OBVIOUSLY, large and unsettling things are happening inside the Soviet Union. Within the past week, the West German government has signed in Moscow a deal providing for substantial German bank loans for the development of the consumer goods industry.
Arrangements for the loans will permit German investors to form joint ventures in which the German investors will be allowed to own 51 percent of the stock - i.e., to be in control of the operation inside the USSR.
Meanwhile, the Soviet government has admitted that it has been running a heavy budget deficit and needs outside help, which it is openly seeking. British, French, Italian, and other outside countries are all in various stages of negotiation, which could lead to huge migrations of Western capital to the USSR.
Back in the United States, all of this has triggered a lively debate in foreign policy circles as to whether this is something the US should be encouraging, or discouraging. It may be helpful in deciding the question to think about the USSR in an unconventional historical framework.
Conventionally, most Westerners have tended to think of the Soviet Union, or Russia, as a place that had a continuous history down to 1917, when czarism was overthrown and the communists took over and set up the Stalinist state we in the West have been living with for half a century.
Try a different framework. Previous to 1861, the largest part of the Russian population consisted of peasants living on government land and serfs living on private land. All were tied by various means to the land. Each had an allocated parcel of land to cultivate. Each had rights, but freedom of movement was not among them.
More than half lived on national lands. Their landlord was the czar himself. The rest served under individual landlords.
In 1861, Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom and gave more freedom to state peasants. Peasants and serfs could become landowners. At the same time, the czar opened his frontiers to technicians from the West, and Russia had its second infusion of Western talent, the first having happened more than a century earlier under Peter the Great. If Czar Peter produced the first important change in the Russian system, then the abolishing of serfdom and the second infusion of foreign talent and technology by Alexander II was the second Russian revolution.
It was not entirely successful. The serfs had wanted freedom of movement and land ownership, but not all actually benefited from it. Most formed ``collectives'' of their own.
In one sense, the communist revolution of 1917 was actually a reversion to the past. The state became the owner of all the land. The entire Russian population came under the control of the state. There was no longer freedom of movement. Each Russian was tied either to the collective farm or to a factory. It marked a reversion to serfdom. Every Russian became a serf of the state.
Now the cycle has come around again. There is a yearning for freedom of movement. There is economic stagnation. Mikhail Gorbachev, like Peter the Great and Alexander II, wants to loosen up the system, allow private initiative freer rein, enlist foreign technicians and technology.
It is the fourth Russian revolution, the fourth time in the history of the Russian peoples when they found themselves lagging behind the West in the march toward the future, the fourth time their leaders have decreed major changes in the internal structure and sought help from the West.
This change is as radical as the three others. Mr. Gorbachev is attempting to rouse the Russian people from their lethargy, force more incentive upon them as individuals, make each responsible for his own destiny. He is reinventing the profit motive to stimulate his people, his economy, and his country.
This is of course the end of communism as a major force in world affairs. The Gorbachev leadership in Moscow discards it by the very act of inviting in foreign capital, with foreign ownership of the joint ventures to be set up. The profit motive is back as the fuel for the expected and desired revival of the Soviet economy.
If history is a guide to the results, the reforms will be partially successful. But resistance has already set in. Russia will catch up, a little, but not forge ahead of the West.