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PERSPECTIVE ON THE SOVIET UNION : Saved From Lies, They Aced the Test : When Gorbachev canceled high-school exams, he broke the chain of ideas that kept the party in power.

August 23, 1991|TOM CLANCY | Tom Clancy's latest book is "The Sum of All Fears" (G.P. Putnam)

Some things you remember. The first time I went to the White House was in March, 1985. It was the day Konstantin Chernenko was buried. My wife and I spoke briefly in the Oval Office with President Reagan. I was at the time beginning work on "Red Storm Rising," and a new guy named Gorbachev had just taken over in the Soviet Union. The President was having lunch with Henry Kissinger that day to discuss the new chap. Those were the days of the "evil empire"--a phrase for which Reagan was heavily criticized but which was brutally accurate.

For the first time there was a Soviet leader whom President Reagan might meet without having to attend a seance (remember, the sequence was Leonid Brezhnev (in his dotage), Yuri Andropov (terminally ill from the day he took over) and Chernenko (who might have been dead the whole time)). Who was this new guy? Hope does spring eternal, and, as with every new Soviet leader, there was hope in all camps that this new one might be different.

The thing that got my attention came about 20 months later. Reading my morning Washington Post, I spotted an item on Page 18 or so: Mikhail Gorbachev was canceling the nation's high-school exams. The reason? There was no purpose, Gorbachev said, in testing the students' knowledge of lies. Up until that point we'd seen a lot of lip service to new ideas, but this minor news item grabbed me, and so I called a friend, Alex Costa, an author and Soviet emigre. Alex has a doctorate degree from Moscow State University, and is married to Stan Levechenko, a "retired" KGB major who is also an author. Both are canny observers of their mother country. Yes, Alex confirmed, this is an important step. It's real, we agreed, Gorby's real.

It may seem like a small thing, but I've always felt that it's the pedestrian things that really matter, and what grabbed me here is that a person will never forget being excused a semester exam, nor the reason why. You simply cannot take back something that finds its way into the human mind. What Gorbachev had done was to announce the moral and ideological bankruptcy of the Soviet Union. And if you're wondering just how important that was, consider this: the soldiers--the guys carrying the guns--who now wear the uniform of the Red Army, are the kids who got a pass on the exam. They came to political awareness entirely under a man who had broken them off from the past.

The coup in the Soviet Union was bound to fail. That it collapsed so fast came as something of a surprise. I gave it until Friday, but this one folded so fast that a column I wrote on Monday outlining its weaknesses was overrun before it could be published.

One might argue that the coup's collapse resulted from stunning tactical ineptitude--coups have been done far better in Argentina, Chile and Panama. This junta of supposedly experienced plotters failed to take Boris Yeltsin out. That is in itself an interesting statement. Perhaps these experienced apparatchiki thought that the only part of the government that mattered was its head--Gorbachev. Incredible as it may seem, they might not have realized that the popular election of Yeltsin only a few months ago was something as genuinely important as it was genuinely new. Take out Gorby, they might have thought, and the whole country is in our hands (it worked with Nikita Khrushchev, didn't it?). They had the generals--a few of them, anyway--on their side, and that gave them the Soviet Army, right? It seems from the lack of radio intercepts by our intelligence agencies that the plotters gave scant attention to sending orders out to the numerous military districts and commands in the country. The junta had Moscow, and what else mattered, right?

If anything proves that Gorbachev was right when he canceled the exams, this is it. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was and is intellectually bankrupt. In concentrating on the putative chief of government and the capital city only, the party proved unable to break with a past that is . . . past.

The Soviet Army, I learned a few months ago, was in a state of schism. The junior officers were publishing articles in open source journals decrying the state of their country and their army. In the Russian Federation election, both the rank-and-file conscripts and the company-grade officers had voted for Yeltsin. I forwarded that tidbit to a Pentagon-reporter friend, who confirmed it with the Defense Intelligence Agency. By Monday afternoon, we were both in agreement that this coup would fail on that basis alone. The historical model here was not Beijing, but Bucharest: If the junta gave orders to shoot people, as Nicolae Ceaucescu did, there was no predicting where the rifles would be pointed. One would like to think that this matter was considered beforehand, but was it?

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