Here are two intriguing facts about the new leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail S. Gorbachev: 1. He is 20 years younger than the previous leader, Konstantin Chernenko, who died in March. He is also in good health -- which should make for a vital and more vigorous leader.
2. Unlike Mr. Chernenko, who was virtually unknown to the West, Mr. Gorbachev has had firsthand contact with Canada and Britain. In December 1984 before he was made Soviet leader, Mr. Gorbachev spent more than a week in Britain. That was the longest visit a top Soviet official has ever made to that country.
Those who saw Mr. Gorbachev on these visits to the West found him warm and pleasant. He seemed very different from the gloomy impression most Westerners have of Soviet leaders.
Yet experts on the Soviet Union warn that we should not be fooled by Mr. Gorbachev's warm handshakes, pleasant smiles, and ready wit. He's probably just as tough as any of the other Soviet leaders, they say, otherwise he would never have become their new leader.
Whether or not we like the Soviet Union and its Communist system, we cannot ignore this country which Mr. Gorbachev leads.
For one thing, the Soviet Union is the largest country in the world. It covers one-seventh of the world's entire land surface. That makes it bigger than all of Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Central America put together.
Because of its size and military might, the Soviet Union is a superpower. That puts it in a very special league. The only other superpower in the world is the United States. Between the two of them they have produced most of the deadly nuclear weapons in the world. The peace of the world is always at risk when so many powerful weapons are around.
The United States and the Soviet Union are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss ways they can both cut down on their huge piles of nuclear weapons.
Although these two countries have much in common in terms of their land size, populations (the Soviet Union is slightly larger), and military strength, their systems of government are totally different.
The United States is a democracy. That form of government allows free elections in which the voting public is given a choice as to which candidates they like. The individual is allowed much personal freedom.
The Soviet Union, a Communist country, has elections, but they're not what people living in democracies would call elections. In the Soviet Union, voters can only vote for the Communist candidate or against him.
The Soviet Union is also known as a totalitarian state. That means the Communist Party which runs the state has total control, and can, if it wants, exercise that control ruthlessly. The Communist Party in the Soviet Union exercises its control through the powerful Central Committee. The Central Committee, in turn, chooses the members of two important bodies. One is the Secretariat, which carries out the administrative or office work of the state. The other is the Politburo, which sets policy for the Soviet Union. The Soviet position at those Geneva arms talks would have been discussed at Politburo meetings. The actual laws of the country are presented to -- and automatically approved by -- an assembly called the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union.
The word ``soviet'' -- as in Soviet Union or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the name given to the country in 1922 -- means a council elected by the people.
At one time Russia, as that country was officially called until 1917, was a monarchy much like the other countries of Europe. Russia is in fact only a part, even though a significant part, of the Soviet Union, which includes such republics as Georgia and the Ukraine that are not Russian. The USSR also includes the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which were independent countries until the Soviet Union annexed or took them over in 1940.
Before those developments, though, and before the time of the Communist takeover, Russia was ruled by emperors known as czars.
Many of the czars of Russia were cruel rulers. The workers and peasants felt badly treated and were ripe for revolt. The opportunity came in 1917 during World War I when the Russian imperial state was weakened by all the fighting. The last Czar, Nicholas II, was forced to abdicate, or give up his throne, in March 1917. That didn't stop his family from being brutally murdered, though.
A moderate government whose best-known member was Alexander Kerensky took over. But that government lasted only a few months. In November 1917 extreme revolutionaries known as Bolsheviks, or what are called Communists today, seized power. The Communists have remained in power ever since.