Goodbye to an old Soviet dream: catching up with the West

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THE recent NBC movie ``Peter the Great,'' while otherwise marred by historical inaccuracy, did provide viewers not already familiar with Russian history with an insight into one very important aspect of Russian cultural psychology: the historical obsession with the desire to catch up with the West. When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, they pledged to do so -- a task the Russian czars had been unable to accomplish. Before the beginning of World War II, Stalin promised the 18th Communist Party Congress that the USSR would reach the level of the West in per capita productivity. After World War II the US provided the yardstick for Soviet performance in practically all spheres of life.

Of all the Soviet leaders, however, it was Nikita Khrushchev who was most bedeviled by the idea of making the Soviet Union equal to the West, and particularly to the United States. It is hardly possible to find a speech by Khrushchev in which the flamboyant leader did not compare Soviet and American economic data, and in which he did not vow to leave the economy of the greatest capitalist country behind very soon.

The idea of outperforming America so possessed Khrushchev that, defying prudence, he included it as the main economic task in the party program adopted in 1961 by the last party congress, the 22nd, which he controlled. He even stated the exact year -- 1980 -- when this goal would be achieved, and the USSR, as the program stated, ``will have left the USA far behind.''

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The stagnation of the Soviet economy in the '70s, and the evidently growing technological gap between the USSR and the West, have changed significantly the role of the US in Soviet life, a development that has not yet drawn the attention of Sovietologists.

The strong belief that the Soviet Union would sooner or later reach the level of America in economic productivity, technology, science, and, of course, standard of living was previously not only an organic part of official ideology, but an idea widely held by the masses. Yet this belief has, during the course of the 1970s and '80s, gradually vanished from the Soviet mentality. With the fiasco of Khrushchev's promises fresh in memory, the whole nation, from the top leaders down to the ordinary people, has realized that it must abandon this dream, at least for the foreseeable future.

Reflecting this mood, Soviet politicians and ideologues have stopped comparing the Soviet and American economies. The contrast is striking between the new party program (and the report of the general secretary to the 27th party congress) and the equivalent materials from the 22nd party congress in 1961.

The new program simply ignores the US as a measure of economic success, and therefore abandons any quantitative comparisons with the Soviet Union's main rival. Mikhail Gorbachev's report mentioned the US in this connection only once, in a very vague manner suggesting that in the '70s, ``we approached very significantly the scientific, technological, and economic potential of the USA.'' His total neglect of concrete facts and figures is in great contrast to Khrushchev's report, which had been stuffed with various American economic data.

Soviet politicians and intellectuals have lost their belief in their capacity to compete with the US. Anatoli Alexandrov, president of the Soviet Academy of Science, openly complained to the 27th party congress that Soviet managers did not trust Soviet scholars, and that they ordered everything that was new from abroad. Labeling this ``the import plague,'' he argued that the emergence of the custom of buying production technology ``leads in many cases to stagnation in certain branches of science and technology.''

Feelings of inferiority with respect to American economic efficiency and technology were in the past coupled with an optimistic vision of the Soviet Union of the future, in which citizens would have all that Americans possessed and much more. Now this ``white envy'' has turned into something much more bitter and even malicious, a type of attitude shared with some intellectuals from the third world, who cannot reconcile themselves with the thought that their people have no chance to be as rich as Americans. This recent loss of hope for equality in terms of well-being forces Soviet ideologues to intensify their vilification of the US. All sorts of evil intentions are thus attributed to the US, while its social achievements and the political freedoms enjoyed by its citizens are completely ignored.

In a recent publication in the popular Soviet magazine New World, Stanislav Kondrashov, a former correspondent in the US, reflects eloquently these new Soviet sentiments toward the US. A Soviet woman in his documentary novel asks him, just as he arrives from the other side of the ocean, ``Why do you keep silence? Will there be war or not? And what do they (the Americans) want? I am sure they all have jewels and gold, and go to restaurants. What do they lack?''

The feeling of economic inferiority is especially intolerable for Soviet officials because it prevents them from fully enjoying the military parity with the US which they reached, despite everything, in the '70s. Such feelings were revealed by Mr. Kondrashov in his novel, when he wrote that ``since we are behind them in the world of shopping consumer goods, and comfort, those who hate us -- the bourgeois -- feel justified in not treating us as equal to them in the world of interstate relations as well.''

Americans should not be very happy about this Soviet envy of their economy and affluence. Such feelings only compound the difficulties in Soviet-American relations, whose improvement is so vitally important for the world. As reasonable and enlightened people, Americans must refrain from flaunting their wealth and boasting about their economic achievements. This advice also applies to the Voice of America or, in fact, to anyone having contact with people from the Soviet Union. From this perspective, the success of economic reform in the USSR must be seen as very much in the interests of peace.

Vladimir Shlapentokh is a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, East Lansing.

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