Boston — WHEN Mikhail Gorbachev visited Novosibirsk on one of his flying jaunts to encourage and chastise Soviet workers, the Kremlin boss asked one laborer what he most wanted. Answer: a ticket to a movie.
Even a doddering Konstantin Chernenko would have hit that one out of the park. That's a consumer request easy to deal with: bonus tickets for any worker who exceeds a weekly quota. A new theater. A film club for workers. Lots of answers for that one.
But more than movie tickets are involved in the matter of what Mr. Gorbachev is able to do for Soviet citizens after this week's summit and the Feb. 25, 1986, party congress have come and gone.
He has, so far, deeply frightened those citizens with an unending media campaign about the dangers of a star-wars world. He has inspired their hopes with something like the old Kennedy slogan of getting the country moving again. He has browbeaten them with calls for harder work and sharply rising productivity. He has promised, in return, sharply rising real income during the remainder of the century. He has curtailed, at least for the moment, the real opiate of the people, alcohol.
He has deposed Nikolai Baibakov, perennial czar of central planning and the symbol of bureaucratic control over a stagnating economy. He has installed as premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, a man skilled at retooling industries. He has talked much about economic reforms but so far has shown no sign of being willing to introduce a supply-demand market system. He has set the date for opening his party congress on the anniversary of Khrushchev's famous de-Stalinization speech to the party leadership. But he has proce ded with much more caution than Khrushchev when it comes to shifting national resources to retool aging industries or meet consumer needs.
With all this motion, the crisply assured general secretary has raised hopes in the public and hackles among the nomenklatura, the leaders of the permanent bureaucracy. The question he now faces is whether he can fulfill the public's hopes and continue to outmaneuver the bureaucrats.
If he succeeds in getting an agreement from Washington to limit strategic defense research to a pace Moscow can live with, he can claim triumph to his home audience. But that, or any other arms control success, will eventually increase pressure to show results in the economy in general and in the civilian sector in particular.
If he does not succeed at the summit or in next winter's round of arms bargaining, he will need to find ways to sustain his workplace discipline campaign without the carrot of rising wages, and the amount of goods to buy with those wages.
It's unrealistic to judge any leader on his first hundred days, as we are wont to do. Even nine months' worth of actions, the evidence we have on Gorbachev's performance, tells more about tactics than long-term strategic success. The monthly production numbers assembled by the Russian Research Center at Harvard University show a rise in most sectors since Gorbachev started hectoring and inspiring the workers who produce cement, steel, fertilizer, machine tools, and other goods.
Even in the lagging oil industry, where production slumped so much that exports were cut off last winter and again recently, the negative news is now somewhat less negative. Where June production was 5 percent below that of a year ago, July production was off 4 percent, August 3 percent, and September just 2 percent.
Oil is a bellwether. It earns more than 60 percent of the USSR's hard currency -- money with which to buy high-technology, electronically controlled machine tools, and consumer goods abroad. Gorbachev's attitude on petroleum is somewhat different from that of his predecessors. He says he wants to conserve it for the future. But he nevertheless took a special trip to the oilfields in September to jawbone workers about sloppy performance and drunkenness.
I talked two days ago to a Soviet economist now living in the West who once relentlessly traveled the same circuit Gorbachev has been working in recent months, checking on industrial production in a wide array of industries throughout the country. He expressed admiration for the general secretary's grasp of what was wrong in many sectors. But he was skeptical that Gorbachev could sustain his initial turnaround of the economy without making major commitments of new capital to retooling in many industries . Such capital can only be made available if he can divert it from defense industries and/or win good credit terms from Western exporters.
Oil workers and factory workers are upping production because of a combination of pressure and hope. Pressure works for awhile. Workers know their supervisors are watching performance extra close after the boss visits. Supervisors know that their supervisors are doing the same -- and so on up and down the chain. But the impact must be renewed to be lasting. Hope (and results) make the discipline easier to maintain.
The question now is whether Gorbachev and his newly installed colleagues can provide the computer-controlled machines to build more machines, and manage to shift resources from the military to the civilian sector. It is also a question of whether they can do all that without taking the bold step of ordering basic market-economy reforms of the kind China has adopted. The answers will determine whether Gorbachev dominates his superpower nation for the rest of the century or is only a short-term flash acro ss the Marxist horizon.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.