Journalist explores politics and power inside the Kremlin

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Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev, by Dusko Doder. New York: Random House. 339 pp. $19.95 What is happening in the Soviet Union? Is it true reform, mere renovation and rejuvenation, or simply change?

Nearly two years under Gorbachev have produced campaigns against alcoholism, corruption, and inefficiency, and for increased productivity, openness of information, and economic experimentation. The release of Sakharov is a positive sign, the riots in Kazakhstan an ominous portent, especially for a bureaucracy that clings to the status quo. How far will changes go? How deep does support extend? Will they produce new institutional forms?

These questions underlie this book by Dusko Doder, the Washington Post's bureau chief in Moscow from 1981 to '85. Mr. Doder was wisely chosen. A Serb by origin, speaking fluent Russian, he obviously benefited from the Russian feeling for fellow Slavs - pols not included. With much experience in Yugoslavia, he was alert to the small clues, the ``shadows and whispers,'' that meant so much in Moscow. Though friendly with the American embassy, he recognized the disparity between its purposes and his.

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Doder's answers are optimistic, even enthusiastic - he wishes ordinary Russians well - but often simplistic and one-sided. Gorbachev and his team are applauded for pushing long-overdue policies whose common-sense qualities, Doder suggests, make their success certain, especially when imposed by so able a leader. By implication, Gorbachev is linked with Peter the Great, Alexander II, and Lenin, all those Carlylian great men who seized Russia by the scruff of the neck and hurled it onto a new plane of growth and change; the costs and dangers of revolution from above are not considered. This message Doder delivers in undemanding and smooth prose, well-spiced with anecdotes and personal experience, and free of the historical background and institutional-ideological analysis that readers may find confusing. He has kept it crisp and simple.

Doder has chosen to depart from the literary convention that impels prominent journalists to cap their tours in Moscow by writing a Big Book that explains the Russians and their system: Witness those by Robert Kaiser, David Shipler, and Hedrick Smith. Unlike them, Doder focuses narrowly on the Kremlin elite, and the factional infighting and maneuvering that has preceded recent leadership changes: from Brezhnev to Andropov late in 1982, to Chernenko early in 1984, and finally to Gorbachev in March 1985. These successions went relatively smoothly, however, with none of the problems that accompanied the departure of Stalin and Khrushchev, problems that some Western experts argued are inherent in the Soviet system. Does this signify a new consensus and stability? Doder is not explicit, but the thrust of his argument is clear.

So it is in the lengthy biographies of Chernenko, Gorbachev, and especially Andropov, which constitute by far the largest part of the book. While Doder presents Andropov as the predecessor and mentor of Gorbachev, there is a problem: Andropov's long career at the top of the KGB and his direct responsibility for suppressing dissidents during the 1970s. Doder admits this, but treats it as essentially irrelevant to his simple Kremlinologist's schema of hidebound conservatives versus reforming liberals.

The question that Doder side-steps is the content of this liberalism in terms, not merely of an improved economy or other means to increase Soviet power, but of basic human rights and individual safeguards against state power. While mass terror disappeared with Stalin, selective repression remains very much alive. And the vital question of encouraging the individual energies and ideas that find brillant expression in Soviet science and occasionally in the arts, but which the bureaucracy adamantly rejects in politics and economics, finds no place whatever in this book.

Nor does the issue of opposition to change. The Soviet system rests on the Communist Party, the armed forces, the KGB, and the economic apparatus. Extremely prudent and conservative, ``the system'' distrusts change, not merely because it threatens the power base, but because it might release forces from below that would lead to disaster. No, change is dangerous in a brittle society; better to leave things alone.

Doder is too shrewd and experienced to be unaware of these issues, but the desire to write a simple, popular book has evidently led him astray. Too bad: a fine opportunity has been wasted.

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