Behind the curtain

TIME magazine's interview with Mikhail Gorbachev was a carefully orchestrated Soviet ploy to give Moscow a commanding propaganda edge for the November summit. Seated beside Mr. Gorbachev during the interview was Georgi Arbatov, the top Kremlin expert on the United States, and no mean propagandist in his own right. If one can visualize the prep session before the interview, one can imagine Mr. Arbatov saying something like: ``Tell them the Soviet Union is strong, but ready for relaxed relations, but that Ronald Reagan keeps rebuffing our overtures, and if nothing happens at Geneva the world should know it's not our fault, but the Americans'.''

Gorbachev must have listened well, for that is exactly the theme that he stressed throughout.

But although the interview apparently went according to plan, a careful reading of the full account nevertheless offers some tantalizing insights into Gorbachev's thinking.

Intriguing, for instance, were his references to reporting from the Soviet Embassy in Washington, and his familiarity with the recent speeches of national-security adviser Robert McFarlane, Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost, and former Sen. John Tower.

Gorbachev had been reading at least extracts from a column by Mary McGrory.

But if he has been doing a lot of homework about diverse aspects of American public opinion, he expressed puzzlement and regret over the Reagan administration's allegedly uncooperative attitude during the past two months.

The Soviets, he said, had been trying to practice restraint in their pronouncements about the United States. Here Mr. Gorbachev was at his most disingenuous or uninformed, for in the organs of Soviet propaganda there has been no dilution of the anti-American vitriol.

Similarly, he implied that the Soviet Union has made such technological progress that it has little need to acquire advanced American technology. It is difficult to believe that Gorbachev, a prot'eg'e of KGB chief Yuri Andropov, is unaware of the KGB's vigorous campaign to steal American technology and to suborn those with access to it.

Gorbachev said his regime had been examining itself to find out what it was about it that so aggravated the United States. His conclusion revealed an extraordinarily narrow view of the world: The Soviets, he said, could find nothing to reproach themselves with. Thus he glossed over the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe, the flow of Soviet armament to Central America, Soviet meddling in the Middle East, including the equipping of Syria with new rocketry, and the atrociou s Soviet record on human rights.

On the Soviet economy he was frank in admitting poor performance and the need for improvement. But his solution seemed to be jawboning, with not a hint of change in the basic system, or of relaxing the party's grip on centralized control.

Threaded throughout Gorbachev's remarks were references to President Reagan's ``evil empire'' speech and to the Soviet Union as the ``focus of evil.'' This clearly rankles.

Although the Soviets may have a new leader of sophistication and one capable of charm, barely below the surface there continues to lurk that Soviet sense of inferiority and the resentment that some countries in the world do not treat their country with respect.

This is only half right. The world has long since come to respect the Soviet Union as a nation of military and economic power, of technical innovation and cultural status. What it finds difficult to accept are those policies that hobble the movement, the expression, the liberty, and the growth of human beings.

That recognition does not come through in Gorbachev's interview.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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