Senior Soviet official is rare dove in globe's antinuclear dovecote

The world is closer to nuclear catastrophe today than it used to be. But I think more people are aware of the effects of nuclear war. And maybe that will restrain the politicians and the military.''

The words are spoken by an unassuming man in a white laboratory coat. Admittedly, in and of themselves, these ideas are hardly world-shaking.

But they are significant - and for a number of reasons.

One is that they are spoken in Moscow, where championing peace is fine - as long as it is coupled with chastising the West. But the statement contains no geographical qualifiers.

Another is that it implies that politicians and the military need to be restrained - a notion that is not widely voiced in a country where both institutions are officially depicted as virtually omniscient and well-nigh infallible.

But, most significant of all, they are spoken by a pillar of the Soviet and Communist Party establishment - a man who has, in turn, assumed a prominent role in the worldwide nuclear freeze movement.

Dr. Yevgeny Chazov is a man with a lot of titles. Among them: member of the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party, three-time winner of the Lenin Prize, Hero of Socialist Labor, and chief of the ultramodern USSR Cardiology Research Center, one of the leading heart-research centers in the world.

He is also co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a Boston-based organization with affiliates in 37 countries. The United States affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility, is among the more visible of American antinuclear organizations.

Because of his position in the organization and his extensive contacts in the West, Dr. Chazov is one of Moscow's most prominent, articulate, and influential spokesmen in the nuclear-freeze movement. He has traveled widely and has met with some prominent US politicians (such as Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy).

Admittedly, the involvement of a Soviet official in antinuclear campaigning is not, in itself, unusual. A bevy of Soviet ''peace experts'' routinely crisscross the globe, espousing the Kremlin's vision of a safer world. More often than not, that view involves a lopsided nuclear balance that ignores much of the Soviet Union's arsenal. Often, their efforts are so transparently propagandistic and ham-handed that they backfire.

But Chazov is somewhat different. For one thing, he is one of the highest-ranking Soviet officials to be involved in antinuclear efforts. For another, he is primarily a physician rather than a propagandist, and thus carries more credibility in the West. (He was former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's personal physician, and is believed to have been on the team of physicians that cared for the late Yuri Andropov.) Third, he refrains from the invective that characterizes so many of Moscow's comments about Washington.

Chazov does not, of course, stray from the official Kremlin line when discussing nuclear issues. But his arguments are more sophisticated, his rhetoric far less heated than that of many other Soviet officials. There is none of the threatening ''we'll match you and go one better'' language employed by some Soviet officials when talking about the West's nuclear capabilities. And Chazov generally does not try to pretend that the Soviet nuclear arsenal is somehow ''peaceful'' while the West's is ''dangerous.''

A bespectacled man of average height, he has reddish hair that is swept back as if he had just walked into a headwind. He moves and talks the same way, striding quickly and rarely pausing between words.

In an interview over a massive conference table in his wood-paneled office, he said: ''We go against the theory of mutual nuclear threat. We don't think that heaps of nuclear arms will protect the world.''

His involvement in the antinuclear effort was, he says, an outgrowth of early contacts with cardiologists from the West, especially the US. All of them were struck, he says, by the irony of doing medical research aimed at preserving human life while their governments were building more weapons capable of destroying it.

In Geneva in 1980, he met with a group of American physicians, including Harvard faculty members Bernard Lown and James Muller, to discuss formation of an international organization to voice their concerns. From that meeting came the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which now represents some 75,000 physicians.

Chazov admits that he and his Western colleagues do not agree on everything.

''We decided we should disregard our differences and concentrate on one thing we could agree on - telling the world what nuclear war would mean.''

The effort, he says, has been largely successful. He estimates that roughly 50 percent of the world's people now are generally aware of the dangers of nuclear war.

The notion that there could be a winner in a nuclear exchange has been largely discredited, he says. So, he says, has the notion of a ''limited'' nuclear war.

One reason for these successes, he says, is that physicians have been able to marshal scientific data about the effects of nuclear war. An example he cites: A 1 megaton bomb dropped on a city of 1 million people would kill 300,000 people immediately and another 400,000 in a month's time, almost as many people as were killed during the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II.

''We couldn't be effective without having exact scientific data. Our power is that we know the truth.''

Further, he says, a civil defense program can do little to lessen the aftereffects of nuclear war.

Another concern is the increasing use of computers in nuclear-alert systems, which could ultimately take decisionmaking out of human hands: ''The more computers we have, and the more missiles connected to them, the greater the possibility of accidental nuclear war.''

To be sure, none of his positions are at odds with official Kremlin doctrine. For example, Chazov criticizes the stationing of new American-supplied NATO missiles in Western Europe but does not mention the Soviet SS-20 missiles targeted on Western Europe that predated them.

Because the global nuclear-freeze campaign is so important to the Kremlin, it can be assumed that Chazov's activities have the blessing - if not the outright encouragement - of the ruling Communist Party Politburo.

Thus, it bears careful scrutiny when he asserts with a straight face: ''Our movement is professional, nonpolitical. We have nothing to do with the government.''

Indeed, it took considerable political influence to arrange an event that took place here in 1982. A group of Soviet and US physicians participated in a roundtable discussion on Soviet television on the dangers of nuclear war. As Chazov proudly points out, it was the first time that US private citizens had such access to government-controlled Soviet TV without censorship and without editing.

And it was largely through Chazov's efforts in the party and Supreme Soviet, or parliament, that the Soviet physician's oath was amended to include a paragraph pledging Soviet doctors to work for the prevention of nuclear war.

The Soviet affiliate of IPPNW claims 30,000 members, out of about 1 million physicians in this country. But Chazov predicts that virtually every doctor in the country will sign a petition being circulated that calls for a halt to the arms race.

The next major effort of the peace movement, he says, is to get all nuclear powers to sign a ''no-first-use'' of nuclear weapons pledge. The idea has the same potential for widespread acceptance as a nuclear freeze, he adds.

That may be so. But it runs directly counter to the strategic policy of NATO, which reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in the event of a massive Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe.

Still, he says, ''I would be glad that any group is going against nuclear war.

''If it's the Soviet government,'' he says, ''it's very good. If it's President Reagan, and he signs a no-first-use pledge, then we shall applaud.''

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