Is the USSR headed toward bloom or doom?

AT the time of my departure from the Soviet Union nearly 10 years ago, a sizable proportion of the Soviet population was satisfied with the existing order and standard of living. Various polls which I conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as my numerous personal contacts with individuals, clearly indicated that this was the case. Some dissident intellectuals, of course, refused to recognize the fact.

Loose labor discipline, guarantees of employment, and a relatively abundant supply of goods, all contributed to an atmosphere of ``complacency'' during the Brezhnev period. That, in turn, led to the emergence of a popular sense of apathy with regard to the decaying economy.

During my first trip back to Moscow in a decade, on the eve of the June party conference, I discovered a society full of discontent and permeated with fear.

The results of various polls, including a recent one in Moscow in which people were asked about their attitudes toward perestroika, only partially reflect the real mood of the country. Usually two-thirds of those surveyed express support for Gorbachev's domestic policies.

This data does not so much demonstrate the extent of popular support for the Gorbachev program as it does the growing dissatisfaction on the part of the Soviet people with their lives. That disenchantment grew as the result of the revelations of glasnost, a development which has graphically showed the people the true squalor of their lives.

Indeed, verbal support for perestroika, or the restructuring of Soviet society, should not be taken as indicative of the full support of the majority of the Soviet people for the main elements of Gorbachev's platform.

Take, for example, the proposal to promote the development of private initiative through the organization of private cooperatives.

In June, Soviet television recounted a story on an event which occurred not far from Moscow. By all accounts, the residents of a village torched the building which housed a new private cooperative - not once but three times.

The journalist who prepared the program appealed to the audience to recognize that, ``the majority of the population is strongly against cooperatives.'' Other data, including polls and letters to newspapers, also confirm that assertion.

Another proposed economic reform - the decentralization of management and the establishment of financial autonomy for enterprises - carries with it several unpopular implications; these include the firing of workers and increases in the prices of goods. For that reason only a small minority of workers and managers support this particular reform.

On the other hand, Gorbachev's political program appears to have far more support than his economic proposals. Distrust of, even hatred of, the bureaucracy is common among the Soviet people; they welcome any efforts to curtail its power and support a variety of proposals which seek to rectify ``demoralization.''

However, the evidence indicates that it is the intelligentsia, and not the masses, which are most enthusiastic about glasnost and the efforts at liberalization in the political sphere.

For the most part, the majority of the population is almost totally indifferent to all of the ideological and cultural changes of the last three years, including the publication of Boris Pasternak's ``Doctor Zhivago'' or Yevgeny Zamiatin's ``We.''

Workers and peasants are primarily interested in the improvement in their material situation. They are often irritated by official calls to be excited over the publication of reformist articles in the Moscow News or in ``Ogonyok,'' instead of worrying about the empty shelves in state stores.

It is remarkable that the anti-Stalin campaign has affected the intelligentsia one way and the masses another. For the well-educated, each step the Gorbachev leadership takes toward denouncing the crimes of Stalin is applauded as an encouraging sign for the eventual creation of a more democratic society.

Yet ordinary people view the anti-Stalin campaign from a very different perspective. They see it as demoralization at the top: successive leaders denigrate past ones. Many speculate that Gorbachev will not escape the same fate.

Popular attitudes about the various elements of the Gorbachev platform depend to a great extent on the expectations of people about the eventual outcome of the reformist experiment which began in 1985. Optimism helps to find the positive side to the reforms; pessimism acts in the opposite direction. Thus it is only natural that Gorbachev has attempted so forcefully to persuade the Soviet people of the assured success of the reform proposals.

However as the data indicates, only one-third of the Soviet population believes that Gorbachev's innovations will be successful.

Most people are pessimistic: Some of them even contend that the tension the reforms bring can only result in disaster. For this reason, even the purest of ``Russian'' intellectuals cherish the idea of emigration.

Gorbachev can certainly rely on the intelligentsia as his main base of support. But he can gain genuine mass support only if he rapidly improves the standard of living in the Soviet Union. The mass purchase of Western goods has been recommended by Soviet economists as the most realistic way to achieve that.

Gorbachev's political opponents are aware of his dilemma, and wait for the day when the discontent of the masses can be used for their own purposes.

Vladimir Shlapentokh, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, once conducted major opinion polls for Soviet newspapers.

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