Crucial to any analysis of relations between the West and the Soviet Union is a realistic concept of what kind of country, what kind of society and above all what kind of leadership we are going to have to deal with in the next decade.

Shortly after Yuri Andropov became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), several points seemed clear. First, the old guard had opted for one of their own. Second, they had rejected the idea of a continuation of the immobilism of Leonid Brezhnev. Third, it had almost inevitably to be a transitional regime. The latter judgment was based on known facts about the health of 69-year-old Andropov (in 1978 he had disappeared from the Moscow scene for a prolonged period and knowledgeable Russians admitted he had a health problem), and the nature of his power base. He had been absent too long from the Secretariat to be able to build quickly the network of personal support in the Party which he required to supplement the backing he had from the police apparatus and that which he had been offered by the military.

Andropov was therefore missing the strong, Party-based political structure needed to establish personal predominance. It took Nikita Khrushchev and Brezhnev each at least five years to construct a solid power base and in each case they started with strength in the Party apparatus, good health and relative youth (relative by the standards of Soviet leaders). Andropov, even if his health had not collapsed, could scarcely have counted on more than a few years of probably limited power. The fact that he assumed the presidency was largely irrelevant. Neither Lenin, Stalin nor Khrushchev bothered about this largely ceremonial job. When Stalin and Khrushchev wanted more power they added the prime ministership to the key post of General Secretary of the Party. Brezhnev was not interested in that particular form of personal power since he had already created an elaborate system within the hierarchy which assured his ascendency. Assuming the position of Head of State was a means of assuaging his great personal vanity. When Andropov did the same it did not mean a great increase in his power. It probably did represent, however, a means of getting around the awkward fact that the key man in the U.S.S.R. had no official state function. This clearly bothered both Khrushchev and Brezhnev in their dealings with heads of state or government. What did matter was Andropov's assumption of the post of Chairman of the Defense Council, which further increased his reliance on the military for political support.1


Even if Andropov's reign had not been cut short by his malady and death, I doubt he would have been able to alter things very much. In spite of frantic and only partially successful efforts to replace old and incompetent Brezhnev cronies with younger men, both at the source of power in Moscow and in the provinces, his political strength was too limited, and his excessive reliance on the military and the police aroused instinctive counter-reactions in the Party apparatus.

The extent to which the Party hierarchy and its supporting bodies, perhaps 100,000 well-entrenched senior functionaries, are impervious to change is clearly visible from the rules of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Andropov. Khrushchev's reforms were tolerated until he began to tinker with the structure of the Party and introduced changes that would inevitably have reduced the power of the thousands of small Party bosses all over the country. Brezhnev's first act was to reverse this trend and to reassure the Party hacks that their jobs, their influence and their perquisites would not be touched. Later, after slowly and painstakingly placing his own men in the Politburo, the Secretariat and the Central Committee, he developed a system by which he became indispensable. He drew the members of the hierarchy into a net around him, which assured their positions and made any conceivable effort to oust him unlikely, and the older they got the less inclined they were to covet the supreme position itself. The system began to unwind with the deaths of Alexei Kosygin and Mikhail Suslov, both much more intellectually able than Brezhnev and on whom he relied for economic, administrative and ideological advice. But for several years this collective system continued to work, in spite of Brezhnev's crippling illness and the lesser capability of his remaining associates, because no one wanted to face up to the uncertainties of a new leadership.

The same happened with the illness of Andropov. It is clear he was physically incapacitated from the summer of 1983 on. Misinformation about his health was nevertheless widely circulated by Soviet propagandists, often in the most convincing manner: "I can assure you that the Secretary-General will be back at work shortly and personally conduct his campaign for re-election to the Supreme Soviet" as one official told me in mid-January-a typical example of vranye, the special Russian form of mendacity. The overwhelming desire not to rock the boat prevented his associates from retiring him when he fell terminally ill and, when he died, assured that the succession fell to a man who represented continuity. This concept of continuity must not be underestimated. When I once asked a senior member of the Central Committee why Arvid Pelshe, then 83, was still a member of the Politburo, he looked at me in obvious surprise: "Why he is the only one who knew Lenin." This says all about the striving for legitimacy.

In any event we now have a second transitional regime in the form of Konstantin Chernenko, and what is likely to be the third collective government. That it is transitional is an obvious fact based on his age and that of the people in the hierarchy who support him. Collective leadership is in any case a practical necessity in a system in which power, while concentrated in the hands of a few people, is virtually doomed to be shared-unless a very powerful personality appears. But recollections of the excesses of Stalin and Khrushchev make the hierarchy suspicious of any drift toward the "cult of personality" unless, as in the case of Brezhnev, this proves to be largely cosmetic.

There is no point in trying to guess when or how the transitional regime will come to an end or who will be the eventual successor. The reluctance to change leaders, evident during Lenin's long illness, the five years of Brezhnev's semi-invalid state, and the eight or nine months of Andropov's incapacitation, indicates the possibility that the Chernenko era may last longer than some anticipate. But no matter what its length, it will be the final leadership of his generation. It is more important now to try to establish what kind of people the next generation will be, what kind of internal problems they will face, what their view of the outside world is, and far from last, how ideologically motivated they are.

In the interim period it seems likely that the immobilism of the late Brezhnev era will be repeated, but in a less dangerous form. Unfortunately for the U.S.S.R., Andropov's health failed before he had a chance to exert his influence, and at one of the more tense moments in relations with the West. Under more favorable circumstances he might have been able to utilize his formidable intellectual capacities in pursuit of internal economic changes and a lowering of tensions with the West. As it was, he and his associates were frozen into a situation from which escape was possible only if a strong man could exert his will. Given the collective nature of the Soviet leadership, without firm, or at any rate, original direction from the top, and the inflated influence of the military, the tendency will be to lumber down the path charted by Brezhnev.


It is not very difficult in the Soviet Union's authoritarian society to rally the ruling class, and indeed the bulk of the population, around the leadership in a "fortress Russia" mentality. This comes naturally to the Russians, although in the recent past it has been easier to rally them against an easily perceived danger-the Nazis, and then the thought of losing their East European glacis on the one hand and of the Chinese menace on the other-than against a threat from distant America. In Moscow in 1951 Stalin quickly dropped a campaign to portray the United States as preparing to attack the U.S.S.R. when it was discovered that far from arousing the righteous patriotic wrath of the populace against the Americans, it had simply horrified and baffled them. Perhaps "American imperialism" is a more popular theme now than it was 30 years ago. I am not entirely convinced. Where it can be effective, however, is within the Party hierarchy and among all the thousands of middle-level functionaries who are no doubt persuaded that an ideological-military threat to the system exists. Among them in the short run it is possible to create a siege mentality reinforced by the feeling that they as Russians are being isolated and humiliated, and as a superpower, ignored. The fact that this would be largely of their own making is irrelevant.

There are, however, many highly intelligent and well-informed Soviets who cannot be happy with such a trend. When the occasion presents itself-after the clarification of the American political scene on the one hand, and of the Soviet leadership situation on the other-I am sure there will be an effort to remedy the present state of tension. And Chernenko himself is in a better position to do so than Andropov. He can alter course without losing face, and he is personally more committed to détente than his predecessor. He may not, however, wish to proceed very far down this path, and there are certainly many restraints on his doing so. We should therefore be prepared to survive or, as the expressive Russian word has it, perezhit'-to live through-this waiting period and prepare for life with the next generation.

Except for a few who have been in the public eye, such as Grigory Romanov, Geydar Aliyev and Mikhail Gorbachev, the next set of leaders is relatively unknown.2 But we can make a composite portrait. They will be Russian or Russianized Ukrainians with a few token representatives from the smaller ethnic groups. Russian nationalism and a more sophisticated consciousness of their Russian past will be dominant features of their makeup. They will have a quite different background from any of their predecessors. The first generation of Communist leaders were middle-class intellectuals: Russian, Jewish, Armenian, Georgian. The next generation after Stalin was typified by Khrushchev, the peasant come to power, partly through the liquidation by Stalin of his cosmopolitan associates. The Brezhnev generation was the true benefactor of the purges of the 1930s, mostly anti-intellectual, quickly and often sloppily educated in technical schools, owing its rapid career advancement to the CPSU.

The Brezhnev generation is now fading away and taking its place will be the first group of leaders who experienced neither the Revolution, the Civil War, nor World War II, except perhaps as children. They will have by and large an urban background with university education and a much greater knowledge of the complexities of modern society. In 1971 Kosygin, then Chairman of the Council of Ministers, alluding to Khrushchev's boast that the U.S.S.R. would overtake the United States by 1970, told me rather wistfully that they had caught up in terms of brute production, but that they had never foreseen the electronics revolution. The new leaders will be perfectly aware of the importance of the new technology, not only in armaments but increasingly in civilian industry. And they will be far better informed about the outside world, even though they may not have traveled very much more than Khrushchev and Brezhnev and their colleagues had when they assumed command.

It would be a great mistake, however, to think that they will differ greatly from their predecessors in two very important respects: their strong nationalism and occasionally arrogant pride in Russia and the accomplishments of the past 60-70 years, and their belief in the vital role of the Party and ideology.


From 1918 on, the Soviet leaders have seldom hesitated in choosing a pragmatic course over the rigid application of ideology, and there is ample justification in Lenin's writing for doing so. There is no reason to believe the next set of leaders will be any less pragmatic in either foreign or domestic affairs. Yet it must be realized that all of them will have come up through the Party apparatus, possibly having spent some time in the practical administration of large industrial or agricultural enterprises, but all deeply in debt to the Party for their promotion to the good life and for the perquisites, influence and power which put the members of the nomenklatura in a new and highly privileged class.3 Their prime aim will be to maintain and consolidate this gratifying situation.

In a society which inevitably is becoming more aware of the changes in the world, the Soviet economy, if not reformed, will have greater and greater difficulty in meeting the reasonable expectations of the population for an improvement in the standard of living at least comparable to that of the despised Poles or Czechs. Further, the growing contrast between the life of the Communist privileged class and that of the average Soviet will become harder to defend. To do so requires Communist ideology.

Although we hear less of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat these days, it still remains the basic raison d'être for the seizure and retention of power. The police and security system is strong and all-pervasive and the Russians as a whole are tolerant of authority; it is hard to imagine that the Central Committee members lie awake at night thinking of ways to justify why power has to be invested solely in the Party. But there is behind the facade of unity a constant striving to reestablish the leadership's communist credentials, and a need in a dangerous and anti-communist world to rally round the legitimate rulers.

There is no reason to think that the next leaders will think differently. Indeed, they will feel insecure until one of them emerges as a strong leader, or until a Brezhnev-type consensus rule evolves. Therefore, reliance on ideology to justify their pouvoir confisqué, as Hélène Carrère d'Encausse aptly describes it, will remain vitally important.4

It is their dependence on communist legitimacy which in the past two decades has made it impossible for Soviet leaders to introduce even minor reforms in the economy. Brezhnev and Kosygin tried in a very timid way to apply the Lieberman reforms in a few factories in 1965 but gave them up almost immediately, and dropped all idea of reform after the Czechoslovak experiment in 1968. Indeed, alarm at the Czech Party's introduction of economic reforms and at the subsequent demands for political innovations was one of the major reasons for the Soviet decision to crush the Czech experiment in "liberal" communism. The developments in Poland over the past three years can only have reinforced the Soviet belief that any major tampering with the economic system carries great political risks.

The dilemma is and will remain enormous. The highly centralized system which was effective in creating a heavy-industry base is totally incapable of dealing with the complexities of a sophisticated consumer society. It has proved increasingly unable to exploit economically the vast agricultural resources of the country and to arrange their distribution to the consumer; it has failed to create the incentives necessary to make up for a falling birthrate, a decreasing labor force and declining productivity. Unless these and many other problems can be solved, the regime faces the danger of a weakening of the simple formula by which it has kept the population more or less satisfied during the last decades-that is, a small but visible increase in the standard of living. Since most Russians had only one point of comparison-the situation five, ten, or twenty years before-this proved effective up to about 1978. About that time the visible signs of improvement disappeared and in many categories of consumer goods actually declined. The Soviets are perfectly capable of controlling unrest or grumbling but they would prefer to have to deal with a population that is satisfied with its material lot.

Most knowledgeable Soviet officials are aware of the problems, are aware also that the Soviet economic performance appeals less and less to the outside world, and are in fact ashamed by the vast gap between their standard of living and that of the West. But the only way in which the problems can be met is by thoroughgoing economic reform and the introduction of many elements of a market economy. At this point they realize that control would slip from the hands of the central authorities, and the power and influence of the local Party bosses would be dangerously weakened.

Thus, there would be two important obstacles to any serious reform of the Soviet economy: the immense power of the middle-level and provincial Party officials to resist change, and strong doubts on the part of the Party leaders about the ideological and political consequences of effective reform. As Chernenko put it in a report to the Central Committee in June 1983: "There are some truths which are not subject to revision, problems that have been solved long ago and unequivocally."

Thus even with the greatest will in the world and unanimous support, it is not very likely that the Soviet system will change in the coming decade. There will be tinkering with it, which is what Andropov was doing, but it will take another Khrushchev, convinced of the need for change and solidly based politically, to undertake reform. The prospects therefore are for at least another decade of lumbering along, a huge and powerful economy but vastly inefficient, out of balance, with the standard of living stagnating and the contrast with the West, and even the more advanced countries of the East European bloc, becoming more humiliatingly obvious.


On the social side the slowly accumulating problems of decline in the proportion of Russians and Slavs to Central Asians and Caucasians will be a preoccupation but not a major problem. That will come in two or three decades when the Central Asians, particularly, will constitute a considerable portion of the population and will be increasingly aware of their special identity. This is the lesson of Ayatollah Khomeini and Afghanistan. Until 1978 the Central Asians seemed to have accepted the idea that they were Soviet citizens who spoke Uzbek or Tadzhik, etc. But the Islamic revolution in Iran and the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan made them realize that there was more to it than that, not religion necessarily, but an Islamic identity spilling across frontiers.

There is a strong feeling of racism in most Russians, evident in the recurrent manifestations of anti-Semitism, to which, however, it is not confined. Dislike, even hatred of Asians, a not surprising legacy of the Mongol conquests, became startlingly evident during the Ussuri River clashes with the Chinese in 1969, an extraordinary outburst of Russian patriotism that led to many demonstrations of anti-Asian feeling directed against Central Asians. In the years to come, major preoccupations of the Russians will be the population explosion in Central Asia, the continuing effort to subdue the Afghans, many of whom are related to the neighboring Tadzhiks and Kirghiz in the U.S.S.R., and the growth of China as a political and economic power. It is a combination which makes U.S. worries about Mexico and Central America seem child's play.

If the Soviets are unable to solve their economic, ethnic and social problems, there will be a tendency to rely, as at present, on military strength to exert their claims to superpower status. And this will in turn compound the economic and ethnic problems. Even now it is impossible to increase the standard of living, indeed difficult to prevent its decrease, with the present percentage of the gross national product going to the military sector. Any increase in the military budget, which is almost inevitable if the arms race is truly engaged in the next generation of sophisticated weaponry, is bound to depress the civilian economy, barring a major reform of the latter. And this in turn adds to the imbalance in the economy, and to reliance on military strength in foreign affairs.

But dependence on the armed forces is complicated by two additional factors: the reluctance of the Party leaders to become excessively obligated to the military, and problems created by the need to make up for a declining Russian population by recruiting into the armed forces the national minorities, particularly the Central Asians. Neither prospect is very alluring to the Kremlin.

Increasing reliance on its military power to reinforce policy aims does not necessarily mean the actual use of such power. Indeed the Soviet leaders must be as frustrated over the inability to use their nuclear force to subdue Afghan nationalists as, for example, American leaders were in Vietnam. But the conclusion that the Soviets would be tempted to distract the attention of their people from domestic shortcomings by a more aggressive foreign policy, or a military adventure, is misplaced. They are perfectly capable of handling internal problems and are unlikely to need such stratagems. On the contrary, given a collective leadership, from which a strong man would emerge only slowly, if at all, the consensus would probably be in favor of caution, except in areas where they considered their vital security interests affected, when the existence of great military strength would be a useful adjunct to policy.

While pragmatism is a major element in Soviet foreign policy, and likely to remain so, there is an ideological aspect of relations with the West that is often overlooked, that of peaceful coexistence; it should not be confused with détente, which was simply an accelerated form of it. Peaceful coexistence has been part of Soviet doctrine from the early days of Lenin's leadership, and was made a more active part by Khrushchev. The last effective world conference of Communist Parties, in 1960, defined peaceful coexistence as: "a form of class struggle between socialism and capitalism. . . . This does not imply a reconciliation between the socialist and bourgeois ideologies. . . .It implies the intensification of the struggle."

The fact that détente excludes the ideological struggle is important. In 1972 Brezhnev categorically stated that the struggle for peaceful coexistence "in no way implies the possibility of relaxing the ideological struggle. On the contrary we must be prepared for this struggle to be intensified and becoming an even sharper form of the confrontation between the two systems." To make the position perfectly clear the Soviet Constitution of 1977 stated in Article 24 that it is the duty of the Soviet government "to consolidate the situation of world socialism, by supporting the struggles of the peoples for national liberation and social progress."

The Soviets never concealed what they meant by peaceful coexistence and must have been delighted if not somewhat mystified when President Nixon and Mr. Kissinger accepted the use of the phrase in the official American-Soviet documents signed in Moscow in 1972. Indeed it is baffling that this was done. The Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, the year before, politely rejected its inclusion in the Canadian-Soviet declarations. It is just possible that the Soviets misunderstood the Nixon gesture and felt the agreements signed in the Kremlin gave them freedom of action to support "national liberation movements" in Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique.

Since there are few areas of foreign affairs where the Soviet leaders have the opportunity to prove their all-important communist credentials, support for these so-called liberation movements is very important. It will continue to be an essential element in Soviet foreign policy in the sense that it provides an ideological cover for support of anti-Western movements in the Third World, which will become increasingly difficult to define logically as anticolonialist revolts. But there is at the same time a high degree of realism among Soviet leaders, and they will do nothing intentionally that would endanger Soviet security. Hence, support for pro-Soviet movements will be carefully calculated to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States, particularly in areas of vital importance to the latter. Nor will they likely be inclined to aid movements requiring excessive financial and economic outlays. One Cuba is enough!

We must expect, therefore, that the ideological and, of course, political-strategic imperatives to support revolutionary movements wherever feasible will remain an essential part of any Soviet leadership. Equally, any idea of a convergence of the two systems will continue to be anathema. This was sharply rejected by Moscow when it was first advanced in Western university circles in the optimistic days of the late 1950s, and it remains a dirty word in the Soviet vocabulary as it implies an erosion of the ideological struggle. There must be no illusions on this score. The nature of East-West relations cannot be based on the hope of friendly cooperation because the Soviet system rejects it. This does not necessarily imply a relationship of hostility or confrontation, certainly not military confrontation, but inevitably one of antagonism, the intensity of which will vary according to a number of factors, largely of Soviet making. It would be foolish to think otherwise. There must be a working relationship with the U.S.S.R., but it will be dangerous and fragile unless it is built on a realistic basis.


Even with the best will in the world, which is by no means guaranteed, a number of obstacles to better relations exist and are unlikely to disappear in the near future. In simplified form these obstacles are:

-The activities of the KGB and the GRU (military intelligence and security) which often surface at the most delicate moments in relations between the U.S.S.R. and Western countries.

-The continuing disregard of elemental human rights in the U.S.S.R. and the suppression of any form of dissent, political, nationalist or religious.

-A military buildup in the U.S.S.R. that will appear to the outside world as far bigger than reasonable defense requires.

-The increasing difficulty of maintaining conformity in Eastern Europe and the possibility of new demonstrations of unrest in Poland and other countries of the bloc, which cannot but affect the populations and governments of the Western World.

-The U.S.S.R.'s inability to finish off the Afghan nationalists and to incorporate Afghanistan into the Soviet system à la Mongolia. (It took the Soviets until the late 1930s to end the Muslim resistance to their rule in Central Asia.)

-Some unexpected brutal act such as the shooting down of the Korean airliner.

-The Soviet fixation with the "correlation of forces," which they see as constantly fluctuating and which, according to Marxist-Leninist theory, must move inexorably in favor of communism. The idea of status quo, for example, while acceptable as a temporary tactic, is rejected as a goal of Soviet policy.

These are only the most obvious obstacles in the search for a more solid relationship between the U.S.S.R. and the West. While not willing to admit that these problems exist, the Soviets are perfectly aware of them, though they must have their own list of "obstacles." Since they are far from blind to the fundamental fact that both superpowers have an interest in common security, when circumstances permit I think they will want to reshape their relations with the United States, never losing sight, of course, of their own set of goals.

The problem will lie in the fact that the newer generation will confront a situation in which the economy, while still powerful, will be progressing only very slowly and incapable of increasing the standard or quality of life. At the same time the gap between the average Russian and the privileged new class will be greater and, more important, more obvious. And the Russian population will begin to decline at a rate at least as fast as that of West Germany and France, while the number of non-Russians, particularly of Asians, will be growing rapidly.

The new leaders are too intelligent and informed to have any illusions about bridging the technological gulf between the U.S.S.R. and the West and Japan or of doing much more than holding their own in the arms race. At the same time the specter of a more stable China gradually modernizing its economy with U.S. and Japanese help will be a continuing nightmare. Finally, they must face the problems created by the failure of their ideology: the near collapse of the Communist Party in Poland and the need to ensure its de facto rule by a military dictatorship on the one hand, and their inability to make the bulk of the Afghan population accept communism on the other. The West pays little attention to this phenomenon, but it is an important fact in Soviet calculations.


No one can foresee how the new generation of leaders will react to this concatenation of unfavorable circumstances. Perhaps out of the almost anonymous group of younger leaders an exceptional person will emerge, but the chances are that through the Chernenko era and the first five years or so of his successor's a form of collegial government will exist, the tendency of which will be to develop policies slowly and continuously and, provided the West moves with equal caution and firmness, move back toward a mutually necessary and equally desirable form of cohabitation.

But the younger men are prickly, tough, able and determined to advance Russian national interests and to defend their Marxist-Leninist doctrines. They will insist on being treated by the United States as an equal superpower, and their military strength will give them reason to do so. But they will demand political equality as well, an equality they thought they had achieved through the series of American-Soviet documents in 1972-75 and which they passionately believe was later denied them unjustly.

The era of détente was not exactly all wrong. Our perception of it has been obscured by excessive euphoria on both sides, a failure in the West to appreciate the real Soviet meaning of "peaceful coexistence," and the Vietnam-Watergate syndrome, as well as by a number of Soviet actions that clearly ran counter to what seemed in the West the spirit and intent of détente.

We cannot change the Soviet system, seriously damage their economy, alter their attitude toward human rights, weaken their hold on Eastern Europe, Mongolia or Afghanistan, or indeed change the rough military balance between the United States and the U.S.S.R. There is no hope of convergence of the two systems, nor of enmeshing the Soviets in a web of self-interests.

But there is hope that a new generation, if accepted as political equals by the West and above all by the United States, if convinced that the aim of the latter is cohabitation rather than destruction of the Soviet system, and increasingly preoccupied by their enormous social and economic problems, will be prepared to return to a more reasonable relationship with the West. They will not make it easy to do so, and an almost excessive amount of patience will be required. But I think it can be done.

1 The Defense Council is referred to in public documents, but its exact composition is not clear. Apparently it is chaired by the General Secretary; thus Chernenko has probably succeeded to this position.

2 Romanov was born in 1923; he was the First Secretary of the Leningrad Party, and is now in the Secretariat in Moscow; Aliyev was born in 1923 and is now First Deputy Premier, having served as First Secretary in Azerbaijan. Gorbachev is 53; he is thought to be the "number two" man after Chernenko; he has been a member of the Secretariat since 1978 and of the Politburo since 1980.

3 Nomenklatura is generally meant to include the Party elite, those who have defined positions; their number is estimated at about 40,000 for the Central Committee.

4 Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, Confiscated Power, New York: Harper and Row, 1982.


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  • Robert A.D. Ford served as a diplomat in the U.S.S.R. for more than 20 years, including 1946-1947 and 1951-1954; from 1964 to 1980 he was Canadian Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Since leaving Moscow, the author has been Special Adviser on East-West Relations to the Canadian Government and a member of the Palme Commission.
  • More By Robert A. Ford