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Soviets Optimistic : Glasnost--New Life for Old System

May 14, 1987|ROBERT SCHEER | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Georgy A. Arbatov is like a man reborn.

Seeing him today, an old acquaintance finds it hard to picture this Soviet official as he was just three years ago: crestfallen, his hopes for change in his country tied to a life-support machine in the Kremlin hospital where Yuri V. Andropov lay dying. A dying KGB head as reformer? In the land of the czars, one takes what one gets.

Then came the dull days of Konstantin U. Chernenko, when it looked like the pattern was set. Old men, old ideas, nothing changing.

Two years ago, the clouds parted for Arbatov--and the many Communist Party loyalists like him--who had been waiting for a system they once thought of as revolutionary to show some sparks of life. After Mikhail S. Gorbachev won out in a power struggle to lead the Soviet Communist Party, Arbatov, beside himself with excitement, grabbed a reporter's arm and proclaimed: "Gorbachev is a modern man! Now you will see the changes, the new thinking!"

Veteran of Many Twists

Recently, at the Soviet Academy of Sciences institute that he directs here--the USA and Canada Institute--the 63-year-old Arbatov, a member of this nation's ruling Central Committee and veteran of many past Kremlin twists and turns, recalled the earlier conversation and asserted that Gorbachev had performed beyond Arbatov's wildest expectations.

Few Western observers would disagree that the Gorbachev era has brought many unexpected--and even unimaginable--changes here. What they add up to and just how far they will go are the subjects of a debate that can only be resolved by time.

But dozens of interviews conducted here recently with top Soviet officials, including members of the Central Committee, its Secretariat and Politburo, as well as with leading scientists and editors, provide an outline of what Gorbachev and his allies in the party think they are up to in this era of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction).

'Depressing Developments'

"It was not sudden," Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir F. Petrovsky says when asked why these concepts suddenly have come to the fore. "People in the party and in government felt that something is wrong, that depressing developments were taking place; there was not much economic development; social justice had been violated in the country. . . . And we see in glasnost, democratization and in a democratic people the only remedy against all of this. A democratic people will make bureaucrats behave properly and observe certain rules of behavior."

Petrovsky is no budding dissident, but a top team player in the Soviet foreign policy Establishment who currently oversees many of his government's relations with international organizations. Relaxed with a visitor in his Foreign Ministry office, he shunned diplomatic qualifiers and made no requests for anonymity, obviously speaking with the full confidence that he was stating the leadership's position.

Neither Petrovsky nor any of the other top people around Gorbachev talk about replacing or diluting socialism. As Politburo member Alexander N. Yakovlev said in an interview, hitting his desk with the palm of his hand for emphasis: "We want more democracy and we want more socialism. The two are indivisible. We are not moving towards your system; we are making ours work."

To make things work efficiently in a society where not much does work is the essential goal. The new generation that has come to power regards the Soviet Union's physical sciences--with their notable achievements in space and military technology--as islands of effectiveness. As a result, this is also the time of the scientist here.

Generational Shift

One of the most important of these scientific leaders is 52-year-old Yevgeny P. Velikhov, a physicist who argues that the new thinking represents a generational shift, as well as a victory of the scientific method over political cant. His generation is the one that came to adulthood after the death of Stalin and during the brief "thaw" of the Khrushchev years.

It is also Gorbachev's generation. Velikhov recalls the atmosphere in the early 1950s, when both he and Gorbachev, now 56, attended Moscow University. Although Gorbachev was a few years ahead of him, Velikhov recalls that both participated in a reform campaign aimed at the ultra-conservative party officials who ran the university.

It is not that Velikhov rejects communism; indeed, both he and Gorbachev were then members of the Communist Party's Komsomol youth group that led the push for reform. Velikhov is now a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee and is one of those who elected Gorbachev general secretary. But he insists that socialist theory must accommodate the scientific method rather than war with it.

'Socialist Logarithm'

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