The Soviet leadership unexpectedly threw its weight Tuesday behind supporters of radical reform. An unsigned, full-page article in Pravda, the Communist Party daily, bitterly attacked conservative opponents of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. Well-informed Soviet sources say the article reflects the thinking of the leadership, and was either written by Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev or sources close to him.
Mr. Yakovlev, a close associate of Mikhail Gorbachev, is viewed by many Soviet observers as the most active proponent of radical economic and political reform in the leadership.
Well-placed intellectuals sympathetic to Yakovlev Tuesday described the article as an implicit attack on Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranking Soviet leader. Mr. Ligachev is thought to advocate a more cautious, disciplined approach to reform.
The official target of Pravda's wrath was an article of several weeks ago in another major Soviet newspaper. The article, by Nina Andreyeva, a college lecturer, and published by the daily Sovietskaya Rossiya, was attacked by radical intellectuals as a conservative ``political platform.''
Yesterday's Pravda article repeated this accusation. Usually reliable Soviet sources say, however, that Ligachev recently singled out the Andreyeva article for special praise.
Pravda described the article as an ``echo'' of the viewpoint of people who ``bluntly say that it's time to stop, or even turn back'' from, reform policies. Her views were totally incompatible with the ideas of perestroika (restructuring), Pravda said.
In one particularly significant passage, the Pravda article attacked the assumption that ``old thinking'' and ``authoritarian methods'' are the essence of socialism.
``Democratization is impossible without freedom of thought and word, without an open and broad-based clash of views, and without a critical review of our life,'' the article said.
Both the content of the argument and its phrasing are reminiscent of Mr. Gorbachev's views.
In a speech at last February's plenary meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee, Gorbachev called for an ``ideology of renewal.'' More recently, in a conversation with Italian Communist Party leader Alessandro Natta, he referred to ``some people's'' concern that Soviet socialism was ``disintegrating'' under the onslaught of change.
``Dogmatic and bureaucratic socialism'' will indeed disintegrate, Gorbachev said. But ``creative'' socialism will develop.
Soon after Ms. Andreyeva's article was published on March 13, one prominent radical described it as representing the ideas of party members who believed the country could be run only with an ``iron hand.'' It was, the source said, a clear sign of a sharp intensification of the political struggle.
Much of Andreyeva's article - which basically reflects concern that the political views of her inexperienced students are being adversely affected by the reform debate - reflects a viewpoint reminiscent of Ligachev's. And at one point Andreyeva borrows a line from Ligachev: The Soviet Union's past, she complains, is being presented as a series of ``mistakes and crimes.''
The Pravda article also says what radical intellectuals had expected Gorbachev to say last October in a speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution - that the excesses of Stalinism were not an inevitable price of progress.
Joseph Stalin's personality cult was ``alien to the nature of socialism, and became possible only through deviations from its fundamental principles,'' the Pravda article asserts.
At the same time it is careful to balance this with an acknowledgment of Stalin's ``indisputable contribution'' in the struggle for socialism in the Soviet Union.
The choice of Pravda as the vehicle for the attack on conservatism is in one way ironic.
Like Sovietskaya Rossiya, Pravda is viewed by radicals as one of the most conservative newspapers in the Soviet political spectrum. Sources in the Pravda publishing organization say the position of Viktor Afanasyev, Pravda's editor, is now somewhat precarious.
Yesterday's article also criticizes Sovietskaya Rossiya for publishing Andreyeva's article. Although there are no longer forbidden themes in Soviet journalism, Pravda says, Sovietskaya Rossiya's editor showed a lack of responsibility in publishing the piece.
The paper's editor is Valentin Chikin, a Gorbachev contemporary at university, but a strong supporter of former party leader Yuri Andropov. Andropov's policies in some ways prefigured Gorbachev's reforms. One difference, however, was a marked reliance on a more authoritarian approach.