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Maybe Gorbachev Is Simply Stalling? : Authoritarianism first, market reform second

September 30, 1990

Paradoxes are inherently fascinating, though it is hard not to agree with Bertrand Russell, who once grumbled that he had difficulty distinguishing those paradoxes that conceal a "profound truth" from those that are "simply nonsense."

That is precisely the dilemma that confronts anyone attempting to tease the significant from the merely mystifying in the Soviet Union's latest lurch toward some version of a market economy.

When Mikhail S. Gorbachev began his courageous campaign of reform, he said it rested on two inseparable pillars: glasnost (openness) or democratization, and perestroika (reconstruction) or economic change. One, he argued, was impossible to achieve without the other. Last week, however, the frustrated president bludgeoned a paralyzed Supreme Soviet into granting him the power to single-handedly make all laws touching on markets, prices and other economic questions and public order.

What Gorbachev actually intends to do with this recentralized authority--and whether authority still can be exercised from the Soviet center--remains unclear. Boris Yeltsin and the other elected leaders of the Russian Federation already have announced plans to proceed with their own rapid transition to a market economy. Gorbachev, having sacrificed one principle of his reform effort under the pressure of necessity, now seems uncertain as to how the other may yet be achieved. He has ordered the authors of two competing economic plans--the radical economist Stanislav S. Shatalin and the cautious Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov--to go away and reconcile their incompatible approaches to economic reform by Oct 15.

Perhaps the profound truth concealed in the paradox of Gorbachev's recent conduct is not a retreat to Russian authoritarianism, but to another traditional attitude best expressed in an old story told by Russian Jews:

Two Jews were brought before the czar on a trumped-up charge and sentenced to death. As they were about to be led away, one cried, "Wait, your Imperial Highness! If you only will spare our lives, I will perform for you a great feat of magic."

"What kind of magic?" asked the czar.

"Why, I will teach your favorite horse to talk," replied the condemned man.

"Hmm," said the czar, "it doesn't seem likely, but you are a resourceful people. You have one year in which to teach my horse to talk. But if he doesn't speak by then, you will not only be executed, but also subjected to the worst tortures my dungeons can provide. Now leave us."

As the two men scuttled for the door, the silent one hissed to his friend, "Have you lost your mind? We were going to die, but at least it would have been quick. Now we're going to be tortured, too."

"Well," his friend replied, "a year is a year."

"What's going to happen in a year?"

"We may die anyway."

"We're not going to die. We're young men!"

"So the czar may die."

"But he's even younger than we are."

"OK, so the horse may talk."

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