible--and less dogmatic--leaders in the next generation.
The extent to which changes are needed is well reflected in "The Gorbachev Era," a compendium of scientific papers projecting political, economic and military problems that seem to call for a Great Reformer of the prevailing system rather than a bureaucrat adept at manipulating that system. The compendium makes a fitting supplement to Medvedev's work.
Medvedev's book has one weakness, which also happens to be the weakness of Kremlinology itself. The author chooses to take a narrow look at the very top of the government elite, then tries to guess its potential role in changing the Soviet bureaucracy and the Soviet society.
But in doing so, he overlooks the fact that not all changes are planned from the top and that not all are predictable. Nikita Khrushchev, like Gorbachev, didn't show much potential as a Great Reformer. Yet, his years in power, marked by his criticism of the Cult of Personality and the return to the "Leninist Path," brought results Khrushchev neither predicted nor planned--nor welcomed.
His reforms and his innovative style created the conditions under which the dissident movement was born. That dissident culture spawned its independent literature called samizdat , which, in two decades gave the world three Nobel Prize winners--Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei D. Sakharov.
That dissident subculture changed the way an ordinary citizen thinks of the authorities. A similar dynamic could come into play with whatever changes Gorbachev may bring.
Recently, one of my young friends in Moscow shared with me some of his views on the subject of Gorbachev's reforms. In a letter, which came to me through unofficial channels, he wrote:
"Gorbachev's bureaucratic reformism doesn't solve problems, but it creates a dynamic situation when hope, once again, is reborn, when changes are imminent, when we lose the impression that the system has entrenched itself for centuries in the form in which it existed under Brezhnev."
These differences in perspective notwithstanding, Medvedev weaves Kremlinology study with his own knowledge of Soviet life. The biographer and his subject are almost the same age. In fact, the two could easily have met. Zhores Medvedev spent the war years in Rostov on Don, the largest city in southern Russia. Gorbachev grew up nearby, in the village of Privolnoye.
During the war and in postwar years, both Gorbachev and Medvedev picked harvest on collective farms, as did all Soviet schoolchildren. Both went to school in Moscow during the last years of Stalin's life.
There were some differences, too. Zhores Medvedev, a city boy from an intellectual family, went to the Agricultural Academy, while Misha Gorbachev, a country boy, chose law school at Moscow University.
This could be a telling detail. In 1950, when Gorbachev chose to become a lawyer, he most likely planned to become a prosecutor. In Stalin-era courtrooms, defense attorneys played so insignificant a role that an average Soviet citizen frequently didn't know about their existence.