At the Summit

“We are so critical of our own country that even the president’s criticisms are weak. We know what our problems are.”

Mikhail Gorbachev in Red Square, May 31, 1988


Moscow—The surmise grows closer to a certainty that the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would not have been a host so amiably indifferent to every opportunity for taking offense if he were not turning his back on contentions with the United States and looking inward to struggle with the intractabilities of Russian history.

He has, after all, inherited a structure of government very much in the style of the iron regime of Czar Nicholas I. Stalin could be distinguished from the more arbitrary of the Romanovs only to the degree that he swelled their harshness into savagery and shrank the rich voice of prerevolutionary czarist culture down to the dry croakings of his slogan-mongers.

No successor, no matter how determined upon reform, has so far conceived of a way to break the mold of Stalinism except by applications, however more benign, of what are essentially Stalinist methods. There have been periods of freeze and periods of thaw, and each has been the product of a command decision.

We are ten years past the target date Nikita Khrushchev set for catching up with and passing the West, and the Soviet economy has fallen behind South Korea’s. Khrushchev decreed an industrial revolution and now Gorbachev has mandated a democratic revolution, and, as in all the others going back to the liberation of the serfs, the inspiration for useful change has had no source except in one man’s will as served down to the ordinary Russian and never yet satisfactorily digested.

Khrushchev’s failure was the last of Russia’s succession of tragedies, and it is prayerfully to be hoped that Gorbachev’s will not be the next. A Soviet political scientist, with powers of judgment undeflected by his enthusiastic approval of Gorbachev, said recently that his original expectation had been for the economy to advance and freedom to follow in its wake. “But to my surprise,” he said, “we have more freedom than I could have imagined and the economy is pretty much where it was.” Thin as it still is, the air of glasnost is wonderfully exhilarating, but there can be inferred from its current display perhaps a bit too much of the headiness that strong drink can induce on an empty stomach.

The summons “Back to Lenin” has a louder clamor these days than it has had since Khrushchev raised it in the Fifties, and yet Gorbachev’s Lenin is significantly enough different from Khrushchev’s to suggest that the Soviets are no more immune than we Americans to the allurements of periodic reinventions of founding fathers.

The Lenin whose most substantial contribution to socialist theory was to convert it into a police science has no place in the iconography of glasnost’s devotees. Instead, their incense smokes before the image of a speculative philosopher whose notion…

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