MOSCOW — Like a vast, frozen Siberian river cracking and groaning with the first thaw, the Soviet Union, as it turns 70, is rumbling with the promise of change.
And what follows now in the Soviet Union could be as dangerous as a flash flood, as promising as spring or as anti-climactic as a new cold snap that freezes the river solid once more.
The program that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has laid out for his country calls for restructuring not only the economy but virtually every aspect of national life.
Its goal is to end a generation of national stagnation in which little except the Soviet military kept up with the West, to bring a country still using the ancient abacus into the modern world of supercomputers and industrial robots and, perhaps what is most important, to revive what is now conceded to be the tarnished dream of creating a model that other societies might find worth emulating.
"There's the Bolshevik Revolution and there's restructuring," Gorbachev told a street crowd in Murmansk a few weeks ago. Restructuring--or perestroika in Russian--"is a revolution without shooting," the Kremlin chief added, "but it's a deep and serious one."
Indeed, European and American analysts, once convinced that Gorbachev's reforms amounted merely to a public relations campaign to lull the West into complacency, have changed their tune. Now they describe his as the most far-reaching peacetime program for political and social change here since the late dictator Josef Stalin introduced the first five-year plan at the end of the 1920s.
What Gorbachev has set out to do is to alter fundamentally the way in which the ruling Communist Party manages Soviet society, starting with relaxation of the rigidly centralized Stalinist economic system that has survived with little significant alteration to this day.
Instead of responding to what some central planner thinks is needed, factories have been told to rely more on the basic law of supply and demand. And there is now a place for private--or, as the Soviet authorities prefer to call it, "individual"--enterprise. The idea is to give more authority to talented professionals and entrepreneurs and less to loyal but unimaginative bureaucrats.
To effect change, Gorbachev is chipping away at some of the self-imposed barriers to Western thought that have kept this one of the world's most isolated societies since the days of the czars.
A Fresh Start
In a way, Gorbachev is trying to start over--not in the sense of questioning the results of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which founded the Soviet state, or by giving up on Leninism, the driving force and philosophy behind the state, but in discarding some of the worst features of the Stalinist model that came to be identified as Soviet-style socialism. He is, in essence, remaking the revolution.
"1929 was really the year of the great turn . . . like a watershed between the implementation of socialism according to Lenin and according to Stalin," said Yuri N. Afanasyev, director of Moscow's Institute of Historical Archives. A Gorbachev supporter, Afanasyev has been providing some of the all-important ideological underpinning for the Soviet leader's program.
Gorbachev has made clear that this new Russian revolution will take a lot longer than the one 70 years ago, which will be celebrated Nov. 7. He has compared the test it will impose on Soviet society to the stress on the metal skin of a spacecraft re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.
In fact, the biggest threat to Gorbachev's program is the sheer inertia of the largest nation on Earth, with 284 million people, set in their ways and scattered over a territory 2 1/2 times the size of the United States.
Many Western analysts wonder whether the Soviet leader himself can survive the test ahead. Marshall Goldman, an American Sovietologist and Wellesley College professor who has written a book entitled "Gorbachev's Challenge," has predicted that the Kremlin chief will last no more than two or three more years in the face of what the U.S. analyst sees as mounting resistance to his program.
Nonetheless, Gorbachev is off to an impressive start.
Since he came to power less than three years ago, the Kremlin leader has managed to substantially alter the traditionally forbidding image of his country abroad. The change is vital in order to ease international tensions and gain the breathing space and Western technology he needs to carry through his reforms.
A Gallup poll commissioned by Times Mirror Co. in early September found that 40% of Americans regard Gorbachev favorably, the highest positive rating for any Soviet leader in more than 40 years. By contrast, the late Nikita S. Khrushchev, who presided over an ill-fated, earlier attempt at de-Stalinization and who visited the United States in 1959 and returned the next year to attend the U.N. General Assembly session in New York, never received higher than a 10% favorable rating.