70 years of Soviet power. A balance sheet of achievements and shortcomings

SEVENTY years have passed since the Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace and the Soviet era began. Some Soviet intellectuals now ask, ``Have the sacrifices and distortions imposed by the communist regime been worthwhile? Might Russia have fared better without communism?'' Even party leader Mikhail Gorbachev criticizes the past and demands ``new thinking'' and radical reform. What have been the successes and failures of the Soviet regime? Here is a balance sheet on Soviet foreign policy, as assessed by outsiders. The record shows many achievements as well as serious shortcomings. We begin with the positive side of the ledger, mindful both of the assets and the problems that have faced the Kremlin since 1917.

1917-1921: The Bolsheviks secured their regime despite foreign intervention supporting Whites and other forces against the Reds.

1922-1933: Lenin and Stalin rationalized building ``socialism in one country'' so as to create a base for world revolution. They broke through diplomatic isolation to establish relations with the West.

1934-1938: The Soviets joined the League of Nations and led the struggle for ``collective security'' to contain the European aggressors.

1939-1941: Having lost hope in the league, Stalin concluded a nonaggression treaty with Hitler that partitioned Eastern Europe and bought Russia two years of peace. A similar pact with Japan averted war in Asia until a time of Stalin's choosing - August 1945.

1941-1945: Recovering from Hitler's initial blitz, the Soviet Union - now collaborating with the West - routed the Wehrmacht and achieved the greatest-ever extension of Russian control.

1943-1948: By diplomacy, coercion, and support for local communists the USSR established a belt of compliant satellites from the Baltic to the Black Sea and in North Korea.

1953-1987: Moscow has maintained its dominion over Eastern Europe, except in Yugoslavia and Albania, despite many surges of anti-Sovietism throughout the region.

1954-1987: Expanding into the third world, the USSR has championed anticolonial liberation and presented itself as the most dependable friend of oppressed peoples.

Mr. Gorbachev now oversees a broad domain of Soviet influence in the third world, achieved through businesslike relations with ``nonaligned'' nations such as India; through subsidies for Cuban and Vietnamese interventions; and by support for weak but ``socialist oriented'' regimes like Angola.

1945-1987: The USSR rose like a phoenix from World War II and went on to become a military superpower and the world's second-largest overall economy.

But success often has a ``Janus face.'' What have been the regime's failures?

1917-1921: The Bolsheviks failed to ignite enduring revolutions in Europe or Asia. The Red Army's inability to carry revolution into Warsaw in 1920 posted a warning that nationalism would long outweigh class consciousness in world affairs.

1928-1933: Stalin helped bring Hitler to power by dividing the German left - instructing the German Communists not to cooperate with the Social Democrats.

1934-1938: Moscow failed to forge a viable system of collective security - mostly because Britain, France, and, of course, the United States, held back.

1939-1941: Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe and then Finland confirmed the darkest analyses of Soviet totalitarianism and imperialism. Territorial gains, as in Poland, created animosities that would simmer for generations. Despite Soviet appeasement, Hitler struck - catching Stalin by surprise - and inflicting horrendous casualties on the Soviet Union.

1944-1947: Stalin expanded Moscow's domain but destroyed the Grand Alliance with the West.

1953-1987: Soviet influence in Eastern Europe has been preserved basically by coercion. The region has become an economic liability for Moscow.

1950-1987: Moscow has alienated Communist China, despite a brief honeymoon in the mid-1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev gambled on providing nuclear assistance to Mao Tse-tung.

1958-1962: Khrushchev's brinkmanship over Berlin and Cuba steeled Western unity; helped stimulate an arms buildup under President John Kennedy; and led to an embarrassing Soviet withdrawal of planes and missiles from Cuba.

1963-1987: Moscow and Washington have not again come so close to the brink; they have entered into many arms control treaties and experienced several moments of d'etente; but both sides have spent enormous resources to build their arsenals. Perhaps their deterrent forces are relatively stable, but the whole world still lives under a nuclear Damocles sword.

1960s-1987: The Soviet Union experienced even more rebuffs in the third world - from Ghana to Indonesia to Egypt - than it did victories.

1948-1987: The Kremlin has presided over the disintegration of the international communist movement, beginning with Yugoslavia in 1948.

The balance sheet is bleak. Without communism, Russia would have been spared a civil war and foreign intervention. Without communism in Russia, collective security against Hitler would have been easier to achieve, for Britain and France found it hard to collaborate with the same regime that sponsored Comintern subversion.

Would any other system have done less to bring the world's largest and most self-sufficient country out of its status as a second-class economy? What other regime would create a superpower surrounded by foes - many of them communist? Perhaps a noncommunist Russia would have become an even more formidable rival to the US, but this is not certain, for the two countries have never had serious geographical or economic disputes. Stalin's successors have managed a zigzag trend toward greater liberty and improved living conditions, but almost any other type of regime would have provided a better life and more security for its own people.

Most of the Kremlin's failures derive from two sources: suspicion of other political actors and dependency upon force.

Soviet distrust and reliance upon force explains why Eastern Europe and China are estranged from Moscow and even why the USSR appears gravely wounded, unable to compete in the fast-moving worlds of technological change.

Self-reliance can be an asset for individuals and for states; taken to extremes, however, it is not optimal. In all spheres the Kremlin has driven itself toward autarky and isolation. It has built up its own forces rather than risk its future in international cooperation. Moscow has thus missed the potential gains that could have been achieved if it had worked with the West in strategies of mutual gain and burden sharing.

Previous Soviet leaders have perceived dimly the costs incurred by Stalinism, at home and abroad, but they were too timid to do much about it. Mikhail Gorbachev calls for a restructuring of Soviet society and policy based on the premises of interdependence and mutual security. None of us can wipe out the past, but we can try to make a fresh start. Gorbachev's approach is one that the West should welcome.

Walter C. Clemens Jr. is professor of political science at Boston University and adjunct research fellow, Harvard Center for Science and International Affairs. This article is based in part on surveys of fellows at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington, conducted in 1976-77 and repeated in 1987.

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