THE 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union opens today. This day also just happens to mark the 30th anniversary of the ``Secret Speech'' by Nikita Khrushchev in which the crimes of Stalin's era were attacked with explicitness hitherto associated with anticommunist rhetoric of the early '50s. Given the Kremlin's addiction to symbolic gestures, the timing cannot be coincidental. In choosing this date, Mikhail Gorbachev is alluding to the possibility of another ``thaw,'' similar to the one that characterized parts of Khrushchev's reign. Some parallels come to mind.
Khrushchev's speech encouraged the West to assume that a new Soviet Union had been born, one striving for peaceful coexistence and economic growth. The West wasn't told that there would be a Soviet marshal behind every diplomat. This new policy, Khrushchev assured his colleagues, ``will destroy imperialism and make the Soviet Union and her allies the strongest economic and military power in the world.''
By dramatically increasing Soviet influence in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, Khrushchev shifted the locus of East-West conflict to the periphery. Further, Soviet planners began placing greater emphasis on long-term strategic deception, disinformation, technology transfer, and active measures in the broadest sense. Nearly permanent tension over the Berlin issue and the Cuban missile crisis demonstrated that the ``thaw'' under Khrushchev was a hoax.
After the 27th party congress, similar trends can be expected, once Gorbachev establishes himself as the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union.
In addition to the symbolism present in the timing of the congress, we have additional evidence supporting such a reading of events. In April 1985, just one month after Gorbachev's assumption of power, the authoritative Problems of Peace and Socialism stated that ``experienced Party workers who are in North America, Latin America, and Europe have begun conducting far-reaching international activities. . . . We have come to realize that the essence of revolution as a historical process is offensive . . .'' Of course, nothing gets published in this periodical without an imprimatur of the Soviet elite.
Anyone who has been perusing Pravda since Gorbachev's final ascent is also reminded of the days of Khrushchev. The new leader has gone out of his way, within the bounds of Soviet orthodoxy, to present himself as substantially different from his predecessors. He can be seen debating workers and farmers, or just the average man on the street. Further, the New Year's media spectacle, during which Gorbachev and President Reagan addressed each other's countrymen, reminded one of the famous Nixon-Khrushchev ``kitchen debate.''
``We can live without you and you can live without us,'' said Gorbachev recently to a group of American businessmen. But wouldn't it be better for us to do business together?
If Gorbachev wants the Western community to answer in the affirmative, he, like Khrushchev before him, has to change the image of the USSR. And Moscow is far from passive: Gorbachev has visited European capitals in well-tailored suits and allowed his wife extensive shopping sprees, courtesy of her American Express credit card. Anatoloy Shcharansky has been released, Andrei Sakharov's wife, Yelena Bonner, has been granted ``medical leave,'' and now the long-overdue movement to reunite split US-Soviet families has begun. These are positive signs.
But the lesson of Khrushchev should not be forgotten. The enigmatic Soviet party leader demonstrated that he could quickly turn from the agreeable grandfatherly figure to a rambunctious polemicist and, finally, to a man who didn't hesitate to draw the world to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe.
Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union can be expected to present a highly formidable but unpredictable adversary. It will increase support for destabilizing developments in the third world. It will spare no effort in the area of illegal acquisition of Western technology. And it will place even greater emphasis on strategic deception and disinformation. The timing of Gorbachev's speech at the 27th party congress, and other signals, tell us as much.
Despite appearances, the Soviet Union is not unknowable. We can learn a great deal about trends, events, and plans shaping behind the Kremlin's fa,cade if we study Moscow's Aesopian language and pay attention to symbolism. The timing of the 27th congress is a case in point.
Igor Lukes, assistant professor of foreign affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, is co-editor of ``Hydra of Carnage: International Linkages of Terrorism.''