The Russians and Their Reforms

June 1, 1987

The Soviet Union may — or may not — be in the midst of fundamental change. In either case, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev has won the enthusiastic acclaim of the international community for his well-advertised program of internal reforms. Even before Gorbachev decided it was all internal reforms. Even before Gorbachev decided it was all right for the babushkas to read Doctor Zhivago, though, many Westerners were already in the habit of straining to find positive interpretations for the behavior of the Soviet Union. Now, each time Gorbachev frees another dissident or promises to pull his invasion troops out of Afghanistan, the perception grows that the Soviet threat is melting away.

The Soviet Union is well into its third decade of the most relentless and massive buildup of military power the world has ever known. This continues unabated, although obscure considerably by the new talk of peace and cooperation flowing steadily out of Moscow. So strong is the desire to believe a Russian Renaissance is under way that those who urge caution are likely to be regarded as obstructionists.

Gorbachev is no doubt sincere about economic, political, and social reform insofar as it suits his purposes. The Soviet economy is a scandal. The work force is unmotivated and lethargic. Both industry and the military are largely dependent on stolen technology. Soviet per capita GNP trails not only the major Western nations but also East Germany and Czechoslovakia in the Eastern bloc. It is roughly on a par with that of Hungary. Any superpower with such shabby credentials would have reason to welcome change.

But does this mean that the Russians, after seventy years of struggling for world domination, are ready to renounce the October Revolution, chuck out Marxism-Leninism, and hammer their MiGs into plowshares Don’t bet on it.

A recent editorial in The Economist observed that free nations have long been repelled by three aspects of the Soviet regime: “It has been an undemocratic police state of the worst kind; its economy for the past twenty-five years has done shamefully badly; and it has been a geopolitical menace.” We would do well to watch developments in all three of these areas as we assess the Gorbachev Revolution. Although The Economist did not rank its three factors by severity, the one that threatens the West most directly is Soviet ambition for global power.

Despite Gorbachev’s talk of change, growth of the Soviet military machine has actually accelerated during his tenure. (See “The Guns of Glasnost,” p. 84 of this issue.) The GNP of the Soviet Union is only about fifty-five percent of that of the United States, yet some fifteen to seventeen percent of it is allocated for military use. (The US allocated just over six percent of its GNP to defense.) A major motivation for Gorbachev’s reforms, in fact, may be concern about the ability of the Soviet Union to sustain its military power objectives.

Improved productivity is a big-element in Gorbachev’s plan. He says he intends to get two-thirds of his increase from industrial modernization and the other third from “human factors.” More money has already been channeled to industrial reconstruction and tooling. The aspiration is to bring quality up to “world standards,” which is revealing in itself.

The inability to match Western technology worries and sometimes obsesses the Russians. Stealing secrets is one way to narrow this gap. East-West trade cooperation — which Gorbachev has been applauded for promoting — is another. A pervasive envy and awe of American technical ingenuity, especially fear of what it might achieve in defense against ballistic missiles, have stimulated Soviet interest in arms control.

Gorbachev says he intends to increase quantity and quality at the same time, which is difficult under the best of circumstances, and that is hardly the prevailing condition in the USSR today. So far, what the workers have gotten out of this, mainly, is more work. Consumer demands go unmet. There are indications of dissatisfaction as a result of the crackdowns on factory inefficiency and shakeups of a system that has been comfortable for bureaucrats and petty officials.

To make his reform program really work, Gorbachev would probably have to take the Soviet Union much farther in the direction of a market economy, with supply geared to demand, greater freedom of choice, and more encouragement of innovation. That would almost certainly lead to a revision of budget priorities — more butter, fewer guns — a loosening of control by the power elite, and a drift toward democratic capitalism.

The Soviet Union qualifies as a superpower in one respect only its huge military establishment, which it has used effectively to intimidate other nations and to keep its vassal states from breaking free. Unless the Russians maintain their military posture, their status in the world will be diminished. Even if industrial reform works to an improbable degree, the Soviet Union will still not be a leader in the economic arena. And if Gorbachev manages to direct the yields of increased productivity toward military purposes, then reform has only made the Soviet Union a more formidable adversary.

We should give Gorbachev his due and listen to what he has to say. He is an energetic reformer, and some good may come of what he is doing. But we should also inspect his offerings carefully. They may not be as they seem on the surface. For example, the Soviets made a great show of withdrawing some forces from Afghanistan — but quietly had brought in two infantry units from Central Asia for the express purpose of being able to withdraw them. We should also remember that we have seen apparent reform in the Soviet Union before.

Nikita Khrushchev looked like the antidote to Stalin’s despotism, and American college students nearly made a cult figure of him in 1959. Yet it was he who made the aggressive bid for Soviet domination by introducing missiles into Cuba. Partly for his failure in that partly for his reform notions, the Old Guard toppled him eventually and launched a wave of counter reform. And then there was détente in the 1970’s, when the optimists thought the Russians might tear down the Iron Curtain. It proved to be only a screen for business as usual.

The Soviet Union remains a totalitarian state — which is one reason why its economy is in a mess — and its military power continues to grow and threaten the rest of the world. Are we to believe that the Russians will suddenly stop being Russians It would be foolish to expect too much and relax our guard. When something seems too good to be true, it probably is.