Why Won't We Credit Any Soviet Change?

Why do so many American commentators still insist that no significant improvements are possible in the Soviet system, despite more than two years of evidence that Mikhail S. Gorbachev is determined to introduce far-reaching reforms?

A Miami Herald columnist crudely dismisses the Soviet leader with the proverb, "Dress a monkey in silk, and he'll still be a monkey." A Washington Post editorial concludes that Gorbachev's proposed changes will not "make it less of a police state but a more efficient police state." Henry A. Kissinger assures his Time magazine readers that the Soviet Union "will be a totalitarian state even after the reforms are completed."

Denying that the Soviet Union can change for the better is a longstanding tradition in the United States. The favored cliche of many pundits, including some alleged experts, holds that "nothing meaningful has changed" since Josef Stalin. A full explanation of this wrongheaded tradition would require a large book exploring both American political thinking and the nature of the Soviet system, but five important factors can be cited briefly:

Only one factor is rooted primarily in the Soviet system. In all countries, political change is generated by struggles between opposing social demands, ideological convictions, group interests and leadership factions. In the Soviet Union those dynamics usually have been concealed by censorship, which has misled Americans into believing that such conflicts do not exist. Thus we've come to believe that "all communists think alike," the Soviet Establishment is politically uniform and no leader or faction can emerge to challenge the status quo. In fact, the Establishment, including the Communist Party, has long been divided over fundamental political and ideological issues, and especially over the desirability of large-scale change in the system inherited from Stalin. The full extent of that conflict remains out of public view, but much of it has surged into the Soviet press because of Gorbachev's proposed reforms and the opposition to them.

The second factor is indigenously American, a national conceit produced by our own relatively benign political experience. It is the widespread opinion that nothing short of democratization qualifies as "meaningful" change in the Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev's abolition of the Stalinist mass terror did not lead to democracy, but it did liberate millions from the Gulag. If successful, Gorbachev's policies will improve the lives of tens of millions. We may wish for democracy in the Soviet Union, but to deny that lesser improvements are meaningful is a profound failure of analysis and compassion.

The third factor is the instinctive American habit of judging Soviet internal developments largely by objectionable Soviet behavior abroad, which is the main focus of U.S. media coverage. Much American commentary today implies that Gorbachev will be a real reformer only if he ends the Soviet Union's role as a superpower and capitulates to the United States in world affairs. A nation's foreign policy does reveal something about its political system, but it is not the only criterion. If it were, we would have to judge the American system solely by its behavior in Vietnam and Nicaragua.

There also is the important role played by American institutions and groups that for years have zealously promoted and thrived on the popular image of an unchangeable Soviet Union. They include the military-industrial complex, legions of professional cold-warriors and self-described national security intellectuals, certain Jewish organizations and an array of other special interests. Any acknowledged improvement in the Soviet system threatens their political, economic and ideological well-being. For many of them, the necessity of eternal cold war against the Soviet Union is theological rather than analytical, and thus can never be diminished. If one reason is removed--if an Andrei Sakharov is released, or a weapons "gap" closed, or an international problem ameliorated--they always find others. Ever vigilant against any "illusions" of Soviet change, they cant ritualistically, as did a New York Post editorial writer last year: "There's nothing new at all going on over there." Collectively, these forces exercise enormous influence on American perceptions and politics, and there are virtually no lobbies strong enough to offset them.

Finally, there is an even larger and more complex legacy of the decades-long Cold War. America seems to have developed a deep psychological need for an immutably ugly Soviet Union in order to minimize or obscure its own imperfections. How often do we say, for example, that while we may practice some social injustices at home, everything is much worse in the Soviet Union? Or, while we may be behaving badly in Nicaragua, the Russians are doing much worse in Afghanistan?

If America does need an evil empire in order to feel better about itself, nothing that Gorbachev or any Soviet reformer may do is likely to matter. Indeed, future historians, if there are any, may wonder how authoritarian Soviet behavior came to be a moral and political standard for democratic America.

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