Is The Old Russia Really Dead?


By Hedrick Smith

Random House -- 621pp -- $24.95

When Hedrick Smith returned to America in 1974 after a three-year stint as Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times, he wrote a book that quickly became a bible for businessmen, diplomats, and journalists intent on understanding the Soviet Union. The Russians opened up Soviet life to Western readers--from the thriving black market to the unfair privileges of Communist Party leaders, from the Russians' longing for a strong leader to their ingrained itch to defy authority. The book seemed almost timeless as the Soviet Union remained stuck in what its leaders now call "the era of stagnation."

With Mikhail Gorbachev's ascent to General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, things started changing rapidly. And in 1988 and 1989, Smith returned to the Soviet Union to work on a PBS documentary series, Inside Gorbachev's USSR. On that assignment and follow-up trips, he traveled 40,000 miles interviewing muckraking journalists freed of censorship, a new breed of opposition political leaders, entrepreneurs, chastened Communist Party leaders, and many others.

The result is The New Russians, a remarkably comprehensive portrait of a nation in tremendous flux. "When I left Russia and the Russians . . . I thought that vast country and its people would never really change," Smith writes in the introduction. By the conclusion, he declares: "What we have been watching is no less than the most extraordinary peaceful revolution of the twentieth century . . . An era has ended--not simply the era of the Cold War, but the era of Soviet totalitarianism."

With signs growing daily that Gorbachev's reforms are in trouble, Smith's declaration may prove premature. Certainly, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze's recent resignation and warning that "dictatorship is coming" raise doubts about his optimism.

Smith does say he could "conceive of a conservative retreat," but he argues that reform has "taken on a momentum . . . that would outlive Gorbachev. . . ." He cites as evidence the national and republican parliaments set up under Gorbachev, the more powerful press, the fledgling steps toward a multiparty system, and the weakening of the Communist Party. Only a Stalinist dictatorship--with "years of relentless purges"--he says, could turn back the clock. And that would fail as people hit the streets in protest. But with Soviet democracy in its infancy, many ordinary Russians fear a return of repression. Although The New Russians is already becoming outdated, it is an invaluable tool for those struggling to understand the Soviet Union today. It provides a vivid history of the most dynamic years of Gorbachev's "restructuring," or perestroika--the upswing between 1987 and the fall of 1990, before chaos began to mount and disillusion to deepen.

With an eye for detail and astute political analysis, Smith takes the reader through the reform effort's origins. He highlights its main aspects: the rise of glasnost, or freer speech; the effort to shift the centrally planned economy toward the market; the unexpected, for Gorbachev, rise of nationalism and the resulting strains on the union; and the parallel decline of the Communist Party and rise of opposition political leaders.

Like Smith's first book, The New Russians is filled with wonderful bits of color, and now, Smith can make before-and-after comparisons. On returning to Moscow, for example, he was shocked that Russians on the street wanted to be interviewed. Twenty years earlier, his first Russian acquaintance cordially offered his phone number--but wrote it incorrectly so Smith couldn't call.

The book's greatest strength, however, is its incisive analysis of Gorbachev. "At each turn," Smith writes, "Gorbachev was hampered by the fundamental paradox that perestroika is an assault on the state and its leader is the head of state." This dilemma underlies Gorbachev's reluctance to take truly radical steps. Rather than sell land to farmers in a massive decollectivization to boost agricultural productivity, he calls for a referendum on private land ownership. Instead of freeing prices or making the ruble convertible overnight, he has proceeded cautiously with economic reform. Smith accurately states that Gorbachev's "genius is improvisation," not strategy. And his prediction that "in time, we may come to see Gorbachev as a transitional figure" may come true sooner than anyone thought.

Unfortunately, the section focusing on the economy is the book's weakest. Smith takes the reader into a giant factory in the Ural Mountains, to state and collective farms, and to the offices of a new Soviet-style entrepreneur. But he fails to explain some critical problems, most notably the Soviet financial crisis and consumer-goods shortages.

Within the country, the ruble has virtually lost its value as a currency because the government has printed so much money and because so few goods are available. Soviet citizens hoard what they can. Barter between enterprises and individuals has exploded. Cities and republics have hoisted trade barriers to keep goods for themselves. And the shortages seem to grow daily. Meanwhile, the ruble's inconvertibility on international currency markets hinders Western investment and Soviet purchases of foreign goods and technology. By missing these themes, Smith overlooks one of the crucial factors that could split the union--the fight over who controls the money.

But this flaw should not discourage anyone from reading The New Russians. Even better would be reading The Russians and The New Russians as companion books. The New Russians explains the forces of change. The Russians explains the conservative tendencies that may yet prevail.

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