This past week must have been one of the most painful ever for the leaders of the Soviet Union. Not since World War II have so many of their imperial projects languished and so many trends in world affairs been so adverse for them.
Worst of all has been their dilemna over Poland. Which for the men in the Kremlin is worse: to allow effective power in Poland to slip from the grasp of the Polish Communist Party, itself a subsidiary of the Kremlin, or to reestablish Moscow's military control by one hard, brutal use of force?
To allow the workers of Poland to form their own truly independent trade union and to form an open alliance with the Roman Catholic Church means that the most populous and most important of the nominally communist Eastern European clients of Moscow has, in fact, repudiated Moscow's political systems, the alliance with Moscow, and Moscow itself.
Moscow's very system of military alliances is called the Warsaw Pact. But of what value to Moscow is the Warsaw Pact if the people of Warsaw itself have turned their hearts and hands away from Moscow and gone their own independent way?
Yet what was the alternative? Had the Kremlin decided that the united trade unions of Poland must be resubordinated to the control of the Communist Party, Moscow would have had to use force to impose that decision. The Soviet high command probably would first have ordered the Polish Army to put down the general strike that would have been triggered by the hard stand.
But would Polish soldiers fire on Polish workers? And if the Polish soldiers defied Soviet orders would Moscow then have ordered Soviet troops to take military action against the Polish Army? Probably not, because Poland is so nationalistic.
It could have been done. But at what price? The end of that course of action would be a Poland reduced to the condition of East Germany -- a Soviet military occupation. And that would have been not only a new military and economic burden on Moscow, but also a decisive admission of the bankruptcy of the Soviet imperial system.
At this writing the Kremlin seems to have elected to let the Polish workers go their own way for the time being, no doubt hoping to be able to bring them back under control at some later day by gradual methods? The plain fact is that as of Monday last, when the Polish high court granted the workers' demand for a charter untied from the Communist Party, real political power in Poland had flowed into the hands of the unions and the Catholic Church.
The most influential persons in Poland on Monday last were no longer the leaders of the Communist Party but Lech Walesa, who built the new united Polish union called Solidarity, and Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Roman Catholic primate of Poland and close friend of Pope John Paul II in Rome. Union leader and cardinal are in friendly consultation and cooperation. The cardinal has just returned from consulting with the Pope.
Can Poland any longer be counted on by the Kremlin as an ally and asset? What is happening to the structure of the Soviet empire?
If that were not a sufficient problem for one week, Moscow was also faced with the awesome problem of what to do about the conference in Madrid that is supposed to follow up on the Helsinki conference of five years ago and review observance or nonobservance of the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act. That Final Act that Leonid Brezhnev signed called for noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries and for the granting of such human rights as freedom of travel, free movement of ideas, freedom from political persecution.
Moscow's record under the Helsinki documents has been progressively worse, culminating in the invasion of Afghanistan and the suppression of virtually all dissent inside the Soviet Union. There cannot be a true review of observance of Helsinki that does not pillory the Soviet Union as the arch violator of all its provisions. Yet it is embarrassing for Moscow to repudiate a document Mr. Brezhnev signed and Moscow values for what it got out of the document -- its quid pro quo, recognition of the existing frontiers of Eastern Europe.
Moscow must try to stifle the Madrid conference without destroying the Helsinki Final Act, a difficult and inevitably embarrassing task.
Add then to these two most prominent of Moscow's present woes the fact of the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan, which is still unfinished after a year of brutal fighting. Afghan resistance is apparently getting stiffer rather than less so. There is no end in sight.
Then if Moscow looks toward the Caribbean, what does it see? Fidel Castro once expected to become the leader of the islands of the Caribbean. But Jamaica has just turned out the most loyal of Castro's friends in his own neighborhood, Michael Manley, and replaced him with a pro-Western government dedicated to the end of the Socialist experiment that had bankrupted the country.
On the other side of the world another Soviet client, Vietnam, is in deepening economic troubles and has to lean on Moscow heavily, not only for weapons and money, but also for grain. This is at a time when Moscow's own supply of grain has been drawn down by another disastrous harvest and by the US grain embargo.
Among Western countries there seems to be a political tide running toward conservatism. The US election will bring to the White House in January a new President who has for years favored the "hard line" against Moscow.
In Britain the British Labour Party has just chosen as its new leader a darling of the ideological left, Michael Foot. That is a choice that would make almost certain the reelection of Margaret Thatcher's Tory Party, no matter commit between now and next polling day.
It is the inexorable law of history that empires grow old, crack, and begin to come apart at the seams. Adolf Hitler's "thousand year Reich" lasted 11 years. The Soviet empire became expansive after World War II. Its growth phase has lasted for 35 years. There are increasing signs that it has reached the limit of its growth and may not long be able to hold all that it now has.