Reading between the mushrooms in Russia's upheavals

At this time of year, many Soviets venture out each morning to see what has sprung up overnight. Some look for mushrooms, since it's the season to harvest them here in Russia.

Others, it seems, are trying to figure out what might be happening in this country's political realm - where the unexpected takes place overnight and key figures vanish from public view within the space of a day.

Many Kremlin-watchers are puzzled by a chain of events under way here, perhaps pointing to some sort of upheaval in Moscow's leadership. But as yet, they are unable to explain what the events mean - let alone why they are taking place.

The task of explaining it is a bit like searching for a fairy circle, a rare ring of mushrooms - and failing to find the one that closes the circle.

To be sure, there are some developments that might seem, at first blush, to be mildly encouraging - notably, the decision of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to meet with United States Secretary of State George Shultz at the United Nations later this month. That's a change from last year, when New York City officials refused to allow Gromyko's plane to land - and Gromyko canceled the visit rather than take a commercial flight.

However, that agreement was followed by a harsh denunciation of US policies by Mikhail Gorbachev, the No. 2 man on the ruling Communist Party Politburo and a key contender to be the next Soviet leader. ''The world is in a fever and ... the war threat does not subside,'' Gorbachev said at observances in Bulgaria, marking the 40th anniversary of communist rule in that country.

''Those who shape the foreign policy course of the US,'' he charged, ''are obviously oriented toward further dangerous heightening of international tension....''

Such hot-and-cold rhetoric is, of course, nothing new from the Kremlin. Still , Western Kremlin-watchers here say they are puzzled by what seems to be a number of unusual moves by the leadership recently, coming in rapid succession.

Perhaps the single most puzzling development is the unexplained replacement of one of this country's most powerful figures, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, military chief of staff, by his deputy.

The terse announcement came late one night last week. The next morning's Army newspaper, Red Star, carried a biography and picture of his medal-bedecked replacement, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, and a terse notation that Ogarkov has ''been relieved of the post ... in connection with a new appointment.''

The Defense Ministry refused to elaborate. Suddenly, the man who earlier in the week had been shown at the side of Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov had, like many others before him, become a nonperson.

Most Western analysts here are convinced that Ogarkov is at least in limbo, and perhaps in disgrace. A number speculate that the decision was probably taken at a meeting of the Communist Party Politburo the same day the announcement was made.

But there is no consensus on why the leadership might have moved so swiftly against Ogarkov. Some analysts speculate it could be related to the Red Army's performance in Afghanistan, where a major Soviet offensive has been met with a successful bomb attack on Kabul airport and the defection of a key Soviet collaborator to the guerrilla ranks.

Others wonder whether it was a belated response to the downing of a South Korean civilian airliner just over a year ago by a Soviet fighter jet - an action that Ogarkov defended in a press conference.

Some theorized that Ogarkov, who rose to prominence during the lingering illness of former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, may have seemed threatening to the country's political hierarchy. Notably, the move against Ogarkov was made just one day after the current Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko, reappeared in public after a seven-week absence - an absence that sparked rumors that he was hospitalized for poor health.

Perhaps the most straightforward explanation - though not necessarily the most plausible - was that Ogarkov, the top military figure in the country, disagreed with the political leadership over defense strategy.

On May 9 of this year, in an interview with Red Star, Ogarkov seemed to question the continuing buildup of nuclear missiles by both superpowers.

While clearly laying the blame for the buildup on the US, he said the nuclear arsenals of both sides ''have reached a size and quality that they are sufficient to destroy all the important targets on enemy territory many times over in a short space of time.... You do not have to be a military man or a scientist to realize that a further buildup is becoming senseless.''

Some analysts speculate such views may have gone against the grain of the party leadership, particularly when it repeatedly warns that the Soviet Union must respond to a US nuclear buildup.

However, one well-placed Western diplomat says that recently Ogarkov seemed to have been expressing more orthodox views.

''I really find it hard to put him in any particular camp - hawks or doves. Those terms seem somewhat meaningless,'' the diplomat says.

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