DURING our nearly three-hour meeting with Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev in Moscow recently, he told us, and the small group of intellectuals of which we were a part, that Soviet ``society is on the move.'' He sounded for all the world like John F. Kennedy. But is the Soviet Union really on the move? Has Mr. Gorbachev, with his much publicized policy of glasnost, or ``openness,'' made a dent on the frozen structures left behind by Brezhnev & Co.?
Gorbachev fans point enthusiastically to rapid changes in many different spheres of Soviet life.
Publication of books like ``The Sad Detective,'' by Viktor Astafyev, ``The Fire,'' by Valentin Rasputin, Anatoly Rybakov's new anti-Stalinist novel, ``Children of the Arbat,'' and, above all, Chingiz Aitmatov's latest work, ``The Scaffold,'' which deals with religion, the problem of drugs in Soviet society, and other spiritual and social questions, underscores Gorbachev's recent statement to Soviet social scientists that ``the search for truth should be conducted through a comparison between various viewpoints ... That is why we emphasize the need for courage, for initiative in advancing new ideas.''
Elections in the writers' union, the filmmakers' union, and elsewhere have swept into leadership men and women who until recently were either in trouble with the authorities or critical of them.
At Manezh, the former czarist hippodrome that is now Moscow's central exhibition hall, we saw Cubist and Expressionist paintings. The fact that they were displayed in this establishment gallery (as distinct from side-street locations) was taken as a victory by supporters of glasnost in the arts. So, too, was the fact that a section has been set aside where children can play freely with paints and clay. As recently as a few months ago, we were told, this would have been impossible - there would have been adults busily telling them not to touch or make any noise. Even this minimal freedom is greeted with poignant enthusiasm by the long-repressed intelligentsia.
In another spot in the great hall there is now a little sidewalk caf'e and a stage where artists, architects, and writers can debate with the public. Instead of boring platitudes from government officials, leaders of the eight major arts organizations can speak openly with their own members or the public. What's so important about this? The answer, we were told, is that they no longer need prior approval! According to Gorbachev's supporters in the Soviet Union, such tiny advances prefigure larger changes.
There have been changes in the media, too. At Sovietskaya Rossiya, the chief paper of the Russian Republic, one now finds journalists who have, on occasion, been in trouble elsewhere because of their opinions.
The most dramatic signal that critical opinion will be tolerated involves a recent incident in which two state prosecutors, A.F. Daragan and V.P. Shatalov, were thrown out of their jobs for arresting a journalist who had criticized their agency in Soviet Miner magazine. Accused of ``malicious hooliganism'' - a kind of catchall charge used against dissidents - the writer, V.B. Berkhin, was not only freed, but given a formal apology. What's more, Pravda reported the case in its pages, sending the message all over the country.
At Komsomolskaya Pravda, the youth newspaper with a vast circulation, a regular column has been turned over to Gennady Alfarenko, a geophysicist from Novosibirsk, as a platform from which to encourage social invention or innovation. Mr. Alfarenko has just been brought to Moscow to work on a popular television program that reflects the new spirit. Big screens have been mounted in Moscow streets, and crowds gather to watch the program, to comment on it, and to interact directly with the studio. At one such occasion, when a bureaucrat was hemming and hawing and droning on, the crowd shouted for him to cut it short, and the bureaucrat got the message.
Nevertheless, during Gorbachev's comments in his 2-hour and 45-minute meeting with us, one sensed a politician's in-born resentment of the media, and something happened immediately after our meeting that puts such changes in paradoxical perspective.
The morning after our encounter with Gorbachev we were excitedly handed copies of Pravda. There we were at the very top of the front page - a six-column banner headline and a picture of Gorbachev with our group. A few minutes later we were handed Izvestia and were surprised to see the same headline, picture, and story in the same spot on Page 1. When we got Literaturnaya Gazeta, there it was again, minus the photo. When Sovietskaya Kultura arrived, there it was yet again, picture and all.
On the one hand, this enormous press coverage and prime-time TV reports about our meeting evidenced the extraordinary importance placed on our meeting by Gorbachev. The simple fact that our meeting was held symbolized for his domestic audience that international contacts are not over, despite the failure of the Reykjavik summit. Indeed, his remarks to us about Reykjavik were rather conciliatory in tone, in contrast to his earlier public statements.
But we don't believe this was the main purpose. By receiving this small group of internationally renowned intellectuals and artists, and by explicitly endorsing our call for ``freedom to create, disseminate, and teach new ways of thinking,'' Gorbachev was once again reassuring his country that a wide range of differing opinions - diversity of expression - would be tolerated, or even encouraged. What delicious irony then that this call for diversity of expression was reported in identical words in all the major newspapers.
Gorbachev senses that information is the key to any advanced economy. He has said that a country's ``intellectual, scientific potential becomes society's most important resource, which is inexhaustible by its very nature.'' But, as our press coverage suggests, the implications of this thesis have yet to be digested.
An advanced economy requires incessant technological innovation. But technological advance in today's world is ever more closely tied to culture and to social structure. To generate a lot of new ideas, even technological ideas, the system must permit the expression not simply of alternative scientific theories and hypotheses, but of ``crazy'' social notions, offbeat art, controversial economic theories, errors, and even ideological dissent. It is because of this that Soviet scientists favor glasnost policies and want even more freedom and, indeed, why so many have been identified with dissent in the past.
One related question that we did not have an opportunity to discuss with Gorbachev was the USSR's incredible backwardness with respect to information technology - the computers and telecommunications that lie at the heart of any post-industrial, or ``third wave,'' economy. The Soviets fell in love with the idea of computers when the machines were giant mainframes. Some Soviet experts pictured a single computer ``brain'' in Moscow that could concentrate all the information needed to run a centrally planned economy. This, however, as most economists and computer experts now recognize, was a fantasy. An advanced economy is just too complex and fast-changing for any tight group of central planners to comprehend, let alone manage in detail - no matter how big their supercomputers may be.
For a vibrant, truly modern economy, Gorbachev's Russia needs not more mainframes but millions of microcomputers, printers, copying machines, telephone lines, data links, and open networks, plus continually changing software, local area networks, and thousands of easily accessible data bases.
But what is the political significance of putting millions of printers into factories, stores, schools, and even homes? What would desktop publishing do to the Soviet political structure? Even if printers are kept locked up or in government offices, they can still be used for unofficial or even dissident communication. (In Poland, some Solidarity members turned out antigovernment documents on computers in government offices.)
Can the USSR be deprived of personal computers, printers, and other information technology and still build an advanced third-wave economy? If it keeps computers out of the hands of its own people, what price will they pay in a reduced standard of living? This is what we meant when one of us said to Gorbachev that restrictions on information ``take rubles out of the pockets'' of the Soviet people.
Here, too, we see not the contradictions of capitalism but rather the contradictions of socialism - a precise example of the ``social relations of production'' interfering with the development of the ``forces of production.''
And what about telecommunications? The Soviets are just getting around to creating a first-class telephone system. But because it is designed for use by the military as well as the public, it permits a lot of encoding, and it nicely keeps track of who calls whom, so that groups of users can be segregated in classes and their service overridden if the military wants the lines. This highly centralized system is being built just when the rest of the world is decentralizing telecommunications. And it is a system still heavily based on copper wire, designed for voice, not data. How much computerized information will be able to flow through it? Are Gorbachev's engineers building a system that is already obsolete?
The spread of PCs, the creation of publicly available data bases, communications that even schoolchildren can use, still seem light-years away in the USSR.
When Gorbachev speaks of openness and the availability of information, he needs to broaden radically his conception of information and what needs to be done with it. If information, as he has suggested, is the raw material of a third-wave economy, it cannot be kept locked in its old containers. One simple thing Gorbachev might do for a start is tell the police and Viktor Chebrikov, head of the KGB, to take the padlocks off all the copying machines in the USSR.
If the Soviet Union is ``on the move,'' it still has a very long way to go. Gorbachev's glasnost is only the first step on a long hard road.
Next: Gorbachev's vision of the future
Heidi and Alvin Toffler are a team, two of whose works, ``The Third Wave'' and ``Future Shock,'' have been published in some 30 languages.