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Gorbachev and Perestroika : GORBACHEV'S CHALLENGE Reform in the Age of High Technology by Marshall I. Goldman (W.W. Norton: $16.95; 296 pp., illustrated) : THE RUSSIAN CHALLENGE AND THE YEAR 2000 by Alexander Yanov, translated by Iden J. Rosenthal (Basil Blackwell: $24.95; 289 pp.)

October 18, 1987|Nathaniel Davis | Davis, professor of humanities at Harvey Mudd College, has worked at the U.S. embassies in Moscow, Prague and Sofia, was Soviet Desk Officer at the State Department and served as Senior Adviser on the Soviet Union in Lyndon Johnson's White House

These two books are more alike than they might seem--and not simply because they are both about Russia's future and have challenge in the title. Goldman and Yanov depict Gorbachev, like Hamlet, taking "arms against a sea of troubles" and--more than likely--ending his dreams with failure. They paint Gorbachev as a last-chance reformer of the Soviet economy and society. If his perestroika, or restructuring, does not work, the whole nation may pass into a "systemic crisis."

The two books are starkly dissimilar, however, in many respects. Marshall Goldman's "Gorbachev's Challenge" is a high-technology buff's advice to the Russians that they carry out an economic migration that would leave behind the puffing chimneys of the Russian Rust Belt and lead to the halcyon dales of a Soviet Silicon Valley. Alexander Yanov's "The Russian Challenge and the Year 2000" is an anguished appeal to the West to help Soviet reformers, including Gorbachev, fend off the imminent threat of a new Fascist, Russian Orthodox aggressive empire.

Goldman, to take his book first, believes that the "third industrial revolution" in high-technology has left the Soviet Union trailing far behind the West and that a shift from a centralized, planned, command economy to freer enterprise, market-controlled pricing and decentralized industrial management is crucial to further Soviet economic progress. Gorbachev must free himself "from the need to spend so much on heavy industry and the military" and "divert the country's resources to light industry and consumer goods." Only then will Soviet peasants and factory workers "feel like working." In turn, this would stimulate "improved productivity and quality."

According to Goldman, the Soviet economy worked well during its massive catch-up phase under Stalin. In fact, Goldman is oddly flattering to Stalin. But now the Soviet Union's ponderous, centralized government is suffering from an "economic gridlock" in which every reform depends for success on other reforms--which cannot be made because of interlocking political and economic impediments. Moreover, the Soviets are ill-organized to absorb foreign technology--particularly state-of-the-art high technology. Goldman describes these problems well, and he is also good at showing the antecedents of the current reform efforts. Virtually all of the measures the Soviets have taken or contemplated had been tried already in one form or another in the Soviet Union or in other socialist states.

Goldman's chapters on the economic reforms undertaken in China, Hungary and East Germany are illuminating. He describes Chinese stock markets, organizations such as the Young Presidents, the number of private businesses burgeoning from 140,000 to 18 million in seven years, decollectivization in the countryside, and other experiments that must utterly scandalize Soviet planners and ideologues. In comparing Chinese agricultural reforms to Soviet prospects, Goldman suggests that the idea might not work so well in the Soviet Union because of Soviet peasants' disinterest in Chinese-style family farming. This reviewer doubts that peasant disinterest would be a problem. Profound ideological and political opposition in the Politburo would be the stopper.

Goldman concludes: "If the reforms are to make a difference, the Soviets will have to face up to the dismantling of the bureaucracy, the transfer of power from the center, and the frank acknowledgement of the warts of unemployment, inequality, inefficiency, and the negative balance of trade." In truth, Goldman is really talking about the abandonment of socialism as the Soviets know it. Such an outcome is most unlikely--as Goldman himself acknowledges.

Like Goldman, Alexander Yanov sees a systemic crisis approaching in the Soviet Union. He has a theory that Russian history moves in cycles of incipient reform, counterreform and stagnation, and he presents graphs that show a remarkable consistency in these patterns. The only trouble is that Yanov somewhat deforms the historical record to produce his extraordinary result. For example, he calls Peter the Great "the father of one of the most terrible counterreforms in Russia's history . . . . Whereas the reformers have always tried to destroy Russia's medieval political system, the counterreformers have sought to perpetuate it." While Peter's endless wars and head-tax on the serfs (and slaves) impeded the development of a peasant middle class, it is nevertheless difficult to cast Peter in the role of a counterreformer out to perpetuate the medieval system. Some of Yanov's characterizations in the Soviet period suffer from the same problem.

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