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Peeking Through the Iron Curtain

USSR In Grists By Marshall Goldman W.W. Norton and Co. pp. $15.00

By Antony J. Blinken

WHEN WINSTON CHURCHILL SPOKE of an iron curtain descending between East and West, he was referring to both a literal and figurative barrier. A decade after the speech, the Berlin Wall had been erected, tangibly separating Europe in two. But even as Churchill put forth his image, a symbolic partition was already in place, preventing the West from getting a good, hard look at the East. That partition, "built" after the Russian Revolution in 1917, remains as sturdy today as it was during the British war hero's time.

This figurative iron curtain ensures that the West has little idea about what goes on in eastern bloc countries. An occasional book, like Hedrick Smith's The Russians, provides a brief, fascinating peek behind the veil, but for the most part a state of uneasy ignorance prevails. And when Western leaders claim one day that the Soviet Union is a crumbling grant only to assert the next that the country has achieved nuclear superiority over the United States and Western Europe combined, ignorance gives way to confusion and fear.

With his latest book, USSR In Crisis. Marshall Goldman does not pretend to provide startling revelations that finally answer all the questions about the Soviet Union. The author, associate director of Harvard's Russian Research Center, is too aware of the ambiguities of Soviet life too conscious of the blinders any Westerner is forced to wear when looking at the USSR, to go out on a limb. Indeed, he performs an adept juggling act, usually balancing all sides to a problem and never maintaing that his findings are the truth. But his lucid study convincingly details the major dilemmas that the Soviet Union's new leaders face. Goldman doesn't speculate on what the Russians will do next, but he does lay out their options. And although he makes no policy recommendations for the West, Goldman's analysis of the state of the Soviet Union should serve to make some courses of action more attractive than others.

Put simply, Goldman maintains that the Soviet Union is in trouble at home. Mother Russia cannot adequately feed her people, provide them with the necessary consumer goods and housing, or maintain a tolerable social system. The culprit, the Stalinist economic model. With its emphasis on heavy industry, production quotas and planning. Stalin's model still essentially in use--is redundant, low on quality and inflexible. While it allowed the Soviet Union impressive growth several decades ago, the model just isn't suited to change--hence today's set of problems.

There isn't much headroom for evolution. In an explanation that, ironically could be viewed as Marxist. Goldman contends that the authoritarian nature of the economic system dictates the political system's constraints. Even Soviet leaders are provided little space in which to maneuver or more accurately incentive to effect change. The "classless society" makes a clearcut distinction between the masses and the elite granting the latter inumerable privileges. As Goldman writes, "For those who do realize the true state of life, the temptation to protest is generally tempered by the realization that muckraking may lead to the withdrawal of such privileges. The Stalinist political model yields to no one in using the most effective combination of the carrot and stick."

Goldman does not blame ill the USSR's woes on Stalin. He cites also a "sense of cultural and historical isolation and a sense of inferiority, to show why the Soviet Union has been so wary of change. And, in a characteristic attempt to see things from the Soviet perspective, he makes clear why the Soviet people have accepted their repressive system for so long:

Caught between Asia and Europe, the Russians have developed not unnatural fears of both East and West. As the Soviets see it, from the West have come the French, the Swedes, the Poles, the Teutonic knights and the Nazis. From the east have come the Mongols and the Tartars. Given what sometimes seems to be the almost continual stream of marauders passing through or threatening the country, the Russians have come to accept some extraordinary restraint on their individual lives, usually in the name of national defense.

Which is not to say that the USSR is a benign, passive state cowering in the face of incessant threats. The impressive Soviet military industry the only part of the Soviet economy that works, essentially because of the emphasis placed upon it and the greater, market-type flexibility it is allowed belies this. But Goldman's analysis sheds light on a complex country that gets more out of its perceived national interest than through ideological fervor.

GIVEN THIS STATE OF AFFAIRS, what posture should the West adopt' Goldman does not attempt to respond to this query, but his work helps to indicate the most logical answers. Some Western policy makers would have the United States "out arms race" the Soviets Given our relative economic strength, the argument goes, it is only a matter of time before the USSR gives in Proponents of this game of geopolitical chicken ignore of course the vast waste of resources and danger inherent in nuclear weapons. More important, as Goldman's book suggests, the Soviets seem more likely in the long run to "our arms race" the West. Thanks to an authoritarian political system, and economy geared toward the production of weapons and a people willing and accustomed to sacrifice, the USSR could certainly stay in the race--and perhaps win.

Others would have the West use its economic leverage on the Soviets to make them comply to our will. This assumes sufficient economic contacts--hardly reality since the downfall of detente--create such leverage. But even granting its existence, certain factors indicate that the economic weapon may not be so lethal. The USSR, despite its staggering economy, does possess an impressive stock of raw materials. Ant the dismal failure of the U.S. grain embargo demonstrates the need for cooperation among the Western allies if economic corrections are to have only success. Future prospects for such cohesion are not great.

Nor can moral consideration be in ignorant, for economic favoring would be used in effect against the Soviet people, not their leaders. And should the West somehow succeed in pushing the USSR to an economic crises, the Soviet Union could well-become more bellicose than it already is. A hungry bear, after all, constitutes more of a danger than a well-fed one.

So the West is left with only one alternative--a renewed effort at detente. Even if we view the USSR as, to quote President Reagan, "the world's most evil force," a policy of coexistence and commerce can still be productive. At worst, detente will maintain the status quo and keep tensions to an acceptable level. At best, it might even produce some changes in Soviet foreign and domestic policy.

THE MAJOR FORCES in the Politburo are not young men. Andropov is 68, Konstantin Chernenko 71, Andrei Kirilenko 76 and Andrei Gromyko 73. In the not-too-distant future, a younger generation that did not live through the horrors of the war will take over. Despite the constraints of the Soviet system, these leaders might well be interested in improving the lot of their people--if only out of necessity. Growing labor unrest and dissidence within the Soviet Union have till now been successfully held in check, but history suggests the country will not stagnate forever. As Goldman puts it:

The last major change or attempted change in Russian government came in 1971, over six decades ago. That change came a decade after the 1905 revolution, and two decades after the attempted assassination of the czar in 1881. Five and a half decades earlier the Decembrist Movement of 1825 took place. Thus the current system has gone longer without an attempted radical change than any time within the last two centuries. This is not meant to say that a change or an attempt at one will of necessity occur, but it does suggest the magnitude of the pressures for change which have been held back over all these years.

And Goldman further contends that contact with the West in the form of detente adds to the pressures for change. Although he believes that the Soviet goal is to "neutralize or intimidate the non-communist bloc, while holding on to the bloc Eastern European countries," Goldman points out that detente:

entails enormous risks for the Soviet Union which must be considered by future Soviet leaders. To Soviets have learned that the same technology they bring in to strengthen their military forces may also tend to subvert if not debilitate the moral resoluteness of the population. Increased and even continued contact with the West will increase the country's exposure to uncontrollable and corrupting influences.

So detente may well be clever policy from a purely strategic viewpoint. And by opening new markets for the West, trade with the Soviets brings with it new jobs as well. Most fundamentally, the greater the interdependence between East and West, the less likely it becomes that one side will act aggressively toward the other. In the nuclear age, the importance of this last point needs no further explanation.

It would be putting words in Goldman's mouth to say he advocates detente. But his book does tell us enough about the current Soviet predicament to make such a policy seem logical. By providing much-needed look at the USSR. Goldman has done the inquisitive Westerner a valuable service. Figuratively at least, he has made the iron curtain a little more transparent.

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