`WE have a new feature in our newspaper,'' the journalist was saying. ``It consists of letters from readers who begin by saying that they are certain we wouldn't dare publish their views.'' The speaker was Stanislav Kondrashov, a political observer with Izvestia, one of the two largest daily newspapers in the Soviet Union.
``Most of these letters complain about everyday life,'' he continued. ``The writers say that our political elections are a sham. Or they complain about the drabness of life, or about the shabby quality of the merchandise in the shops, or the cramped conditions of their housing, or about the way bureaucrats abound everywhere and complicate and frustrate their lives. And you know what? They are right.''
Mr. Kondrashov's remarks came during the latest Dartmouth Conference. The series began at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., almost 30 years ago at the instigation of President Dwight Eisenhower, who felt knowledgeable citizens from both countries could talk freely and probe for openings of value to the diplomats.
The conferences have developed into a major communications link, alternating between the two nations. They have brought together political thinkers, philosophers, economists, scientists, writers, artists. Underwritten originally by the US State Department and later by the Ford Foundation, these meetings have continued for the past 20 years under the independent auspices of the C.F. Kettering Foundation.
The recent meeting in the United States was a movable affair, beginning at the LBJ Library at the University of Texas, then moving to Newport Beach and Los Angeles, and finally to Washington, D.C. The subject was the meaning of perestroika and glasnost. The official definition of both terms was of course well known. Perestroika was intended to mean remaking, renewal, rededication; glasnost, a new openness, a willingness to admit mistakes and to create new options.
What was less clear to the Americans, however, was whether these terms had a functional rather than a propaganda reality and what the implications of the new policies would be on the US-USSR relationship.
When the group met last month in the generously proportioned atrium of the LBJ library in Austin, the Americans didn't have long to wait for answers. Soviet participants seemed to welcome the opportunity to talk about the upheavals in politics, economics, society, and cultural life now unfolding under Mikhail Gorbachev.
For example, the political observer from Izvestia spoke about the new reading habits of the Soviet people.
Under the former repressive regimes, he said, most people favored books. Novelists were practiced at writing between the lines; they could get across ideas and opinions, yet plead that they were being misinterpreted if the government came calling. With glasnost, however, the newspapers are beginning to write about bureaucratic blunders, nepotism, shortages, poor housing, corruption. The language in the press is not just more colorful, but more explicit than it used to be. Terms like ``Mafia'' are applied by Izvestia to the bureaucracies. Questions are raised about Afghanistan, such as how society could be protected against further such blunders.
But what the Americans gathered at Austin found especially striking was the admission that the Soviet economic system had to be radically changed.
For example, the failure of collective farms to meet quotas is no longer being disguised. The collectives will have to give way, it was said, to private ownership, generally by families. Perhaps even more astounding was the statement that private operation and ownership of large sections of industry were necessary in the public interest. This revelation was accompanied by the statement that the government was already exploring the authorization of stocks and bonds as an integral part of the privatization of industry.
``We've been questioning all the things that are basic in our society,'' said Georgi Arbatov, chairman of the Soviet delegation and head of the influential Institute of US and Canadian Studies. ``I personally have been surprised at the extent of Gorbachev's impact on Soviet society. We are acquiring a new image of ourselves. We are able to look squarely at our inadequacies, having become the victims of our own excesses and formulations. We are able to talk freely about the sufferings and injustices we have had to endure.''
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was a change in semantics. At earlier conferences, when Americans referred to ``democracy,'' they were thinking of free elections, free press, free speech, freedom of worship, and the other options that go with an open political system. The Russians would also use the word ``democracy,'' but they were thinking of an economic system that would protect them against unemployment, hunger, and medical bills. At the Texas conference, when the Russians spoke of democratization there was no question in anyone's mind they meant political freedom.
``After a thousand years under czarism and dictatorship, we know it will not be easy, and we know it will not happen overnight,'' said Vitaly Zhurkin, director of the Institute of Western Europe of the USSR Academy of Sciences. ``We also know that the changes will be resisted up and down the line by all those who have a stake in perpetuating the old system. Do not make the mistake of thinking that Gorbachev can bring about democracy by simply issuing some decrees. It will take time and it will be difficult, but Gorbachev's aim is nothing less than a complete redesign and restructure of our society.''
``Surely you can't be saying that the world is witnessing another Russian revolution?'' asked Robert Lundeen, former chairman of the board of Dow Chemical.
``That is exactly what I am saying,'' Mr. Zhurkin replied. ``There is no other word to describe it, but it is a bloodless revolution, for which we can all be thankful. And we are just at the beginning. We have to create new institutions and they have to fit our special needs. De Tocqueville's classic, `Democracy in America,' published more than a century ago, provides valuable guidance for us. He says in that book that in a true democracy all the elements of the society have to be properly represented. That makes good sense to us.''
I tried to keep from gasping out loud. Here I was, deep in the heart of Texas, listening to a prominent Russian cite perhaps the most widely accepted analysis of American institutions, and he was using the reference as an aspiration for his own country.
As I listened to the Soviet participants speak of their ``bloodless'' revolution, especially the references to oppressive bureaucracy, it seemed to me that something was missing. I decided to put it to them: ``Much has been said here about the sins of the bureaucrats, but these bureaucrats don't operate in a vacuum. What is the source of their power if not the Communist Party? Would any of the long list of abuses against the people of your country have been possible if they hadn't been sanctioned by the Communist Party?''
``You are right,'' said Nikolai Shishlin, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR. ``We know we cannot democratize all the other sectors of our society without democratizing the Communist Party as well.''
Mr. Shishlin went on to say it would not be surprising if, five or 10 years hence, a multiparty system would emerge. He said that discussions were already going forward on this question at top levels of the party.
Later, a question was raised about the Central European nations. What about the effects of perestroika on the nations within the Soviet orbit? Was it possible to have widespread political democratization within the USSR without creating strong movements in the same direction inside the satellite countries? Would the Russians keep their tanks at home if freedom movements sprang up in Central Europe?
The reply was unambiguous. Several speakers said the question had not been overlooked in party discussions. Yes, it was unreasonable to suppose that perestroika could be confined within Soviet borders, and there was no reason why it should be. But it was premature to speculate on where changes might lead.
Inevitably, the issue of mutual trust was raised as a key factor in the relationship between the two peoples. Seweryn Bialer, director of the Research Institute on International Change at Columbia University, made a strong impression on both delegations when he said that mutual trust was not really as vital as mutual credibility. David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, developed this argument by pointing out that mutual trust could have negative connotations. One might ``trust'' another person not to do anything wrong or harmful. But ``credibility'' made genuine trust possible, because it involved a conviction that what the other side was saying was true.
This discussion led to a consideration of the basic propositions that underlie each society - the ideas people live by. It became apparent that most of the discussants believed we had come to the end of an age of competitive ideologies. The notions of capitalism held by most communists, as well as the notions of communism generally held by people in the capitalist countries, no longer conformed to reality. Capitalism is no longer the antisocial leviathan portrayed by Marx, and communism, always an aspiration rather than a functioning reality, was not a literal description of the economic and social system of the USSR.
``We've been questioning all the things we were taught to believe were basic in our society,'' Mr. Arbatov said. ``We are acquiring a new image of ourselves. Our views of the US are evolving as well. We are realizing that we cannot achieve security at your expense. We hope you will feel the same about the Soviet Union. If you are not secure, neither are we. We must find ways of surviving together. I want to emphasize that what we are doing is not for the purpose of impressing others. It is for ourselves. We are doing what we think is necessary in our own interest. We like to believe it is also in your interest and the world interest.''
IF what we heard in Austin is correct, then what is happening today in the USSR may be one of the great events of the 20th century. Three hundred million people are caught up in a vast new revolution, reaching out for a larger measure of freedom than they have ever known. The challenge to the US is whether it can recognize the potential benefits of such changes, not just for Russians, but for ourselves. The big question is whether we are prepared to live without enemies. Are we more fearful of Soviet friendship than Soviet hostility? Have we allowed ourselves to become so dependent on massive military spending that we prefer tensions to the challenges of a creative peace?
Perestroika and glasnost are Russian words, but they force us to examine more closely than ever our own destination in the world.
Norman Cousins, on behalf of President Eisenhower, made the original proposal to the Presidium of the Peace Committee in Moscow in 1959 for what has become the Dartmouth College conferences.