Optimistic portrayal of USSR under Gorbachev

The Waking Giant: Gorbachev's Russia, by Martin Walker. New York: Pantheon Books. 298 pp. $17.95. In ``The Waking Giant,'' Martin Walker, Moscow correspondent of the Guardian (London) since early 1984, presents the most optimistic portrait thus far of the Gorbachev regime, which enters its third year later this month. This is not the cautious, more or less critical book with which American journalists returning from a tour in Moscow assess the Soviet system. It is a survey, from a quasi-leftist perspective that evokes the 1930s, of the key actors and forces in the Soviet Union and an assessment of where the country is heading. Walker's conclusion: toward a communism so liberalized, so responsive to popular needs and pressures, as to stand within hailing distance of the Western democracies. A dubious proposition! It betrays an excessive generosity towards Gorbachev's intentions and a readiness to see things through Western, not Russian, eyes. But it is well worth examining the sources of Walker's ideas, which he is not alone in holding.

First, the contents: Gorbachev and the conflict of generations within the Communist Party hierarchy; new ideas that will rejuvenate a flagging economy; a foreign and military policy essentially conservative, defensive, more sinned against than sinning; the KGB as a reformed, newly ``reasonable'' institution; a Soviet society increasingly diverse and heterogeneous, richer and consumer-minded, freer in culture and entrepreneurial in small business. All receive due attention, with stress on change, openness, new forces. In fact, some 40 years of peace have produced ``a social system that is not so very different from that of developed nations in the West.''

So the ascendancy of Gorbachev is - as Marxists might put it - ``no accident,'' but the logical corollary of the creation of a new society since 1945. A Gorbachev so firmly based will certainly triumph over the hawks and ideological hard-liners of the older generation, and will carry his country upward to a new plane in the process. Walker contends that Russians can look forward to relative personal freedom, to an economic breakthrough into the post-industrial society of microchips, computers, and high-quality consumer goods and services, and to a moderate, sensible foreign policy that may well end the arms race - if the United States can bring itself to meet Gorbachev halfway.

A splendid vision! What evidence is there to sustain it? Walker presents little but impressions, vivid word pictures, drawn largely from his Guardian articles, plus personal observations, much unattributed interviewing, a skim of the Soviet press, and the occasional book or article. The rich Western scholarly literature, that unending stream of articles and reports, monographs and books, is essentially ignored, with nothing drawn even from scholars - Jerry Hough, Stephen Cohen, and Sheila Fitzpatrick, among others - whose views Walker might find sympathetic. In yet another example of the gap between journalism and scholarship, Walker simply has not done his homework.

Nor has he grappled with dictatorship as a political form. How easy, instead, to blame it all on Russia's backwardness, great distances, lack of education, and - above all - on Stalin, a combined villain and scapegoat. How easy to forget that dictatorships have risen in such modern and highly educated countries as Hitler's Germany and Peron's Argentina, in such modernizing and relatively affluent states as contemporary Chile, Singapore, and both Koreas: Freedom is not guaranteed by Gorbachev's law degree, his wife's PhD. It is in democratic ideas, attitudes, political culture in the broadest sense, that the sources of freedom can be found, not simply in the ``material conditions'' on which simplistic Marxists rely.

If Walker hearkens back to British Marxists of the 1930s, to the hopes felt by John Strachey, Howard Laski, and Sydney and Beatrice Webb for the long-term democratic consequences of Soviet modernization and industrialization, then Americans too have assumed that AID, Point Four, development in general, would ultimately give rise to democracy.

Many Soviet conservatives, arguing that the great reforms of the 1860s led straight to the 1917 revolutions, warn that Gorbachev is taking great risks. The masses can achieve remarkable feats when the Motherland's very survival is at stake, as in 1812 or 1941.

Of these complexities and shadings, Walker seems unaware. All the more reason to see the Soviet Union not as an ``empire of evil,'' nor as Mother Russia, eternal and unchanging, but as the site of a continual tug of war between ruler, state, and society.

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