Strange things are going on inside the Soviet empire. Strange things have been going on for three years.
History will probably date it from March 11, 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev took control inside the Kremlin. Another important date is July 28, 1986. On that day, Mr. Gorbachev made a speech in Vladivostok in which he talked about withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
He also proposed being a good neighbor to the Chinese, and to others in his neighborhood.
State Department officials in Washington were quoted the next day ``scoffing'' at the Vladivostok speech and calling it just another ``propaganda ploy.''
The withdrawal from Afghanistan has actually begun. Soviet troops were reported this week to be largely back in their assembly areas, out of combat, and getting ready for the return home, scheduled to begin May 15. The State Department no longer ``scoffs.''
The troop withdrawal is not only from Afghanistan. The International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual report on Soviet troop deployment shows that the Soviets had 65,000 men in Mongolia in 1986. The number was down to 55,000 in 1987, and reported to be still ``declining.''
The Soviet troops in Mongolia were pointed at Peking, which is only 350 miles from the nearest point on the Mongolian frontier. Having Soviet troops that close to their capital has bothered the Chinese for a long time. A reduction in Soviet troop deployment along the Chinese frontier has been one of the three preconditions the Chinese have laid down for ``normalization'' of relations with the USSR. Withdrawal from Afghanistan is the second; withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia is the third.
Looking back we can see now that the Vladivostok speech announced a policy of contraction of Soviet imperial frontiers. That policy is in operation in Mongolia and Afghanistan. But what happens when a great imperial power begins to contract its imperial frontiers?
History shows that it is a risky operation. It can be done without serious damage. The Roman Emperor Hadrian did it and the empire survived. During his reign, 117-138 A.D., he pulled his legions out of Scotland and Mesopotamia. The empire flourished another 200 years.
But any contraction of imperial frontiers tends to cause restlessness among subject peoples still inside. There has been such restlessness all around the rim of the Soviet empire. The first trouble came in December 1986 in Kazakhstan, six months after the Vladivostok speech. Since then there have been reported ``incidents'' in Soviet Armenia, in Lithuania, and now in Poland.
Trouble broke out in Poland first on April 25. That day transport workers went on strike in Bydgoszcz, an important textile, grain, and shipping center. On the following day, steel workers at Poland's largest and newest steel mills at Nowa Huta, next door to the ancient Polish capital of Krakow, stopped work. On Monday, May 2, the shipyard workers at Gdansk followed suit.
Polish workers are demanding ``reform'' - by which they mean economic improvement. That improvement is probably attainable only by an end to the Communist Party dictatorship.
Small wonder that an opposition to Mr. Gorbachev has formed in Moscow. The details are as yet obscure. It seems to be largely in the form of resistance to his plans for the agenda of the special party conference which has been called for June. It has taken the form of circulation of letters and documents.
First there was an anti-glasnost letter which is widely believed in Moscow to have been inspired by Yegor Ligachev, who is officially second in command in the Politburo and is believed to be leading the anti-Gorbachev faction. The antireform faction was then blasted in an article in Pravda, the party paper.
This week this newspaper obtained a copy of another document circulating around Moscow which claims to describe in lurid detail the private life of Leonid Brezhnev's daughter and her circle of corrupt friends. It is to be noted that Mr. Ligachev was a member of the Brezhnev circle. It seems likely that the disclosure of the details of the Brezhnev family life style and connections is a ripost against those who oppose glasnost.
We of the outside world who can only watch from the sidelines have no way of knowing whether the now semi-overt opposition to Mr. Gorbachev will unseat him. Perhaps the June party conference will give us signs.
But it is no longer possible to doubt that there is an active opposition to both reform inside the Soviet Union and to the Gorbachev policy of contracting the empire.
The question is no longer about what Mr. Gorbachev wants to do to Soviet policy, both at home and abroad. The question is whether he will be able to carry out these great changes which could mark as decided a change of policy as the Emperor Hadrian once made.
It is a footnote to history that Hadrian was unpopular in his own day - despite the fact that his reign enjoyed peace at the frontiers and unparalleled prosperity inside.