Russia's restless empire

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Moscow's troubles with Poland are not finished. On Monday of this past week (Nov. 24) railway workers halted commuter trains at both Gdansk and Warsaw two hours coal miners in the Katowice area downed tools for two hours, and some 600 workers at the Ursus tractor factory outside Warsaw walked off their jobs.

On the surface, the issue was wages and standard of living. Underneath is something more serious -- the authority of the old, hard-line communist party bureaucrats who would if they could regain their lost authority over the trade unions, hence over all workers, and who have been caught out with plans for undoing the gains Polish workers have made since the present story began last summer.

Are Polish workers truly to have independent unions free from party control? If so, what happens to Moscow's control over the line supply through Poland to its 30 divisions on its Central European front? Those divisions face the forces of the NATO alliance and also have the task of keeping Poles, East Germans, Czechs, and Hungarians inside the Soviet imperial lines and under Moscow's control.

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The Poles have never been comfortable under the Stalinist system imposed on them by Soviet armies in the wake of World War II. Resistance has been endemic from the beginning. The latest chapter in the continuining story of Polish restlessness dates from Aug. 14 of this past summer. For the second time in recent years the shipyard workers of Gdansk went on strike. Their first major strike, back in 1970, had toppled the communist regime of Wladislaw Gomulka and put in his place Edward Gierek. Last August the story unfolded into a repetition. By Sept. 6 Gierek himself was out and had been succeeded by Stanislaw Kania.

The question now is whether the new party boss , Mr. Kania, and the strong man of the workers movement, Lech Walesa, can work out a mutually tolerable compromise that the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin can accept. This week the answer was again in doubt.

As so often in history, the larger issue has become personalized in a synbolic issue. In this case, Jan Narozniak, a printer, is at the center of the political storm. He copied a secret document from the prosecutor's office proposing a plan for suppressing worker dissent. He was a volunteer worker for Solidarity, the new, supposedly independent union. He gave the copy to the union leadership. He was arrested.

Now the workers are demanding his release, the name of the author of the document, and the dismissal of all party functionaries involved in the plan for suppression of dissent.

If Jan Narozniak can be arrested for helping his fellow workers, it means that the party is still supreme. If he must be released, the workers have won a battle against party functionaries and against the men of Moscow.

Moscow continues to be in trouble on more than one front. It cannot control its satellites on its western flank.It has yet to suppress military resistance in Afghanistan, where the fighting has been going on ever since the invasion of last Christmas. It is having to ship grain as well as weapons to Vietnam. The behavior of Vietnam is not an appealing advertisement for Moscow imperialism.

All empires have their difficulties. One does not assume the early demise of an empire from one or two rebellions against the central imperial authority. But troble in Eastern Europe, the continuing resistance in Afghanistan, and slippage in Soviet control of several other satellites or clients again raise a question about the longevity of the Soviet empire.

It is worth passing notice that Soviet dissident historian, Andrei Amalrik, who was killed in an automobile crash in Madrid on Nov. 11, wrote a book predicting the breakup of the Soviet empire in 1984.

Could it possibly be that the Soviet empire is growing old and approaching its end? That empire is still young as empires go. Its East European holdings date from 1945. Its outlying holdings -- Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, South Yemen -- are more recent still. Some historians date the decline of the British Empire from the Indian mutiny of 1856. But India did not become officially independent until 1947, nearly a hundred years later.

The longevity of empires varies widely. The Roman Empire flourished for nearly 500 years. The British Empire was a conspicuous feature of the world landscape for 150 years. But Hitler's Reich lasted barely 10 years. History cannot give a satisfying rule for judging the durability of the new Soviet empire. Yet, if it must use military power to hold Poland in line, can its appeal be anything more than the range of its bayonets?

Moscow's ambitions undoubtedly range well beyond its present holdings.It would like to regain the influence over China that it exercised from 1950 to 1958. Presumably it hopes some day to regain the position it held in Egypt briefly during the Nasser period. It would probablyl like to be the dominant outside influence in most of Africa.

But, if Moscow has trouble holding on to what it already possesses, has it much energy left over for reaching for more? Its appetite may be unlimited, but its digestion is not working well, particularly in Poland and Afghanistan. And the Polish story is not yet finished.

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