Changing Moscow's face

MIKHAIL Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, is exhibiting an impressive command of international public relations techniques. He has mastered the press conference, the interview with a team from Time, the TV address to the nation. And he has unleashed upon American audiences a string of Soviet spokesmen.

Turn on ABC's ``Nightline,'' and one of them is there. Another appears on national television after President Reagan, analyzing what the President has said, and rebutting him. Others are on the Donahue show and panels before American newspaper editors. They testify coolly before Congress.

Such access is not, of course, accorded American spokesmen and commentators who would like to get their views across to the Soviet public.

But the Soviets are working hard at the task of changing Moscow's harsh image in countries abroad.

There is, of course, a problem. It is one well known to those who practice public relations: Even the most clever and sophisticated packaging can do little for a product -- or a policy -- that is lacking in quality.

Thus Soviet actions consistently undercut Soviet protestations that their society and policies are becoming more open, more humane, less aggressive.

The Soviets want better relations with their neighbors. Yet nothing has done more to heighten Swedish skepticism of Soviet assurances than intrusion by Soviet submarines into Swedish coastal waters and inlets.

The Soviets want European nations to believe that the Russian bear is tamed. Yet initial Soviet reticence about the Chernobyl disaster has Europeans fearful and angry.

The Soviets woo Asia. Yet the memory lingers of KAL Flight 7, blown out of the sky by the Soviets.

The USSR promotes itself in the third world as peacemaker. Yet it occupies Afghanistan and wages cruel war on the civilian populace that resists.

Mr. Gorbachev proclaims more openness. Yet, while Yelena Bonner has been allowed out to visit the US and Anatoly Shcharansky has been freed, many remain unreasonably imprisoned within the Soviet Union's borders.

For a view of the USSR different from that explicated by Moscow's public relations officials, the recent conversation with the New York Times of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter, makes for fascinating reading.

She chronicles widespread dissatisfaction in the Soviet Union with economic conditions -- particularly in rural areas. She says intellectuals and scientists are frustrated by ``ignorant party hacks.'' Everyone can see, she says, that the country needs profound economic change.

Can Mr. Gorbachev produce? Miss Alliluyeva says he is an idealist, but then she pinpoints the pressures upon him. There has, she says, been tremendous growth and accumulation of the military forces. ``The Soviet Army has brought up strong new commanders who are aggressive and ruthless. The ruling party, on the other hand, has not produced strong leaders, its ideologues for a new era.''

She says Gorbachev is ``sincere and serious about his peace initiatives. But are his marshals and generals in agreement with him?''

It is such unanswered questions as these that bedevil Moscow's new campaign for a more benign image.

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