The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution this week brings with it considerably more introspection than the Soviets normally associate with such occasions. In the past, anniversaries of this sort have been marked by braggadocio and bluster. The Soviet road was the road of the future. The future was theirs, and all claims to the contrary were nothing more than bourgeois falsification.
In truth, the Soviet Union did have much to boast about. Soviet leaders took what was once one of the most backward countries of Europe and turned it into the world's second-largest economic and military power. They introduced central planning - and with it they managed to mobilize the country's meager resources and transform the Soviet Union into the world's largest producer of steel, petroleum, natural gas, and machine tools.
In the process, a country that had been 80 percent peasant and illiterate was made into an urban society that awed the world with its breakthroughs in space and weaponry. Its elimination of unemployment, the improvement of life expectancy, and the attainment of record rates of economic growth made it the envy of many of the poorer nations of the world, a model they sought to emulate. There was reason for us to worry when in 1959 and 1960 Nikita Khrushchev warned that the Soviet Union would overtake and surpass the United States by 1970 or at the latest 1980.
These particular predictions of Khrushchev are little remembered today. If anything, his most important legacy to the Soviet Union was his effort to de-Stalinize and demystify the past. That is continuing with a vengeance today. This made Soviet conservatives nervous then, just as they are now. At the same time the incomplete process begun by Khrushchev haunts Soviets liberals who warn that if any pockets of history are left unexamined, this may open the way again to future Stalinist-type abuses.
But it is not only history that is being subjected to this new outspokenness. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself has taken the lead in this effort. With unprecedented candor, Mr. Gorbachev has called into question almost every aspect of Soviet life.
Sweeping changes come to Moscow
Under Gorbachev, a new minister of public health was appointed who promptly acknowledged the deplorable state of Soviet health services. After several years of secrecy, new statistics were published which confirm that in recent years life expectancy has fallen and infant mortality risen.
The same Communist Party leaders who were once hailed for their leadership and good works are now denounced for their corruption and ineptitude. Some have lost their party memberships and others have been placed in prison. Government officials in Moscow are told to get out of their limousines, forsake the well-stocked stores and clinics that are specially set aside for the party and government aristocracy, and line up like the masses. Maybe then, their critics argue, they will come to understand why the population is discontented and alienated.
Gorbachev's most persistent criticism however, has been directed at the Soviet economic record. Instead of the economic successes that have been trumpeted all these years, Gorbachev has revealed that the Soviet economy, in his words, is in a pre-crisis condition. Economic growth statistics, he confesses, have exaggerated the actual results. So he fires the head of the main statistical agency and reorganizes the agency.
The faulty statistics helped to mask the facts that the population has been ill-served and that there are still at least periodic shortages of even basic commodities like meat, fruit, and vegetables. At the same time, the Soviet Union is falling further and further behind in the race to master high technology. The gap in computer sophistication between the Soviet Union and leading industrial nations is growing.
All of this is disorienting to those who have insisted all these years that Soviet accomplishments and growth were unmatched. Nor is this disquiet limited to the masses. Writing in the government daily Izvestia, a reporter repeats a comment from an official that he overheard after a recent meeting of the party Central Committee.
``It is not turning out all that well,'' the official said. ``They've [past Soviet leaders] repeated for 70 years that there can be no crises at all in our country. Now, here is a party leader admitting before everyone a pre-crisis condition of the economy. What will they think of us over there [in the West]?''
Fundamental policies under attack
Nor could these officials have been happy with the article by Nikolai Shmelyov that appeared in the June issue of Novy Mir, a well-regarded journal. In it, Mr. Shmelyov discussed in detail how perverse Soviet policies have been - from the ouster of the country's best farmers from the villages during the process of collectivization to the suppression of any individual initiative and the adoption instead of the central planning system.
No wonder the Soviet Union finds itself to be one of the largest importers of grain in the world, whereas before the revolution it was one of the world's largest grain exporters. No wonder it imports advanced machinery from the West, only to find that at best that same machinery is able to operate at only two-thirds of the Western level of productivity.
If the discovery of the real truth were not enough, Gorbachev has undertaken to introduce a series of reforms that promise to bring the Soviet Union many of the very institutions past Soviet leaders have insistently denounced.
Gosplan, the central planning commission that was always regarded as the secret of Soviet success, is now to become no more than an advisory committee. Prices that have been rigidly controlled and infrequently changed, thereby guaranteeing what was said to be an inflation-free society, will soon be allowed to fluctuate. That means increase. And that has set off hoarding.
Factories that have been producing unwanted goods will be closed down and their workers fired. Private business, which has been banned since the 1920s, is legal again, and private businessmen are being urged to show initiative and enrich themselves. After being thrown out of the country in the late 1920s, foreign businessmen are being welcomed back and offered the chance to set up joint ventures on Soviet territory with as much as a 49 percent equity in the business.
Gorbachev has even begun to call for convertibility of the ruble. If carried out, these measures will bring inflation, unemployment, unequal incomes, exploitation of Soviet workers, and an end to Soviet immunity from economic business cycles of a capitalist world. Imagine how those in the Soviet Union who have come to believe in the virtues of communism must feel as they see what they consider shameful aspects of capitalism being introduced in their own country.
Nor can Soviet leaders or their people derive much satisfaction from the Soviet Union's relationships with the outside world. Economically the Soviet Union, just as in the days of the czars, continues to have trouble finding customers willing to pay for their manufactured goods. Just as 80 years ago, the Soviet Union remains an exporter primarily of raw materials.
When is an ally not an ally?
Politically the Soviet Union also has little to boast about in its international relations. The Soviet Union finds itself involved almost exclusively with problem cases. The East European countries, which were formerly considered allies, are often politically and economically unreliable. The less formally affiliated states, such as Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, Cuba, and Nicaragua, have become economic burdens.
Moreover, the Soviet Union, which traditionally found itself aligned with outsiders in their struggle with totalitarian regimes, now finds itself in almost every instance aligned with insiders defending the status quo against insurgent forces that are calling for democracy.
It is true that Gorbachev has promised his people a new beginning. But this beginning requires the scrapping of so much that has been unique and the acknowledgment that the inevitable victory of world communism may take considerably longer than promised. Those facts have forced more and more Soviets to wonder, often aloud, if the sacrifices of the last 70 years have really been worth it.
Marshall I. Goldman is professor of economics at Wellesley College, associate director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, and author of ``Gorbachev's Challenge: Economic Reform in the Age of High Technology.''