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A Historian Who's Up on the News

July 05, 1987|Nathaniel Davis | Nathaniel Davis, Hixon Professor of Humanities at Harvey Mudd College, was senior adviser on the Soviet Union in Lyndon B. Johnson's White House

CLAREMONT — Roy Medvedev, whose commentary on Soviet economic restructuring appears on this page, is the maverick historian and pundit who writes from Moscow to the world. Early in June he received some students, my wife and me in his little fifth-floor walk-up apartment at the northwest edge of the Soviet capital.

Political writing is Medvedev's life--books line every wall, nook and cranny of three small rooms which, with the kitchen and bath, form the quarters he shares with his wife. Mrs. Medvedev, who was at work when we visited, must be an understanding woman, because Medvedev is working on three books at once and uses each of their three rooms for a different book.

We were received in what appeared to be his primary study--Persian-type carpets on the floor, a small bed, a well-fed cat in a chair, a venerable manual typewriter on the table with a three-fourths-completed page of text in it, a Russian-made television with a screen about the size of a 3-by-5 index card and everywhere books. There were copies of his celebrated indictment of Josef Stalin's crimes, "Let History Judge," in every language, including a Russian edition published in the West. Medvedev was not optimistic that a Soviet edition would soon appear, and he is probably right. The book cuts too close to the bone for a Soviet state ruled by Stalin for almost half of its history.

Medvedev, who looks to be in his early 60s, is clearly well-connected and well-informed. When we called on him, just after a West German pilot landed his plane in Red Square, the Moscow press had not yet revealed where Mathias Rust's Cessna had come to earth; but Medvedev told us all about it, remarking that the young man, with a slight miscalculation, might even have clipped Lenin's Mausoleum. Medvedev talks openly and expresses great confidence in the future; he seems unafraid.

No personal visit to Medvedev is required to appreciate where he positions himself with respect to the great divide of contemporary Soviet politics. He supported Yuri V. Andropov and stands with Mikhail S. Gorbachev. He is for openness, a courageous press and a literary Establishment, massive restructuring of Soviet society and root-and-branch economic reform. On the other side of the divide stood Leonid I. Brezhnev, and Brezhnev's man Konstantin U. Chernenko. On their side there still stand many old party bosses, myriad Communist traditionalists, both honest and self-serving neo-Stalinists, the old back-scratching, go-along, get-along crowd, the conform-and-obey patriots of the unreconstructed KGB, some upright soldiers who believe that consumer needs must not encroach, even slightly, on the nation's defense, perhaps a few resentful passed-over Soviet marshals, some defenders of socialist realism, enemies of rock and jazz, champions of neo-puritan values for the youth, some of the more blindered of those who seek to create the new Soviet man through Marxist education, collectivized culture, conditioning propaganda and the strict control of information. (This description is mine, incidentally, not Medvedev's.)

Medvedev exaggerates a bit, I think, when he suggests that the Soviet economy has calculably declined since the mid-1970s. While he concedes that modest annual gains of 3%-4% were registered over most of that period, he charges that padded statistics, bad management, Chernobyl and the wasting of oil and gas revenues to buy food abroad converted that annual increase into an actual shrinkage.

In fact, bad management, Chernobyl and Soviet agricultural troubles may have limited gross-national-product growth to 3%, but only falsified statistics could have wiped out the modest increases reported. I doubt that responsible economic observers, whether from the U.S. academic community, the CIA, Western Europe or the Soviet Union itself, seriously maintain that Soviet GNP is lower today than it was in the mid-1970s. Growth has slowed and troubles have multiplied, but sluggish expansion has continued. It is almost surely also true that the standard of living of the majority of Russians is higher than it was in 1975--shoddy goods not withstanding.

Medvedev says that the Soviet economy was saved from a "crash" only by huge natural resources and a monopoly of foreign trade. If I were one of those recalcitrant old-line Soviet bureaucrats Medvedev is denouncing, I would respond: "Thanks be for the wealth on the land and under it, and the sense we have shown in resisting convertibility of the ruble and in enslavement to the world economy." At whatever economic cost, it is true that the Soviet Union has insulated its economy from the most extreme fluctuations of the business cycle in the West. We should recognize that Medvedev's article is at least in part a polemic against Gorbachev's internal opposition.

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