Since the Bolshevik Revolution the ideology of Russian communism has had a haunting power outside Russia’s borders, even at times when the country was desperately poor and backward. The central proposition of Marxism-Leninism—that a struggle between "socialism" and "imperialism" is inevitable and will inevitably result in the triumph of socialism—has long baffled and alarmed the West.

Inside the Soviet Union the same oft-repeated faith in the inherent superiority of socialism has been a fundamental aspect of Soviet life. By its repetition, the country’s leaders have sought to assure their people that hardships and sacrifices were worthwhile, even noble, because they all marched toward such a glorious end.

Official confidence in the superiority of the Soviet system and in the certain victory of socialism over capitalism might be called the Soviet Pretense. It has been a crucial ingredient of the Soviet Union’s national character, and an important tool for all of its leaders, from Lenin through Chernenko. But in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Pretense is collapsing. This is a momentous change.

Kremlinologists rightly debate the ultimate significance of Gorbachev’s efforts to "accelerate" and "restructure" the Soviet economy. His first 18 months in office produced no dramatic results, as he himself has acknowledged. We will have to wait many years to fully assess a reform effort that is just taking shape.

But it is not too soon to acknowledge the substantial qualitative change that Gorbachev has brought to Soviet political discourse and, by implication, to the Soviet self-image. Mr. Gorbachev has abandoned the rhetorical style on which he himself and all his countrymen were reared. The traditional Soviet approach was to minimize bad news while repeating again and again how great is Soviet power, how glorious its many victories, how brilliant its future. Instead, Gorbachev emphasizes the bad news—the country’s stagnation—and dwells on the radical changes in individual citizens’ attitudes necessary to put things right.

Initially, this change was refreshing. It won Gorbachev considerable sympathy among his countrymen. But in a deeply ideological society whose ideology has long been formulated in slogans, this new kind of rhetoric may eventually have serious political consequences. In effect Gorbachev has repealed the happy-ever-after promised by all his predecessors. He still holds out hope for a marvelous tomorrow, but only if his demands for sweeping changes in the status quo are met.

Yet he refuses to define or explain those changes, so even the most earnest and dedicated Soviet citizen must wonder exactly what Gorbachev expects him to do. Just how does a good comrade learn an entirely new approach to his work, as Gorbachev repeatedly tells him he must?

Gorbachev will change his country; he hopes the change will be for the better, but we have solid grounds for doubt. Ultimately his new candor may only dispirit the Soviet public, reinforcing the cynicism that is already so strong in Soviet life.

By altering Soviet self-perception and acknowledging how far from its ideal Soviet society has drifted, Gorbachev may be doing the Western world an inadvertent but considerable favor. He may give the West a new opportunity to make a more realistic assessment of the Soviet Union, and to achieve a new, more sensible consensus on the Soviet problem and how best to deal with it.

II

Perhaps the quintessential Soviet document of the old school was the Third Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, adopted under Nikita Khrushchev at the 21st Party Congress in 1961. "Socialism will inevitably succeed capitalism everywhere," it declared. "Such is the objective law of social development. Imperialism is powerless to check the irresistible process of emancipation."

This much was conventional Soviet rhetoric, but in the 1961 document the party took a fateful step further, offering concrete predictions about the subsequent 20 years’ achievements:

Within the current 10 years [industrial output will increase] by approximately 250 percent, exceeding the level of U.S. industrial output; within 20 years, [the increase will be] not less than 500 percent, leaving the present overall volume of U.S. industrial output far behind. . . . In the first decade, the Soviet Union will outstrip the United States in output of the key agricultural products per head of population. . . . By the end of the second decade, every family, including newlyweds, will have a comfortable flat.

These predictions all proved wildly overoptimistic, and the promises of the third party program were soon forgotten. Gorbachev and his colleagues rewrote it, with much more modest goals, at the 27th Party Congress last March.

As an expression of the aspirations of the Soviet elite, the third party program is still an important document. Members of the party elite in 1961—survivors of the Stalin era who had seen their country win the Second World War, then recover dramatically and become the first country to explore outer space—no doubt felt the ambitions that the program enumerated. They had no good reason then to question that their system could produce a competitive world power. Of course there were serious deficiencies in Soviet society, but these, the elite believed, would be put right; the general trend was clear, and exhilarating.

For nearly a quarter of a century, the style of the 1961 program survived. From Brezhnev to Chernenko, Khrushchev’s successors echoed his essentially optimistic propaganda, even as they tempered his wildest promises. Then Gorbachev tried something new.

Compared to the soothing, if drearily repetitive, rhetoric of his predecessors, Gorbachev’s public statements often have a compelling—even alarming—quality. "Everybody must change," he said in 1985, in a characteristic comment, "from the worker to the minister to the secretary of the Central Committee. . . . Those who do not intend to change will have to be moved from the road." Why is change required? "The historical fate of the country and the position of socialism in the world" depend on it, Gorbachev told the Central Committee early in 1985. And how is the country doing? Poorly, by the leader’s remarkable accounts, even after 18 months under his leadership: "So far there have been no profound qualitative changes that would consolidate the trend toward accelerated growth. . . . To speak frankly, the main thing still lies ahead."

If they take his words seriously, Gorbachev’s audiences must be troubled by what he says, both because of its implicit pessimism about the recent past and the present and because of the scale of the changes he repeatedly demands. For example, here are excerpts from his speech last summer to the party leadership in Khabarovsk, in the Soviet Far East:

The current restructuring embraces not only the economy but all other facets of public life: social relations, the political system, the spiritual and ideological sphere, and the style and the methods of the work of the party and all of our cadres. "Restructuring" is a capacious word. I would equate the word "restructuring" with the word "revolution". . . .

The tremendous scale and volume of the work ahead is coming to light more fully, and it is becoming clearer to what extent many conceptions of the economy and management, of social issues, of the state system and democracy, of upbringing and education, and of ethical demands, still lag behind the tasks of further development. . . . We shall continue to [work] until we have ensured a radical shift above all in the thinking of our management cadres, and in the thinking and psychology of all workers and the entire society. . . .

There will be no move forward if we seek the answers to new questions in the economy and in technology by looking to the experience of the thirties, forties, fifties or even sixties and seventies. This is a different time, with different demands and different requirements.

Mr. Gorbachev’s candor has been mimicked by others in the leadership. Perhaps the boldest of his colleagues is Boris N. Yeltsin, now a candidate member of the Politburo, whom Gorbachev brought to Moscow as the new first secretary of the capital’s party organization.

"It is necessary to stop the lies," Yeltsin said at his most famous public appearance, a speech to the Moscow party in January of 1986. On that occasion he gave a grim account of the failures of the party organization to guide the city properly.

At a closed meeting of the city’s party leaders last April, Yeltsin went further, which suggests that the new candor may be even stronger behind closed doors. A partial transcript of that meeting reached the West last summer, and was published in Le Monde. It has all the hallmarks of a genuine document, and has been accepted as such by U.S. government analysts. A few excerpts demonstrate how far Yeltsin wandered from the conventional, Panglossian approach of the traditional Soviet official.

The city’s [previous] officials were doing everything just for show. "Look how beautiful our city is, how smoothly everything runs here; we are the best in the world; we must not expose Moscow’s problems." Those who continue to think that way must move aside and leave. . . .

We must combat abuse of power. The wives of many [Moscow] leadership officials drive around in black Volgas (i.e., a car used as a limousine by officials below the highest ranks). Generally a car of this type arrives in the morning to take the child to school, then takes the father to work, and finally returns for the wife. We must put an end to this. . . .

In the past few months, 800 trade officials (i.e., people working in wholesale and retail sales organizations) have been arrested in Moscow. We are digging deeper and deeper and still cannot see the bottom of this well of corruption.

Yeltsin revealed that the renowned Moscow subway was in deteriorating condition and, for the first time, losing money; that 15 scientific institutes in the city were being closed because they "have done nothing for years"; that 3,600 drug addicts had been "registered" in Moscow, adding, "How many drug addicts have we not yet detected?"; that life expectancy among Muscovites had fallen from 70 years to 68 in just two years, from 1983 to 1985.

This sort of frank talk defies traditional Soviet taboos. Perhaps, theoretically, it was predictable that at this stage of its evolution, the Soviet Union should produce leaders who speak honestly about their country’s immense problems. Gorbachev, Yeltsin and others are beginning to bring Soviet propaganda into line with Soviet reality. But as a matter of practical politics, this shift to candor about a worsening Soviet situation cannot have been easy. It marks the collapse of a wave of optimism which, just a dozen years ago, had exhilarated the Soviet elite, giving its members new hopes for the status of their country.

In the early 1970s President Nixon visited Moscow and Soviet propagandists celebrated a historic shift in "the correlation of forces" to the advantage of "world socialism." It must have seemed to many Soviet officials that the early promises of Lenin and Stalin were finally being fulfilled. The trend of events did seem to be moving their way: the Americans had lost their war in Vietnam and were in turmoil at home; Washington had to acknowledge the Soviet Union’s arrival as a genuine superpower, ratifying that status in the many agreements signed in the 1972-74 period; subsequent Soviet-Cuban adventures in Angola and Ethiopia demonstrated that this superpower could use its strength creatively and effectively.

Indeed, from the time of Sputnik in 1957 through the apogee of détente, a member of the Soviet elite could easily have believed that his country was on an ascendant path, competing effectively with the United States, moving inexorably toward the preeminent international status it deserved. Of course the road was not smooth or easy, but Marxist-Leninists understand the dialectic of history, and know that it works in fits and starts. That same member of the elite would have acknowledged that much remained to be done, particularly in improving the standard of living, but until the mid-1970s he certainly had ground for optimism.

During the last decade that rosy picture darkened dramatically. It has turned out that 1970s-style détente did not signify any profound alteration in the correlation of forces. The United States appeared to recover from its Vietnam fiasco, and took an antagonistic new course clearly threatening to Soviet interests. Left-wing political parties were eclipsed all over Western Europe, and the NATO alliance demonstrated unexpected resolve in its deployment of new intermediate-range missiles in 1983-84. Even Japan, with the selection of Yasuhiro Nakasone as prime minister, chose a relatively hard-line government.

The Soviet decision to abandon economic autarky—an important aspect of détente, never fully appreciated in the West—has not worked out well. Western technology did not bring the Soviet Union the benefits Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin hoped for, while the Soviet Union and its East European dependencies have amassed large debts to the capitalists. The continuing Polish crisis, so surprising when it erupted in 1980, undermined all optimism about the future of the East European empire. The shape of the world’s technological future has become clearer in the last ten years, and for the Soviet Union it is an ominous outlook, based on the widespread adoption of computers, devices that have proven stubbornly foreign to most sectors of Soviet society.

Perhaps most important, it is now clear that the Soviet domestic economy—industry, agriculture and the service sector—is in grave difficulty. The health of Soviet society is also deteriorating. The striking statistics on declining life expectancy, referred to fleetingly by Yeltsin, are the most compelling evidence, but there is much more, from climbing crime and divorce rates to an obviously worsening food situation.

This sudden change in the country’s fortunes cannot have escaped the notice of many thoughtful Soviet Communists. A profound malaise was evident to me during a month’s visit to Moscow in late 1984, when the elite could barely disguise its humiliation as party leaders struggled to sustain the pretense that the faltering Konstantin Chernenko was a functioning national leader. Mr. Gorbachev’s ascension the following year broke that mood and has restored a sense of possibility. But the elite itself, judging by reasonably good evidence from participants in the debate, is still sharply divided about whether Gorbachev can really improve the situation, or simply prevent it from getting much worse. Gorbachev does not make it any easier for the optimists in this dispute by repeating his warning that only the most sweeping changes in the attitudes and performance of everyone in the country can lead to genuine improvements.

III

The collapse of the Soviet Pretense is the latest stage of a long process—begun with the death of Stalin—by which the Soviet Union has slowly shed Stalinist ideology. Once that process had begun, it was going to be very hard to stop it, which is why it seems fair to consider the Gorbachev candor a natural evolution, though still a dramatic change from the immediate past.

Outsiders should not underestimate the grip that ideology had on the country, or its significance. The Stalinist world view shaped every Soviet leader of this century, no doubt including Gorbachev. The mythic image of "Soviet power" as the force that would transform backward Russia into a global superpower stuck in the minds of young Communists, generation after generation. Seweryn Bialer has noted that when Khrushchev so alarmed the West by promising, "We will bury you," he was not making a threat, but offering an ideological truism. The view that history would vindicate communism and bury America’s anachronistic capitalist system "was so natural to him that he must have been surprised by the effect of his simple ideological statement," Bialer writes.

Westerners cannot easily appreciate the influence Stalin’s vision has had on his country. The memoirs of intelligent Soviet citizens who survived that era, now appearing in their new homelands in the West (the books of Lev Kopelev and Raisa Orlova, husband and wife, are good examples) remind us how blindly even the brightest Soviet citizens unquestioningly adopted Stalin’s view of reality in the 1930s and 1940s.

Adam Ulam has described Stalin’s approach to ideology: "A society cannot be controlled fully by merely political and economic chains, [Stalin] recognized; a nation’s energies cannot be mobilized for mighty endeavors, for enduring frightful sacrifices, if its spiritual and intellectual nourishment is neglected." So Stalin provided his version of Marxism-Leninism, and enforced it with ruthless violence that took millions of victims. "They died so that life should prove the truth of dogma," Ulam writes. "Life must be seen as a constant struggle between the forces of light and darkness [Stalin believed]. To deny this struggle would have been to strip communism of all its uplifting meaning, to make it a dry business of charts and administration, a philosophy that called for bureaucrats and experts, not leaders and heroes."

Today Soviet communism has become a dry business that calls for bureaucrats and experts, not heroes. During three decades after Stalin died, the system devolved; corruption and drunkenness, shirking and stealing became—by official admission—commonplace. Nostalgia for Stalin’s firm hand blossomed in the 1970s among many ordinary Russians, a revealing indication of the continuing appeal of his kind of visionary leadership. But without leaders who could resort to violence as Stalin did, his approach to power could not be sustained. And none of his successors has shown any stomach for reviving the violence, which in any event party leaders would never again sanction, since the party was one of Stalin’s principal victims.

Khrushchev exposed Stalin’s crimes, but was nevertheless the last true believer in Stalin’s ideological vision. Through the long Brezhnev era, cynicism prospered. Brezhnev himself did not abandon Stalin’s optimistic slogans, but he repeated them with his characteristic vacuity. As he clung to power and national morale began to unravel, Brezhnev involuntarily created the conditions Gorbachev is now trying to exploit. The Brezhnev era is increasingly Gorbachev’s principal scapegoat in his public statements.

IV

Gorbachev and his colleagues are now battling against drunkenness, cynicism and sloth, no doubt hoping that if they can put things right, they can once again revive the pretense of Soviet superiority. This generation of Soviet leaders will not be willing to accept a permanently inferior status for their country, even if, temporarily, they must abandon slogans and promises that sound more and more preposterous, even to relatively credulous Soviet ears. The new policy of glasnost (openness) and the call for perestroika (restructuring) are tactics intended to revive the system, not admissions of failure.

But because they sound ominously like such admissions, they are politically risky. By tinkering with the promises of communism, Gorbachev is calling into question an important traditional source of the system’s legitimacy. The simple formula that has served so long—the end justifies the means—became a fundamental explanation for the way things were. Now, when the leadership of the country seems increasingly convinced that the desired end may require different means, the old formulas no longer provide meaningful reassurance.

It cannot be easy for an ideological society to prosper in the absence of persuasive doctrinal explanations for either current conditions or future prospects. There has been abundant evidence of strain caused by the new approach. One example came at the 1986 party congress where, although Gorbachev spoke eloquently about the need to change the economic mechanism, the man directly in charge of the economy, Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, ignored the subject entirely in his report.

More than once Gorbachev himself has been censored in the party press. One intriguing case occurred last summer. In his speech to the party elite in Khabarovsk on July 31, Gorbachev made these remarks about party cadres or workers:

A combination of experienced cadres with young ones must be guaranteed. There must be a process of cadre promotion and growth, but a deserved one, without, so to speak, favoritism and chummy relations, but for the job done. There must be a constant inflow of fresh forces (i.e., new people).

When Pravda printed the "text" of the speech on August 3, the same passage read like this:

We must ensure a combination of experienced and young cadres on the basis of a continuous process of growth and cadre promotion with due consideration for their political and professional qualities.

In Pravda, there was no longer any need for "a constant inflow of fresh forces," nor any criticism of "favoritism and chummy relations." On this most sensitive of subjects the Soviet leader is not allowed to speak his mind in the principal party organ—or he decided to censor himself.

Yeltsin’s meeting with the Moscow party elite last April, cited earlier, provided another example. According to the unofficial transcript of that affair, 300 written questions from the floor were passed forward to Yeltsin, a number of them hostile. One question, which Yeltsin reportedly read aloud, said, "You have very grand plans; what are you meddling with? Gorbachev just needed a loyal man. Go back to Sverdlovsk before it is too late" (Sverdlovsk is the Ural Mountains city where Yeltsin was previously first secretary of the party organization).

According to the transcript, shouts of "shame!" could be heard in the hall. Yeltsin commented: "Calm down, comrades. I do not think this question comes from the floor. It must have been received earlier and have slipped into the bundle. The author is obviously sick."

That sort of bravado no doubt has an impact, but the fact remains that party morale is at risk, and ideology no longer offers much comfort. Revealingly, the entire subject of ideology has lost the importance once accorded it. At last winter’s party congress, only the Central Committee secretary in charge of ideological matters, Yegor K. Ligachev, considered the subject in any detail in a speech from the podium, and his was hardly innovative or even interesting. Gorbachev, in his long report to the congress, revived many old formulas about the inherent failings of capitalism, but did so, it seemed, primarily to introduce—and take the edge off—his own critical commentary on the state of Soviet socialism. Ritualistic genuflections to Lenin and his works seem more perfunctory now in politicians’ speeches and printed propaganda.

The party itself has, for all practical purposes, ceased to be an ideological force. Wolfgang Leonhard writes in his new book that party members are no longer assigned any substantial ideological role, but instead are exhorted to become model citizens who set a productive example. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonhard suggests, could now be renamed "The Union of Patriots" or "The Fatherland Party."

V

In the five-year economic plan that began this year, Mr. Gorbachev and his colleagues are tinkering with the system they inherited, hoping to tap its squandered reserves of productive capacity to reverse the slowdown of recent years. Gorbachev describes the current effort as "the most difficult thing—to get this powerful flywheel (the Soviet economy) spinning." Then, "in the subsequent five-year plan period, things will go more quickly and will grow." More cynically, one could argue that after five years of limited experiments that won’t work, Gorbachev will be compelled to try more sweeping changes that may or may not work.

It is much easier to be pessimistic than hopeful about Gorbachev’s—and his country’s—prospects. The Soviet Union’s survival is not in question here; even if Gorbachev fails as a reformer, his country will survive, and will almost certainly remain strong and powerful for as long as he rules it. But unless he is a fabulously successful reformer, Gorbachev will not be able to revive the Soviet Union as a genuine competitor for world leadership with the United States and its allies. Instead he will preside over a continuing process of muddling downward that could leave the Soviet Union, by the turn of the century, far behind many more dynamic societies in the world, still offering its citizens a second- or third-class standard of living while, no doubt, still bristling with first-class military power.

What is in prospect now is the loss of the Soviet national ideal—the logical extension of the collapse of the pretense of Soviet superiority. The whole point of the Bolshevik Revolution was to put Russia on the curl of the wave of history, so its communism would triumph when the internal contradictions of capitalism brought down the traditional great powers in the West. That was the Leninist rosy scenario. Without it, new generations of Soviet leaders will have to reformulate both their private and the party’s public visions of their country and its place in the world.

There are already indications that some Soviet citizens have begun to react to Gorbachev with a skepticism that ill serves the general secretary’s effort to revive the economy through exhortation. For a while Gorbachev can continue to criticize and cajole, but this must be a short-term tactic. If it produces no positive results, it will soon sound like hollow hectoring. In a few years, Gorbachev could face an unhappy choice between resorting to the old Big Lie, bragging how well things are going in the face of blatantly contradictory evidence, or acknowledging that the system itself is to blame (as surely it is) for the country’s persistent shortcomings.

Predictions about shifts in national mood are risky, but it does seem fair to speculate on the fatalism that will set in if the Gorbachev "restructuring" fails. Brezhnev enjoyed a considerable political advantage during the first dozen years of his reign; he led a people whose standard of living had been improving steadily for 30 years. By the mid-1990s, if present downward trends have not been dramatically reversed, Gorbachev or his successor could easily face a cynical population whose standard of living has been frozen or even declining for 20 years. And the Soviet population of the mid-1990s will be much more aware of conditions outside the country than were the citizens of the 1960s and 1970s, and will understand vividly their own relative inferiority.

A stagnant or declining Soviet Union in a world of dynamic technological change and rapid growth in once-backward nations will surely suffer from further erosion of ideological confidence. It is not difficult to imagine the effective demise of Marxism-Leninism as anything but a legitimizing doctrine justifying the continued rule of the party elite.

It has long been clear that communist ideology by itself is an insufficient source of legitimacy. Nationalism—really Russian nationalism, barely disguised to accommodate the multinational Soviet state—has been the most effective substitute for Marxist-Leninist zeal since Stalin put it at the center of the war effort against Germany. Today Gorbachev usually tells his countrymen that their past efforts were worthwhile because they made the Soviet Union a great world power, and rarely because they advanced communism or world revolution.

But certain elements of Soviet ideology that have always troubled the West will survive as long as the system does. One is the mythology of the party and its leading role, which justifies the elite’s status. Another is the presumption that the struggle between socialism and "imperialism"—the West—will continue indefinitely, a formula for permanent struggle that gives the elite a useful tool to dominate the society. The idea of a permanently hostile outside world is so resonant with the deepest insecurities of the Russian national character that it is doomed to survive.

VI

If we have entered a period of Soviet decline, accompanied by a momentous change in Soviet self-perception, what does that signify for the rest of the world? How could the United States and its allies take advantage of these changes?

The traditional "what is to be done?" sections of contemporary analyses of the Soviet Union are generally unsatisfying. The standard prescriptions are reminiscent of Gorbachev’s exhortations for economic reform. They would require abrupt and radical changes in style and substance—in this case, of Western politics and diplomacy. Of course it would be desirable to concentrate on those areas where East and West have common interests, to be firm, patient and persistent, to use a sensible combination of carrots and sticks, and so on; desirable, but on past form, wholly unlikely.

The treatises of professional diplomats and scholars will never alter the basic facts of Western, and particularly American, life. The United States will rarely conduct an artful, sophisticated foreign policy as long as it remains a rough-and-tumble democracy that permits countless factions to influence policy, sometimes to seize control of it. American presidents are virtually never elected on the basis of foreign policy issues; when those issues are significant, their importance is usually symbolic and psychological. The checks and balances of the American system affect foreign policy only in extreme situations, rarely in month-to-month diplomacy. Efforts by Congress in the Reagan years to turn the Administration toward arms control have been instructive; on certain specific points (for example, the testing of antisatellite weapons and the development of a mobile Midgetman missile), Congress has changed the Administration’s course, but without altering its overall policy.

America’s Soviet policy has long been complicated by the absence of a political consensus about the nature of the Soviet threat, and about what the United States should be trying to accomplish in its dealings with the Russians. Americans argue about whether the Soviets are determined to conquer the world at all costs, or might somehow be pacified; about whether it is ever possible "to trust the Russians." They debate whether American policy should seek to unravel Soviet power, contain it, cajole it or coexist with it while pursuing common interests.

To some extent these debates reflect the different psychologies of those who participate in them. But to a large degree they have grown out of earlier perceptions of the Soviet Union that have now been largely—but not totally—discredited by events, and by our relatively new ability to see Soviet society for what it is. By speaking with some candor about the facts of Soviet society, Gorbachev may help all of us see how we ought to revise our image of his country.

That revision must not be too sweeping. The Soviet Union is still, and will remain, a huge, powerful country. Its leaders remain less interested in international stability than in expanding Soviet influence. They remain cautious, even conservative, but also hostile to a world order dominated by the United States and the international capitalist economy. They will seize opportunities to increase their influence, and to diminish ours.

Though they face grim domestic problems, the society over which the Soviet leaders preside will neither collapse nor be transformed in the foreseeable future. It will instead muddle through, and probably muddle downward. The Soviet empire will continue to weaken, perhaps eventually will unravel, but again the pace of change will likely be slow.

But if these important factors will remain, or change only gradually, one central ingredient of the image of Soviet power that energized the cold war era has already been dispelled, with much less fanfare than it deserves. Mr. Gorbachev implies it when he tells his comrades how badly they are doing, how counterproductive are their work habits and excuse-making. President Reagan implies it too with his many public references to the Soviets’ dire economic condition, and hence their need for arms control agreements. Both are referring to the cardinal fact that the Soviet Union is not competitive with the advanced Western economies, and shows no signs of becoming competitive in this century, or beyond.

One could argue that the Soviet economy has never been competitive in any conventional sense. Its only consequential accomplishment has been the creation of awesome military might. But the truth about the Soviet system has always been less important in the West than the threat the system implied—the threat of a better way to organize human societies, one that would prove more productive, more efficient, and ultimately more appealing to the great mass of humanity than the Western model. That was the initial threat of Bolshevism; it was the threat of Sputnik, which mobilized the West, especially America, to race to the moon and to the era of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Fear of possible Soviet victory in the global competition is what gave us the rhetoric and spirit of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, then—arguably—the war in Vietnam and the high-technology arms race.

Khrushchev’s promise to bury us was no idle threat; we believed that he meant it, and feared that he might be able to do it. A generation later the Soviet Union has lost its appeal, not only in Western Europe where, after World War II, we feared it most, but even in the Third World countries where Khrushchev himself was so sure it would prevail.

During that same generation, the wall of mystery that surrounded the Soviet Union has crumbled; the facts have become clear. Stalin found a way to modernize a backward land and reorganize it around a new political movement, but his creation was so top-heavy and overbearing that it offered no hope of fully exploiting the talents of the Soviet people. In the current period of accelerating technological change, the Soviet Union is actually falling further behind its rivals.

The opportunity to see the Soviet Union clearly gives us a chance to redefine the threat it poses. If the stakes of our competition are not as high as once feared—if the battle is not for world domination, but for incremental changes in the influence of East and West—coping with the contest ought to be simpler than it once seemed.

But it will not suddenly become easy. The persistence of the Soviet problem is one of its most fundamental characteristics. We are stuck with it. There is no reason to expect Gorbachev, or his successor, or his successor to become reasonable, or to be satisfied with the international status quo. The Soviet Union will continue to insist on playing an active role in the world—will insist on its status as a superpower. The Soviets will pursue their own "security," a troublesome concept that seems always to involve our insecurity as well. Seweryn Bialer has noted that the Soviets have expanded their definition, so that "security increasingly includes the preservation of Soviet status."

Gorbachev brings a new verve and style to Soviet foreign policy. Many years after they might have, the Soviets have finally learned the tricks of public relations. This combination, over time, could considerably improve the Soviets’ international image, creating new difficulties for American strategists. The Reykjavik meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev may or may not have been a breakthrough for arms control, but it was surely a precursor of a bolder Soviet diplomacy that we should now expect to see more often.

But no foreseeable change in the style or substance of Soviet policies, at home or abroad, will transform our Soviet problem. It will remain difficult, but it will also remain manageable.

Even if Gorbachev’s domestic initiatives succeed far beyond any present expectations, the Soviet Union will remain relatively poor and backward. It will not suddenly become competitive with the advanced societies of Asia and the West. Nor will it quickly be transformed into the threat we once feared, a modern version of the Third Reich bent on world conquest.

If—as now seems more likely—Gorbachev’s "reconstruction" fails, he (or a successor) could revert to a deliberate policy of artificial cold war as a cover for the country’s shortcomings. Future Soviet leaders may decide they need to promote a heightened sense of siege to maintain firm control at home. Such a change would be most unwelcome, yet it would create as many problems for the Soviets as it would for us. Gorbachev’s "charm offensive" would collapse in a renewed cold war, but all his country’s weaknesses would remain.

The idea that the Soviet Union is hostile, ambitious, yet incapable of fulfilling either its own hopes or our own darkest fears will meet considerable resistance in the West. We have made a heavy psychological investment in the image of the cold war as the ultimate showdown between two irreconcilable giants. American politics have been dominated by that image since the time of Joseph McCarthy, if not before.

Mikhail Gorbachev has given us a new opportunity to redraw our image of the East-West confrontation. As he implicitly acknowledges, we are not really dealing with two equivalent giants. Not that we needed his new candor to realize how grave are Soviet weaknesses, or how unfavorable are the trends in that country.

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  • Robert G. Kaiser is assistant managing editor of The Washington Post and author of Russia, The People and the Power. Copyright © 1986 by Robert G. Kaiser.
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