Assessing the Soviet Union's top man

Gorbachev, by Zhores A. Medvedev. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 272 pp. $15.95. Perhaps no leader of the Soviet Union ever came to power with greater attention focused on him than did Mikhail Gorbachev. There was a widespread feeling both within and without the Soviet Union that the country was ripe for a new type of leader, one who was more attuned to the age, better able to carry out the extensive reforms required, and who would make a more favorable impression abroad. At many points, the new general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union seemed to admirably fill this bill. True, there has been some slight fading of the earlier favorable impression. The failure on Mr. Gorbachev's part so far to make truly substantive changes in Russia, his lack of social and political liberalism, and his government's bad showing during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have begun to tarnish his image.

If the author of his biography is correct, that image will be further tarnished in the years ahead. Not that Medvedev, author of a number of books on the Soviet Union and himself a former Soviet scientist, does not believe that Gorbachev was the right choice or that the general secretary is not a man of very considerable ability and determination. Rather, the author contends that what we have so far seen of Gorbachev as general secretary and what we know of his earlier career indicates that, like his predecessors and those in power around him, Gorbachev does not actually grasp what must be done in Russia and is determined to plow the same largely unsuccessful furrows as in the past.

It is no secret to anyone familiar with the Soviet Union that that country has been for some time in serious decline. Life expectancy has fallen. The diet has deteriorated. Soviet industry continues to turn out goods which not even other Marxist lands wish to purchase. Russia must beg, borrow, steal, or buy scientific innovation abroad. And Soviet agriculture continues to be a disgrace. Drastic reforms are needed. The system remains both stultifyingly top-heavy and crippled by excessive central direction. Yet, Medvedev tells us, neither Gorbachev's actions nor his speeches thus far indicate that he has any realistic recognition of these facts. Indeed, during the eight years or so that Gorbachev held top responsibility for Soviet agriculture, that sector of the economy not only performed poorly but benefited from no far-reaching reforms. So far as can be judged on performance to date, the new Soviet leader is a faithful and convinced child of a system which has become increasingly inoperable when compared with that of the Western democracies.

On the other hand, Medvedev believes that there is at least one major benefit to be derived from the new man at the top. He finds that Gorbachev's new Party Program indicates that ``there will be less ideological expansion of the USSR in the future,'' primarily because of the heavy demands at home and the great drain of supporting a number of Marxist nations which are almost economic basket-cases: Ethiopia, Angola, Nicaragua, Cuba, Mozambique, Vietnam, and the rest.

But less expansionism abroad does not mean more liberalization at home. While seeking economic growth, Gorbachev has not recognized that this cannot truly come without a relaxation of restraints. Furthermore, Gorbachev had been in power only four months when, in fact, Soviet anti-Zionist (for which read ``anti-semitic'') propaganda increased. While it is unquestionable that Gorbachev is more adept than any Soviet leader since Nikita Khrushchev at catching the non-Russian eye, both Russia and the world will soon begin to expect more than this. Despite these judgments, this is not an unfriendly biography. It is an excellently hard-headed one.

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