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

By Vladimir Shlapentokh / April 8, 1986

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.

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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.''

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.