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Are Soviets on the Threshold of a New Era?

January 22, 1987|ADAM B. ULAM | Adam B. Ulam is the Gurney Professor of History and Political Science and director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University .

Constantly changing and yet in its essence remaining the same. Such, to put it succinctly, has been the story of the Soviet system. But of late many in the West and, what is more remarkable, some of the dissidents inside the Soviet Union have been drawn to reflect whether in fact that nation stands on the threshold of a basic transformation as it approaches its 70th anniversary.

Indeed it would be unrealistic to deny that the Soviet political scene has undergone a remarkable change since Mikhail S. Gorbachev's ascent to the top position. As of this moment the general secretary has gone quite a distance in adhering to his pledge of introducing "openness" in the discussion of public affairs. Subjects hitherto taboo are being ventilated in the press. Open criticism of fairly high-ranking officials for inefficiency, corruption or abuse of power has ceased to be a rarity. Gorbachev and his closest associates have indicated their intention to license greater freedom of expression for the intellectual and artistic communities. Academician Andrei D. Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, have been allowed to return to Moscow, and while the regime could not quite bring itself to apologize for its previous and opprobrious treatment of the eminent scientist, Gorbachev came close to that by phoning Sakharov to give him the news. And more recently a public reprimand administered to some KGB officials was clearly intended to create the impression (whether of the moment correct or not) that the secret police must not act arbitrarily, but must heed scrupulously the party's and government's directives.

On other fronts, proposals of wide-reaching economic reforms are being freely discussed. In foreign affairs, though up to now unyielding on the issue of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, Gorbachev has insisted on the imperative need of reaching a nuclear-arms-control agreement with the United States. The Soviet Union has been going through intricate diplomatic maneuvers to create the impression of its readiness to resolve the problem of Afghanistan through a political, rather than a military, solution.

Are all of these then portents of a real change? Or are the new masters of the Kremlin, as not infrequently had happened after previous changes in leadership, engaged in an elaborate public-relations campaign designed to persuade their own people as well as the outside world that the new regime is firmly set on a liberal course at home and is determined to assume a peaceful and constructive role in international affairs? And even if they are filled with genuine reforming zeal, would the new leaders be capable of changing the authoritarian structure of internal politics and of terminating or restraining the expansionist thrust of Soviet foreign policy?

As of now it is impossible to give definitive answers to those questions. There is no mistaking the fact that Gorbachev is in earnest about imparting new dynamism to the Soviet economy and in ridding the party and state apparatus of the corruption and inertia with which they had become encrusted during the Brezhnev era.

But when it comes to Gorbachev's intentions or ability to change more fundamental features of the system, it is instructive to ponder the lesson of the recent political turbulence in Kazakhstan. In that second largest (in area) republic of the Soviet Union the long-time political boss, Dinmukhamed A. Kunayev, was replaced in December by a native Russian. The news of a "foreigner" being brought in to replace a fellow native sparked resentment among Kazakh youths. As reported in the Soviet press, the republic's capital of Alma Ata was the scene of 10 days of violent rioting--the type unhappily not unfamiliar in this country: shops trashed, cars set afire, militiamen assaulted, etc. Until quite recently the government would have spared no effort to suppress the news of such disorders. The fact that the Alma Ata riots were reported in the Soviet press was hailed, and justifiably so, as a shining example of that openness to which Gorbachev has been pledged.

The newspaper stories described the equally praiseworthy efforts by party officials to appease aroused passions not merely by police action but also by holding public meetings and discussions with citizens. At one such meeting a Kazakh woman kept asking why their new boss had to be an outsider. "It was patiently explained to her," the story continued, "that the new leader was unanimously elected by the Central Committee of the Kazakhstan Party, almost half the members of which are (ethnic) Kazakhs."

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