AFTER three years in office laying the groundwork, Mikhail Gorbachev is setting out to meet his toughest challenge - to trim and reshape the management of the Soviet system. An anguished letter to the editor, published in Pravda, says it is ``heart-attack time'' among officials who are being fired by the thousands. The alternative to firing them, Pravda retorts, is to face future collapse of the Soviet economy itself. The dismissals are Mr. Gorbachev's first big step toward his goal of perestroika (restructuring). President Reagan's oft-proclaimed aim of ``reducing government'' seems puny by comparison with Gorbachev's program.
The Soviet bureaucracy represents much more than a mere government. It also manages industry, agriculture, trade, research, education, finance, housing, and practically everything else in the highly centralized Soviet state. The cumbersome administrative machinery, duplicated at every level, acts as a brake on modernization and efficiency.
Pravda says 18 million people are employed in 800 ministries and agencies that must cut their staffs, ``many by half.'' It cites a calculation that about 16 million superfluous administrative jobs will be eliminated by the year 2000. Other newspapers, criticizing the publication of such ``frightening figures,'' describe a less drastic but nevertheless serious immediate prospect. A labor research institute estimates that cuts in managerial staffs will total between 130,000 and 170,000 by 1990.
It is not just the scope of the shakedown that makes Gorbachev's task formidable. Today's bureaucracy rests on the patronage system of Gorbachev's own Communist Party; his frontal attack upon entrenched jobholders could eat away his support in the very institution that lifted him to power. It is as if President Reagan were to fire tens of thousands of Republican officeholders.
Western news media, with attention focused on recent clashes among Soviet ethnic minorities and foreign policy initiatives ranging from arms to Afghanistan, paid scant heed to the administrative reorganization when it went into high gear last month. Not so the Soviet media. They gave top billing to the abolition, merging, and staff cuts of ministries and administrative agencies, a pocketbook issue for millions at home.
Moscow News led off with a cover photo of workmen removing the signboard of a ministry that was being abolished, the 23-year-old Ministry of Machine Building for Light and Food Industries and Home Appliances. Izvestia, the government newspaper, reported that more than 5,000 administrative jobs were being eliminated in the small Central Asian republic of Turkmenia, where almost half of the industrial and agricultural enterprises will be allowed to run themselves without regional supervision. Moskovskaya Pravda announced that ministries of the Russian Republic, the largest territorial unit in the country, have been ordered to halve their staffs, and the USSR State Labor Committee to cut one-third. Nedelya, the weekly supplement of Izvestia, described the closing of the Russian Republic Geology Ministry. At the State Planning Commission, the staff of 2,560 was being cut to 1,095. And so it went throughout the month.
Consternation spread through administrative ranks. In a society that for more than half a century has prided itself on full employment, the prospect of unemployment comes as a special shock. Most of all, it scares ``those hundreds upon hundreds who find themselves dropped from executive heights to the foothills,'' as one participant put it in a round-table discussion. Many of those dismissed were encouraged to take early retirement. All receive two months' severance pay and the law requires assurance of a choice of at least two openings, with retraining at employer's cost. But in most instances the jobs offered are a sharp comedown.
During the first year in a new job, people now being dismissed are guaranteed the same salary as before, but thereafter they must accept whatever salary normally applies. Designed to ease their plight, this measure actually makes it worse. In many instances, prospective employers resist hiring people who would have to be paid more than usual during the first year. Dismissed employees resist moving from administrative centers to small towns or remote construction projects where vacancies exist but life is hard. Only three people of the hundreds dismissed by the Russian Geology Ministry accepted jobs in East Siberian oil and gas fields.
Worst of all, the country is unprepared for a flood of job-seekers. Its rudimentary network of employment agencies focuses on recruiting manual and semiskilled labor for low-paying jobs. Job counseling and retraining centers are only now being improvised. Cooperative and private business activity, which could absorb some of the newly jobless, is only in its infancy.
What are the newly unemployed to do? Four of them found jobs - working in the suddenly overburdened employment agencies. Meantime, even Pravda ruefully admits that it was a sad mistake to accept ``the social-welfare concept of full employment that permits idleness of a large proportion of the employed.''
Leo Gruliow, editor emeritus of the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, was formerly the Monitor's Moscow correspondent.