State of the Union

The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline

by Seweryn Bialer
Knopf, 448 pp., $21.95


by Zhores A. Medvedev
Norton, 272 pp., $15.95

“The analysis of Soviet policy,” writes Seweryn Bialer in his new book, “is once again a fascinating enterprise.” Ailing and decrepit leaders have been replaced by a young and vigorous general secretary, who says he wants to shake up the system and drastically improve its performance. Mikhail Gorbachev has criticized in outspoken terms the immobilism and procrastination of the last years of Brezhnev’s rule, but it is not at all clear how he is going to tackle the formidable and complex problems that he has inherited. The Soviet Union now stands at a critical turning point, he told the Twentyseventh Party Congress in February, but it is still not apparent where he will lead it. The question that so often preoccupied the Russian intelligentsia in the past has come up once again: Where is Russia heading?

The two new books by Seweryn Bialer and Zhores Medvedev provide an excellent basis for exploring this question. Both authors can draw on considerable knowledge and personal experience in writing about the Soviet Union, and both write in a straightforward and accessible way. Their books complement each other, for Bialer explores the range of policy problems that face Gorbachev, while Medvedev focuses on Gorbachev himself and his career. Bialer’s is the more substantial work, for it deals impressively with a very broad range of subjects, and provides a coherent frame in which to examine them. But Medvedev’s book, though more modest in scope, is also well informed and coolheaded. Taken together the two books give a clear though depressing picture of the state of the Soviet Union today, and provide a setting in which such recent events as the Party Congress and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl can be assessed.

Bialer’s central argument is that the Soviet Union reached its zenith under Brezhnev and has now entered a decline that will be halted only if sweeping reforms are introduced. This internal decline has begun, moreover, at a time when the Soviet Union is militarily more powerful than ever before. The combination of internal decline and external strength creates a series of dilemmas for the Soviet leaders, who have devoted immense resources to making the Soviet Union a great military power. The huge military burden is now undermining the economy, and it may be necessary to divert resources away from defense, just when the United States is mounting a serious military and technological challenge to the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, Bialer argues, the Soviet leaders will have to decentralize economic decision making and devolve political power if they wish to stimulate economic growth and technological progress. In contrast to the Stalin years, when the Party leadership mobilized resources with the help of a highly centralized command economy, the requirements of economic progress in the 1980s come into conflict with the determination of the political class to hold on to its power. This is because economic growth must now come not from the mobilization of even greater quantities of labor and capital, but from technological progress,…

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