Soviet Leader Shakes Up System : Gorbachev Faces Huge Obstacles to Reform

Times Staff Writer

Early in his tenure, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev was standing elbow to elbow with ordinary citizens on Leningrad’s Revolutionary Square when someone asked if he planned to stay close to his countrymen.

“How much closer can I get?” he replied, joining in a roar of laughter from the crowd.

With such sidewalk banter, with walking tours of Minsk, Moscow and Vladivostok, Gorbachev sought to distinguish himself as different, somehow, from recent Kremlin leaders. And, to some extent in his 21 months in office, he has come across to millions of Soviet people as an approachable man, concerned with their everyday problems, unlike the aloof rulers who had long dominated Soviet society.


Rare Public Candor

He also has preached the virtues of glasnost , or openness, espousing a degree of public candor rare in Soviet history as a necessary ingredient in far-reaching economic and social change that he hopes to achieve.

Despite his energetic quest for improvements, however, Gorbachev has confronted enormous obstacles. He has complained about his frustrations with an inert bureaucracy blocking his plans. Western observers believe that his insistence on improving the existing system--and not changing it fundamentally--also has limited the progress that he can achieve.

In some ways, Gorbachev is like a dynamic football coach who switches the starting lineup, puts more emphasis on fundamentals and conditioning but refuses to alter the team’s offensive or defensive game plans.

Coming after three weaker and ailing Soviet leaders, however, his fast pace has shaken up the top party and ministerial ranks while seizing the attention of this nation of 280 million.

Criticism Begins to Surface

As a result of the new approach, unprecedented criticism of political and government leaders has begun to appear in the newspapers and magazines controlled by the Communist Party.

Secrecy remains the standard operating procedure for the Soviet government, but censorship of films, books and the theater has been loosened at Gorbachev’s urging, and the official media have begun to report on events, such as maritime disasters, that once were routinely suppressed.

On the economic scene, Gorbachev has been frank about the country’s failure to modernize or provide quality consumer goods. He has called for radical, even “revolutionary” reforms to reduce bureaucratic red tape in the production process and to provide more pay for more work.

In the human rights field, he has finally bowed to world opinion and ended a seven-year exile in Gorky for dissident physicist Andrei D. Sakharov. Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, have been allowed to return to Moscow.

Wins Respect Abroad

Other well-known dissidents--such as Anatoly Shcharansky, Yuri Orlov and Irina Ratushinskaya--have been released from prison or exile and allowed to leave the country.

With such gestures and his more flexible approach on foreign policy issues, Gorbachev has achieved a new respect abroad, epitomized by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s line that “we can do business with him.”

Without doubt, the 55-year-old Kremlin leader also has been dramatically different from his predecessors in the speed with which he has eliminated his rivals and established his allies in the ruling Politburo.

He also has had the energy to tackle problems as gigantic as the Soviet Union itself--a stagnant economy, widespread alcoholism, bureaucratic rigidity and secrecy that he saw as self-defeating.

Motivation of workers in the Soviet Union always has been a problem. “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work,” is the proverbial worker’s view. A woman who worked in a textile factory near Moscow said her co-workers spent the first hour of the day on a tea break, since supervisors showed up an hour late.

Renovations Take Years

Gorbachev himself has excoriated the waste and delays in factories and especially in the construction of new plants, which seems to drag on forever. Even renovations of a relatively small building may take years to complete. As a result, the country suffers from a perpetual housing shortage, and young married couples are forced to live with their parents for many years before they qualify for their own apartments.

In part, ideology is a barrier to greater efficiency, although Gorbachev, who has been a party member since the age of 21, probably would not acknowledge it.

Collective farming, for example, involves 20% of the working-age population, whereas farmers account for only 5% of the U.S. population. But private plots, amounting to only a fraction of this nation’s cultivated land, produced more than half of all fruit and berries, 27% of the meat, 28% of the eggs and nearly one-quarter of all the milk consumed in the Soviet Union last year.

While Gorbachev wants to encourage private plots and sales of surpluses through collectives, he has to be wary lest he cross an ideological line that rules out private enterprise or profit-making on individual plots. Such a policy would be condemned as a petty bourgeois menace in a socialist state by the guardians of Marxist doctrine.

Avoids Basic Changes

It has been clear from the outset that Gorbachev wants to improve the Communist system and not to alter it in any basic way. His stress on uskorenye (acceleration) and perestroika (reconstruction) never implied a retreat from Marxist doctrine.

Gorbachev, the son of peasants, grew to manhood during the terrible days of World War II. At age 15, in 1946, he got his first job at a tractor station. With the help of some powerful patrons, he entered the law school at Moscow State University and was graduated in 1955 with a law degree.

He has been a Communist Party official ever since, first in his native Stavropol and later in Moscow, where he was elevated to full membership in the ruling Politburo at the remarkably early age of 49.

With this background, Western analysts believe, he has been shaped by Communist ideology and appears unlikely to adopt a course of sheer pragmatism that would break with accepted doctrine.

Seen as ‘Progressive’

Even so, Gorbachev is regarded as a “progressive” in Soviet terms, indicating that he favors change and is inclined to be more pragmatic than the pure ideologues, known in Moscow shorthand as “conservatives.”

“He doesn’t want to change the system, he just wants to make it work better,” a senior U.S. diplomat once said of Gorbachev.

Departing U.S. Ambassador Arthur A. Hartman points out that the recent decree allowing self-employment for a variety of services was extremely restrictive and still bars hiring of even a single worker from outside the immediate family.

“It’s hard to see how anyone could open up a family restaurant under those conditions unless he had a very large family,” Hartman said.

Economically, Gorbachev thinks along conventional lines: harder work, better management, greater self-reliance. This was illustrated by a televised talk he had last summer with villagers in the rural Krasnodar region of the north Caucasus.

“What about butter?” a middle-age woman asked him. “One can rarely find it in the stores.” Instead of replying directly, Gorbachev addressed the peasants near him: “Those among you who keep cows, raise your hands!” When no one raised a hand, Gorbachev beamed and said, “So there you have it, comrades.” He advised them to keep cows and make their own butter.

Slighting Good Shoes

Not every solution to economic problems is so simple, however. Although it has the military technology of a superpower, the Soviet Union does not seem able to provide even good-quality shoes for its citizens.

Western economic analysts believe that it will take some relaxation of centralized planning, along with greater financial incentives for managers and workers, to make a big difference in Soviet performance.

At times, Gorbachev has appeared frustrated and annoyed by the rigidities of the system he is struggling to improve from the top. He and other senior officials have favorably referred to the so-called New Economic Policy adopted by V. I. Lenin in the 1920s to allow a limited amount of private enterprise in services and on the farms.

That policy, however, was ended by Josef Stalin when he began a forced industrialization that, along with collectivization of agriculture, persists to this day.

“You must sympathize with a new (Kremlin) leader dealing with the economic structure,” Hartman said. “It’s a highly sophisticated society, but it also has trouble keeping the streets repaired.”

Shortage of Tea, Coffee

Last week--as the big New Year’s holiday approached--Pravda reported a nationwide shortage of tea and coffee. That may have reflected the drop in Soviet hard-currency earnings when oil prices plummeted, but the reaction of Soviet citizens was anger.

“What shall we put in our boiling water?” asked one indignant reader in a letter to Pravda.

Western analysts question how the Soviet Union is going to modernize and computerize if it cannot provide enough tea or coffee for New Year’s parties.

Even Gorbachev has acknowledged that economic change has been slower than he anticipated, although officials have reported that this year’s grain harvest was the best in many years. His basic dilemma is how to improve output while retaining effective, but not stultifying, control.

Although no one doubts that Gorbachev is sincere about his drive for economic improvement, his actions in the human rights area have been greeted with greater cynicism at home and abroad.

Other Dissidents’ Predicament

While highly publicized dissidents such as Sakharov and Shcharansky are receiving clemency or being allowed to leave the country, the circumstances of others remains the same--or worse.

For example, American-born Abe Stolar, who celebrated his 75th birthday last week, has been trying to leave the country for 10 years without success, although he was deprived of his Soviet citizenship and holds a U.S. passport.

“Why don’t they let him and his family leave?” asked Ambassador Hartman.

The arrest of American correspondent Nicholas Daniloff, reviled as a spy by Gorbachev and the Soviet press, appears to have been a public relations setback for the Kremlin. So was the death in Chistopol prison of Anatoly Marchenko, 48, a dissident writer who spent half of his adult life in prison; his death was announced Dec. 9, although little has been said of the circumstances.

‘Anti-Soviet Slander’

Western critics contend that the widespread use of the charge known as “anti-Soviet slander” allows the regime to punish critics simply for expressing their views. In Soviet eyes, this is a justifiable way to prevent what it regards as subversion.

In addition, the level of Jewish emigration has dropped to fewer than 1,000 this year, contrasted with more than 50,000 in the peak year, 1979. In addition, several Hebrew teachers have been jailed on what their families say are trumped-up charges of drug possession.

As a result, those who were optimistic about a relaxation of emigration controls under Gorbachev have been disappointed.

A joke circulating in Moscow illustrates the cynical mood. It describes a Soviet official announcing on television that no more Jews will be allowed to leave the country.

Watching, a would-be Jewish emigre declares, “Thank God, at least they are talking about the subject.”

Waiting for Results

Soviet supporters of human rights said they were waiting to see if Gorbachev heeds Sakharov’s appeal last week to free other “prisoners of conscience” or continues a hard line toward lesser-known dissenters from the party line.

Gorbachev’s most daring move may be his efforts to sober up the Soviet Union by sharply curtailing the sale of vodka, wine, brandy and other alcoholic beverages. For a society with a heavy drinking tradition, the big increase in vodka prices, as well as cutbacks in production and selling hours, has been a shock.

Although Soviet officials call the anti-alcohol campaign a success, contending that it has reduced crime and the breakup of families, it has caused widespread grumbling, and long lines still appear outside liquor stores, even in subzero weather.

Many jokes, all with Gorbachev as the target, have been circulated about the trezhvost, or sobriety, drive. One of the milder jokes, based on the availability of vodka only after 2 p.m. in stores and restaurants, pictures a parched Gorbachev buried up to his neck in desert sand.

“Please, give me a drink,” he pleads to a passer-by.

“Only after 2 o'clock,” the passer-by replies in a now-familiar phrase.

Social Drinking Continues

Newspaper articles indicate that drinking at weddings and funerals, as well as at holiday parties, continues as usual despite the additional difficulty in acquiring the vodka. After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the folk-medicine remedy for radiation poisoning, passed by word of mouth, was said to be vodka mixed with red wine.

Chernobyl, of course, was the biggest setback for Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign. Instead of candor on the world’s worst nuclear accident, there was absolute silence from the Kremlin for nearly 72 hours. Then, for days more, only skimpy details were provided.

It was two weeks before Gorbachev appeared on television to report to the nation on the disaster. It is true, however, that the Soviet Union pledged to provide more detailed information in the event of a future radiation leak.

On foreign policy, Gorbachev has been more flexible than other Soviet leaders. He was concerned about the “Mr. Nyet” image identified with veteran Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko. With a big shake-up of the Foreign Ministry, including a transfer of Gromyko to the ceremonial post of president, Gorbachev cleared the way for new overseas initiatives.

His nuclear arms control proposals have, for a change, put the United States in the position of reacting rather than fashioning new disarmament plans. As a result, Gorbachev has more appeal for peace groups in the West, although American diplomats contend that he has appealed to public opinion rather than engaged in serious negotiations.