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Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin From Brezhnev to Gorbachev by Dusko Doder (Random House: $19.95; 327 pp.)

March 01, 1987|Dimitri K. Simes | Simes is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

After years of stagnation and immobility associated with Leonid I. Brezhnev's last years in power, things are changing quickly in the Soviet Union. Nobody can predict with certainty how successful Mikhail S. Gorbachev's "revolution" from above is going to be. But by now, there is little doubt that the new Soviet leader is serious about attempting to modernize the Soviet economy and, indeed, the Soviet society as a whole.

The fate of Gorbachev's reforms depends to a large extent on Soviet macro-politics: his ability to build a formidable coalition in favor of change, to mobilize the population in support of his vision, to overcome the conservatism of Soviet political culture. But the Kremlin's micro-politics are also very important. To stay on top, the general secretary has to be skilled in the art of political maneuver, must have a talent for Machiavellian intrigue--Soviet style. The Soviet Union is no longer Churchill's "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." The West knows a great deal about the Soviet economic development, political process and, especially, foreign policy conduct. Yet Gorbachev's glasnost-- openness--campaign notwithstanding, the outside world has very little information about what transpires inside top Soviet decision-making bodies, what key Soviet officials think and how they relate to each other.

The task of penetrating the Kremlin walls is not easy. In the absence of reliable evidence, Western Kremlinologists inevitably have to rely on clues in the Soviet media, on hints from official and unofficial Soviet sources and on revelations of foreigners who have had direct exposure to Moscow's inner circle. Even pursued most carefully and competently, Kremlinology is a very imperfect art. Media references to power struggles are, as a rule, ambiguous and subject to interpretation. Unofficial Soviet citizens--particularly dissidents eager to share their insights with foreigners--rarely have access to the top echelons of Soviet bureaucracy. Their perspective is often based more on Moscow's notorious rumor mill than on any hard facts.

The difficulty with official Soviet representatives is different. It is not so much their actual knowledge (which is also overstated, of course, on occasion) but rather their sincerity in sharing it with Westerners that represents a problem. In any capital, government types try to manipulate the foreign media. But only in a few places would they have such a free ride as in Moscow, where efforts to verify leads from official informants are usually an exercise in futility.

Similarly, foreigners who have had a chance to see Soviet leaders usually meet with them only briefly and in a carefully controlled environment. Such foreigners are also likely to have their own agendas. Try to remember, for instance, a single Soviet general secretary who failed to impress Armand Hammer as a formidable statesman and a man of peace.

Still, despite obstacles, Western Kremlinologists have had some remarkable successes. The most notable among them is a 20-year-old book by former Le Monde correspondent in Moscow, Michel Tatu, "Power in the Kremlin: From Khrushchev to Kosygin," which is truly a masterpiece of painstaking research and analysis by a leading French journalist. I have had my share of disagreements with Tatu. But he has demonstrated that Kremlinology--if properly practiced--may be a respectable profession.

A new book by another prominent reporter, Dusko Doder of The Washington Post, is useful in a somewhat different way. His "Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev" is rich with interesting observations about the recent political succession in the Soviet Union. Doder, after all, is fluent in Russian and experienced in covering the Soviets. Before arriving in Moscow in 1981, he had already had a tour there in 1968-1971 as a reporter for United Press International.

Unfortunately for Doder, most of what is truly insightful in his book is no longer new. First, the book rarely goes beyond what Doder himself wrote in his dispatches from the Soviet Union. Second, there is already an abundance of Western literature about the man who is the focal point of "Shadows and Whispers"--Yuri V. Andropov. Doder has little to add to numerous descriptions of the career, rise to power and the brief rule of this formidable but sinister figure.

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