Two new studies spark little hope for reform of Soviet system

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Russia: The Roots of Confrontation, by Robert V. Daniels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 411 pp. $25. Soviet Dissent, by Ludmilla Alexeyeva. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. 521 pp. $35. More than 36 years ago Winston Churchill said at an address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ``Laws just or unjust may govern men's actions. Tyrannies may restrain or regulate their words. The machinery of propaganda may pack their minds with falsehood and deny them truth for many generations of time. But the soul of man thus held in trance or frozen in a long night can be awakened by a spark coming from God knows where and in a moment the whole structure of lies and oppression is on trial for its life. Peoples in bondage need never despair.''

Churchill had, of course, the actions of the Soviet Union in mind when he spoke those words. And they enunciate a question which, ever since the end of World War II, has preoccupied Western democracies: When can the world expect to see any substantial evolution in Russia toward a more democratic, less totalitarian, more tolerant, and less brutally restrictive regime?

Although a number of the harshest rigors of the Stalinist era have been somewhat mitigated, the Soviet Union of 1985 remains (both within its own borders and within its Eastern European satellites) almost as medievally repressive as the czarist regime which it replaced almost 70 years ago.

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Nor, unhappily, do either of these two thoughtful and careful studies afford much hope that any substantial change in this Byzantine Russian benightedness will occur in the foreseeable future.

The volume by Professor Daniels details that long, almost always tragic, and often bizarre history of a Russia, which, from czardom through Sovietdom, has fostered and sustained a rigid authoritarianism founded upon a fear of the outside world (which, from the invasion of the Tatars to that of Adolf Hitler filled the land with horrors), deep inner doubts of Russia's adequacy in the face of that world, and a failure to have ever developed those political institutions which are one of the glories of truly modern, democratic nations.

The commissars who look out from the Kremlin do so with the same eyes and believe they see the same non-Russian world as did the czars of a century ago. It remains difficult for Western Europe and North America, which have changed so enormously during this century, to believe that Russia has not made comparable progress intellectually, psychologically, or morally. Czechs, Poles, East Germans, Hungarians, Latvians, etc., have no difficulty recognizing how little has changed in their next-door neighbor.

One wishes that, from the massive documentation that author Alexeyeva presents on dissent within the Soviet Union, it were possible to draw some substantial measure of hope that such movements might effect needed change.

The writer says of such dissent, ``Like ever-widening circles in water, it moves ever farther from Moscow, where its center once was.'' We are not led to believe, however, that it is yet a truly significant factor in Soviet life.

On the other hand, she does present two encouraging facts. The first is that various movements of dissent -- intellectual, nationalistic, and religious -- now exist in contrast to their total absence under Stalin. The second is that various polls would appear to indicate that a ``potential reserve of democratic orientation includes about one-fifth of the population of large cities; in the non-Russian republics, most likely more.''

Yet it must also be noted that these same surveys appear to show that an equal portion of the population, 20 percent, is anti-democratic, with the remaining 60 percent indifferent. This 60 percent provides the government with an overwhelming mass of public opinion that it successfully manipulates for its anti-democratic ends.

We are not, however, forced to end on so unrelievedly pessimistic a note. Miss Alexeyeva, who was herself for a number of years a leading activist in the dissent movement, presents massive documentation on how in almost all sectors of Soviet life there are glimmers, however faint, of that spark of which Churchill spoke. In the various nations making up the Soviet Union, among the different racial groups, in the increasingly better-educated intelligentsia there are fresh signs of discontent and questioning. These, at last, provide some kind of a beginning for change.

While stressing the depth of official Soviet attitudes, Professor Daniels also leaves room for hope -- and maneuverability: ``However frustrating the outside world may find the rigidity and immobility of Soviet thinking, these traits do not preclude external influence on the decisions of the Soviet leadership. The Kremlin, in its devious but pragmatic way, responds readily to the pressures, inducements, and opportunities offered by other countries -- far more readily than its rhetoric usually suggests.''

From both these books one is left with the strong impression that, while it would be naive to look for any early or substantial change in the benightedness of official Soviet thinking, the world's democratic forces should not abandon their peaceful efforts to blow Churchill's spark into a flame that will not only enlighten the Russian people but benefit all mankind.

Joseph G. Harrison is a former managing editor of the Monitor.

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