Some Soviet economists believe that resistance from provincial officials and conservative ideologists can be overcome, that wide adoption of the new "family brigades" could lead eventually, as it did in China in the early 1980s, to the de facto decollectivization of agriculture in large areas of the historic Russian heartland. This would reverse a Stalin policy that cost millions of lives in the 1930s.
These and other economic changes that Gorbachev has set in motion in recent months are to take a major step forward next Jan. 1 with the restructuring of Soviet industry. The reforms are to be completed only in the next five-year planning period beginning in 1991, with the reorganization of the nation's banking and credit system and the creation of a new branch of the economy in the form of an open, wholesale market in industrial goods.
If carried through, in the view of many Western and Soviet economists, Gorbachev's reforms will mark a historic turning point in the way the Soviet state manages Soviet society.
But there is fear that before the reforms have a chance to produce an economic renaissance--if, in fact, they can--the transition to the new system of industrial management over the next two to three years will produce economic disarray. This is seen as likely to encourage a conservative backlash that would terminate or dilute the reforms and extinguish any hope for a long-term transformation of Soviet society.
The nation's 18 million government and party bureaucrats, among others, have little personal stake in the success of reforms, and many are said to be genuinely skeptical about their feasibility. As part of the reform, 30% to 50% of these functionaries stand to lose their jobs over the next few years as ministries are consolidated and truncated in an effort to keep them from interfering in the day-to-day management of factories and farms. It is unclear what will happen to them, but many will likely be reabsorbed by other agencies.
More important, the Soviet leadership faces a skeptical, anxious and deeply conservative public--particularly the blue-collar work force--which has ample reason to worry that economic reform for the immediate future means harder work, lower pay, higher prices and no significant improvement in the standard of living.
Unlike Lydia Petrovna, who has benefited from the early stages of reform, many factory and retail workers in state enterprises have suffered wage cuts in recent months as the leadership has pressured managers to improve the quality of goods and services and to economize on wages. Coupled with talk by senior officials about the need for higher consumer prices, wage cuts have contributed to a mood of anxiety and resentment among workers.
In an interview at his Moscow apartment, Andrei D. Sakharov, the Nobel peace laureate whom Gorbachev released from internal exile last year, said he believes the Soviet leader's program of \o7 perestroika\f7 , or restructuring the economy, "is extremely important and absolutely necessary for the country."
But in expressing concerns that appear to be shared by many other Soviet intellectuals, Sakharov said he fears that the Gorbachev revolution, ambitious as it seems, may prove to be little more than half-measures, and risky ones at that.
"It is urgently needed, but it cuts across the grain of the system which has arisen in this country," Sakharov said. "It is a dangerous thing. The danger is in (the risk of) obtaining worse results than we obtain now. People simply do not have the ability to work well. . . . There is a danger that things would just grind to a stop."
The urgency of reform, despite the political risks it entails, is clear from the Soviet Union's own economic figures.
In the 10 years before Gorbachev assumed power in March, 1985, economic growth declined steadily, to about 2% a year, only half the level of the mid-1970s. Moreover, 13% of the nation's industrial enterprises and 30% of its farms were losing money.
Despite massive, sustained investment in agriculture, the Soviet Union remained unable to feed itself adequately. Growth in food production has barely kept pace with the population growth of 1% a year.
Imported Grain, Meat
Oil production, the Soviet Union's main source of Western currency, had leveled off, while the country went on consuming a sizable share of its petroleum wealth in the form of imported grain and meat that cost billions of dollars.
Nearly three years after Gorbachev's rise to power, the supply of meat and butter still falls far short of demand, as evidenced by continued rationing in a number of provincial cities, where adults are limited to as little as a kilogram--2.2 pounds--of meat and sausage and 200 grams--less than a quarter of a pound--of butter a month.