“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 Ailing and decrepit leaders have been replaced by a young and vigorous general secretary, who says he wants to shake up the system and drastically improve its performance.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, which will flourish only in a less centralized and more flexible economic system.

The Soviet Union, in Bialer’s view, is now undergoing a “crisis of the system,” which can be resolved only by farreaching economic reform. This is not a crisis of survival, for the system is not in danger of collapse, but a crisis of effectiveness, which has manifested itself most clearly in the steady decline in the rate of economic growth. The annual growth rate of Gross National Product has fallen from about 5 percent in the late 1960s to between 2 and 2.5 percent in the 1980s. Gorbachev has made it clear he wants to reverse this trend, and has adopted as his main slogan the “acceleration” of growth on the basis of technological progress. “Stagnation” has now become the official code word for the Brezhnev years, in much the same way as “hare-brained schemes” used to stand for Khrushchev’s rule, and the “personality cult” for Stalin’s.

But is it right to speak of a crisis? Many governments would be happy with a steady growth rate of 2 to 2.5 percent a year. Why then has Gorbachev tried to create so great a sense of urgency? One answer is that behind the low growth rate are more specific failings that prevent the Soviet leaders from achieving their goals: poor performance in technological innovation; a hideously inefficient agricultural system that forces the government to import millions of tons of grain each year; and the wretched state of services, including health care, which spawns an extensive second economy.

Another, and perhaps more persuasive, answer is that a declining growth rate has forced difficult choices on the Soviet leaders. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s the Soviet Union increased its military expenditure at a steady rate of 4 to 5 percent a year, maintained a high rate of investment in industry, and sustained a slow but steady rise in living standards. In the last ten years, however, military outlays have grown at only 2 percent a year, and spending on weapons procurement has leveled off, industrial investment has been cut, and living standards have stagnated or even declined. Gorbachev himself put the issue very starkly, in a speech quoted by Bialer: “What is at stake is the ability of the Soviet Union to enter the new millennium in a manner worthy of a great and prosperous power.”


If the economy does not perform better, the Soviet Union may find it increasingly difficult to compete with the United States on anything approaching an equal military and technological footing. If it subordinates the economy to the requirements of military competition alone, living standards may fall and social welfare deteriorate, thereby creating a long-term danger of social unrest. Gorbachev would find it difficult to forgo either the pursuit of military greatness or the maintenance of political stability, and he evidently has no intention of abandoning either goal.

Much depends on how Gorbachev tackles the problems he faces. Medvedev tries to gain some insight into the man and his politics by examining his career, and the picture he paints is both persuasive and sobering. Gorbachev emerges from this book as very much a product of the system, “neither a liberal nor a bold reformist.” Medvedev’s conclusion is the more convincing because early in his book he hints at an optimistic view of Gorbachev. When Gorbachev was studying law at Moscow University in the early 1950s he shared a room with Zdenek Mlynar, who became a Party secretary in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring. Mlynar, who now lives in Austria, has spoken well of Gorbachev’s abilities and character. Medvedev comments, rather wistfully, that

Mlynar did not succeed in introducing lasting changes in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, but indirectly he provided the Soviet Union with a new style leader by the influence he exerted on his provincial room-mate from the Stavropol village of Privol’noye.

As Medvedev follows Gorbachev’s career, however, the optimism declines. After graduating in 1955 Gorbachev returned to his native region of Stavropol, in the south of Russia. He worked there in the Komsomol and Party apparatus until 1978, when he was brought to Moscow to become Central Committee secretary with responsibility for agriculture. His main achievement in this new post seems to have been to avoid blame for a succession of bad harvests. Political skill, and perhaps some luck as well, must have had a large part in his rise to the top of the greasy pole, for his performance was unimpressive if assessed by the record of agricultural output: in the 1980s the Soviet Union has stopped publishing the annual yield of its grain harvest.

But, as Medvedev points out, it may not be fair to judge Gorbachev on what he did before he became general secretary, for he had to carry out policies whether he agreed with them or not, and had no opportunity to advocate any different program of his own. But even now, more than a year after his elevation to the general secretaryship, it remains unclear what he will do with the power that he has been accumulating.

Gorbachev moved more quickly than anyone expected to bring new people into the leadership. He has removed three rivals from the Politburo and brought five new full members into the twelveman body. He has replaced the chairman of the Council of Ministers (the prime minister) and twenty-five of the economic ministers, and has appointed six of the seven Central Committee secretaries who are not in the Politburo. This turnover is in marked contrast to the “stability of cadres” under Brezhnev.

But these figures may convey a false impression of the power that Gorbachev has acquired. There was a great need to appoint younger and more competent people to leading positions, but not all the new appointees can be thought of as supporters of Gorbachev. There have been signs of disagreement in the Politburo over important issues of policy. Are summit meetings worth having if there is no arms control agreement with the United States? How far should criticism of Party and government institutions be allowed to go? How pressing is the need for economic reform, and what kinds of reform can be considered? Should the Party exercise detailed control over the economy, or should it confine itself to providing general political leadership? There may be consensus in the Politburo that some action needs to be taken, but there does not seem to be general agreement on what is to be done.

There are also signs that Gorbachev is meeting resistance to his policies in the bureaucracy. His hectoring speeches and his sharp criticisms of particular ministries suggest that this may be one of the most difficult obstacles for him to overcome. It was the economic ministries that undermined Kosygin’s 1965 economic reform by their reluctance to allow the industrial enterprises greater autonomy; they may do the same to any reform that Gorbachev introduces.


By setting ambitious targets for economic growth Gorbachev may be trying to create a psychological climate conducive to reform. But although he has made his goals clear, he has not indicated how he is going to achieve them. In spite of his call for “radical reform” at the Party Congress, Gorbachev evidently believes, as Bialer says, that the existing system still has enormous potential and does not need to be altered in a fundamental way. But if economic performance does not improve, Gorbachev may be forced to adopt more far-reaching measures. It is possible that he has no clear program of reform in mind, and that, like Lenin, he subscribes to Napoleon’s dictum: “on s’engage et puis on voit.” It may be more important therefore to think of reform as a process rather than as a specific event. Previous reforms have failed because the Party leaders, once difficulties arose, merely reverted to the old ways. It is not yet clear whether Gorbachev will do the same, or use his power to press forward.

Gorbachev has injected a new sense of urgency into Soviet policy. His campaigns against alcoholism and corruption serve notice that he is determined to make things work better. The press carries a great deal more specific criticism of the functioning of government institutions. The speeches of Party leaders have a somewhat smaller quotient of what the satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin called blagogluposti, stupidities uttered in a high-flown way.

All this has made the Soviet press more interesting to read, but it should not be confused with liberalization. Gorbachev is trying to use greater openness and freedom of criticism to shake up the government bureaucracy and (to a lesser extent) the Party apparatus in order to make them more effective. If it suited his purposes he could revoke the very limited increase in criticism that he has allowed. Moreover, in his treatment of dissidents Gorbachev has shown himself to be no more liberal than his predecessors; Jewish emigration has not increased, for example, and Andrei Sakharov is still in exile in Gorky. Shcharansky’s release and Yelena Bonner’s trip to the West look like opportunistic moves taken for political reasons, not signs of a major shift in policy. The vast repressive apparatus of the state goes about its grim daily business as before.

Under Brezhnev the Soviet Union attained strategic parity with the United States, built up its ground and air forces, and deployed its navy on the oceans of the world. The new Party program hails the attainment of parity between the Soviet Union and the United States, and between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, as a “historic achievement” for socialism.

In the 1970s the Soviet leaders believed that the growth of their own forces created the basis for détente by forcing Western governments to adopt a more “realistic” approach to the Soviet Union. They thought that the “correlation of forces” was moving in their favor, and this belief may have misled them into thinking that the growth of Soviet military power would lead only to a deepening of détente. But they were mistaken, for the growth of Soviet power and the exercise of that power in the third world, whether in Afghanistan or Ethiopia, undermined détente with the United States and helped to provoke the military buildup that started under Carter and has intensified under Reagan.

Bialer identifies this as Brezhnev’s greatest foreign policy failure. Brezhnev failed to see that in the 1970s the international situation conformed not so much to the “correlation of forces” model, with the Soviet Union just going from strength to strength, as to the “balance of power” model, with growing Soviet power provoking a reaction from the Soviet Union’s main rivals.

The main concern of Soviet foreign policy in the 1980s has been to deal with the consequences of the breakdown of Soviet-American détente. In 1979 and 1980 the Soviet leaders feared that they might find themselves encircled by a quadruple alliance consisting of the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and China. China was then calling for a united anti-Soviet front, but has moved since 1982 to a more independent position vis-à-vis the two superpowers; the Soviet Union now seems much less fearful that a Sino-American alliance will be created.

The relationship with the United States is for Soviet leaders the axis on which world politics turns. As Bialer says, the United States has become more, not less, central to Soviet foreign policy, and at the Party Congress Gorbachev indicated that there was little hope that the United States’ alliances with Western Europe and Japan would break under the strain of disagreements about trade and foreign policy. Soviet policy toward Japan has done nothing to overcome the deep suspicion and hostility that exist between the two countries. And Soviet efforts to weaken Western Europe’s role in NATO suffered a serious setback with the deployment of US cruise missiles and Pershing IIs on the Continent in 1983.

Gorbachev would clearly like an arms control agreement with the United States to head off the Strategic Defense Initiative, and in January of this year he made proposals that indicate some new flexibility in Soviet positions. He is very unlikely to get such an agreement from the Reagan administration, however, and he faces difficult decisions about how to respond to the SDI. Soviet research and development in this field has no doubt been stepped up already, but Gorbachev will have to decide whether to concentrate on countermeasures to a spacebased defense, or to develop a similar Soviet system as well.

This is not only a difficult strategic decision, but it presents problems for technology policy too. Should the Soviet leaders respond to the SDI by setting up a crash program like the Manhattan project or by trying to improve technological performance across the board? They know they can do the former, because that was how the Soviet Union built atomic and hydrogen bombs. But what the Soviet economy really needs is the latter, and if resources are poured into a high-priority special-purpose project, this might well hinder technological innovation in other fields. Every atavistic instinct in the Soviet Union will push it toward setting up a special-purpose project; and if that happens the SDI will not prove to be the stimulus that leads to economic reform, but rather will help to shore up the old Stalinist command economy.

Technology is both the Soviet Union’s main hope and one of its chief problems. The Soviet leaders see technology as the key to “acceleration,” but they also know that the Soviet economic system is poor at producing new technology. Yet the picture has not been completely bleak, even in civilian technology, and the Soviet leaders have been proud of their achievements in space and nuclear energy. It remains to be seen, therefore, how much the nuclear accident at Chernobyl will dent the optimistic, even hubristic, view that Soviet officials have taken of the benefits of technological progress.

The Chernobyl accident is likely to have serious repercussions for Soviet policy both at home and abroad. It will further increase the problems that the Soviet Union has had with energy supply. Before the accident the Soviet Union was planning to build nuclear power stations with a capacity of 40,000 megawatts between 1986 and 1990, in addition to the 28,000 megawatts from existing nuclear power stations. The Chernobyl accident not only removes 4,000 megawatts from the current supply, but also puts in doubt these plans for expansion of nuclear power production, since the design and safety of reactors will have to be reviewed, and the costs of new plants may increase if safety is to be improved. The nuclear industry failed to meet its construction goals in the last five-year plan, and any further delay will result in energy shortages, which have already done serious damage to the Soviet economy in recent years.* Agriculture and in particular grain production will be affected to some significant extent by the contamination of the surrounding countryside. The accident may well lead to a shake-up in the nuclear industry, which has been very much an empire unto itself. Gorbachev might even hold Vladimir Shcherbitsky, the first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist party, responsible for the accident and try to remove him from office. Shcherbitsky, who became a member of the Politburo under Brezhnev, is widely thought to be an opponent of Gorbachev.

In any event, it is certain that some people have been fired, and more will be punished, for Party leaders have been openly blaming local officials for not handling the accident properly and for failing to inform Moscow in good time about its consequences. This points both to incompetence in the Soviet bureaucracy and to a serious lack of trust between the leadership and middle-level officials.

The reactors at Chernobyl, which lacked containment vessels, betray a careless attitude toward public safety on the part of the technocrats in the nuclear industry and the Party and government leaders. In the drive to meet high production targets set by the five-year plans, Soviet industry has made safety a secondary consideration. The nuclear industry has been subject to the same pressures to meet production goals, and the Chernobyl plant may have been operating at more than normal capacity, because of the delays in constructing new reactors. Moreover, the nuclear industry has grown up without supervision by an independent organization responsible for protecting the population.

The Chernobyl accident is likely to strengthen popular distrust of the regime and of its claim to protect the public interest. It may also strengthen the environmental concerns that have been expressed in the campaigns of writers and scientists to stop the pollution of Lake Baikal and to protest plans to reverse the course of major rivers in order to supply water to Central Asia. If this should happen, it could be of great significance in helping to form a relatively independent public opinion that aims to influence government policy.

The accident will also do serious harm to Soviet relations with Western Europe. There has been widespread anger at the Soviet Union’s delay in informing other governments about the accident, and at the inadequacy of the information supplied about radioactive emissions. Western governments have been right to take the Soviet Union to task for its negligence and incompetence in this regard. Soviet secretiveness about an accident that affected people in other countries is likely to increase popular distrust of the Soviet Union and its intentions. The Soviet authorities have already recognized this in a backhanded way by claiming that Western press coverage of the accident has been designed to distract attention from Soviet peace initiatives.

Paradoxically, the information the Soviet government has released, unsatisfactory though it is, is much more comprehensive than any it has provided about an accident before. The nuclear disaster that took place in the Urals in 1957 or 1958, for example, was first made known in the West by Zhores Medvedev, and although it is now well established that something serious did take place then, the Soviet authorities have never acknowledged it. But the relative openness about Chernobyl may be a response to the fact that Western governments already knew a good deal about the accident from satellite photography, rather than a sign of a general change in policy.

There exist in the United States two schools of thought about the proper Western response to Soviet difficulties. The first, which is represented by Richard Pipes’s book Survival Is Not Enough, argues that the West should apply maximum pressure on the Soviet Union in order to hasten the collapse of the system, in the hope that a democratic society will emerge in its place. The second school of thought, to which Bialer belongs, argues that now is the time to seek agreement with the Soviet Union on arms control, and especially on rules of prudence that would help to make Soviet-American relations less dangerous.

In rejecting Pipes’s prescriptions Bialer argues that, notwithstanding the economic and social failures of the system he describes, the sources of stability in Soviet society are strong, and that there will not be a crisis of survival in the Soviet Union in the 1980s or 1990s. The political class is united in wanting to hold on to power; the repressive apparatus is effective and ruthless; living standards have been rising, even if slowly. Bialer is careful to say that what the Soviet Union is facing is a crisis of effectiveness, not of survival, for its system has survived many severe shocks and crises in its turbulent history. He claims further that Western governments have a very limited capacity to effect change in Soviet society. The idea, therefore, that the West should take as its goal the radical transformation of Soviet society Bialer convincingly rejects as an illusion. The goal of Western policy, he says, should be a relationship of competitive coexistence, in which the United States should seek to prevent nuclear war without surrendering its “core values and interests.” If the United States repeats the mistake Brezhnev made in the 1970s of trying too hard to exploit the other side’s domestic difficulties, this may lead only to tougher reactions and a more hostile relationship.

Bialer’s final conclusion is that the United States has to try to pursue a policy that has limited and realistic aims. In the past the United States has found it difficult to follow a consistent, levelheaded policy without veering from excessive fears to illusory hopes and back again. Bialer’s book, by its careful and reasoned discussion of the Soviet Union, goes a long way toward providing the analytical basis for such a policy.

This Issue

June 12, 1986