Echoes of Stalin. Behind the glasnost images

Cogs in the Wheel: The Formation of Soviet Man, by Mikhail Heller. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 282 pp. $22.95. THE Russian edition of Mikhail Heller's ``Cogs in the Wheel'' was published before Mikhail Gorbachev took office as general secretary of the Communist Party. At first glance Heller's claim that ``the Soviet system can't be changed, only broken'' seems, at the least, outpaced by events.

What about glasnost (openness)? What about perestroika (restructuring)? What about the assault on past leaders and present bureaucrats, the exposure of ``blank spaces'' in Soviet history - Stalin's ``war crimes,'' the millions of lives lost during forced collectivization, the corruption of the Brezhnev years?

What about the rehabilitation of nonpersons: the nonbooks, nonfilms, nonpaintings, nonplays now read, seen, and discussed? And the suddenly lively letter columns in party newspapers, the television cameras that bring high-level party disputes into Soviet living rooms? What is all this, if not change?

It is illusion, Heller says in a new introduction to the English edition of his book. It is Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, revisited. Each new general secretary declares a crisis in socialism, trumpets reforms - a new openness, economic restructuring - using the pretext of exposing abuses from previous regimes to consolidate power, Heller says. What distinguishes Gorbachev's approach to power is his astute use of public-relations techniques to create the impression of momentum and change. The key to this media blitz is glasnost, which Heller describes as ``the Mystery as the Miracle''; he explains that ``the extension of the amount of permitted information is offered as a miraculous remedy capable of curing all the ills left by Brezhnev.''

The real source of the ideas, slogans, and tactics of the Gorbachev era, he suggests, is not Lenin but Stalin. Leaders come and go, but in this ``country of cogs,'' the system does not change: The king is dead; long live the king.

Heller sees ``indelible imprints on Soviet consciousness'' made by the historical experience of universal terror, and he believes that ``ideological pressure forms a new man and determines his behavior as the blacksmith's hammer shapes metal.''

Heller describes a totalitarian system pledged to the ``creation'' of Soviet man, ``the state's man.'' It is committed to a ``genuinely scientific system for producing a communist personality.'' The plan, discipline, ideology, orders, medals, privileges, bonuses, corruption, all serve to ``transform human material'' into replaceable parts in an everlasting machine, he says.

The machine metaphor is carefully developed, beginning with Stalin's chilling tribute to ``...the simple people, ordinary and modest, to the `cogs,' who keep our great state machine in motion.'' Heller builds his case on documents: speeches, plays, books, poems. In this context the metaphor is convincing.

But when he moves beyond texts to an analysis of specific political outcomes, the metaphor takes on a life of its own, sweeping ongoing political events into a predictable set of observations and conclusions.

The shift away from Lenin's New Economic Policy to Stalin's rigidly planned economy - the oft-cited precursor of Gorbachev's perestroika - is, for example, dismissed as inevitable. Lenin's liberalization was an economic success for the private sector, Heller argues, but it interfered with the ``education of the new man'': ``A return to the system of War Communism became inevitable.''

Words like ``inevitable'' appear frequently in this book. Leadership change may be prompted by economic crisis, but that crisis is somehow never resolved. For, Heller argues, the goal of the Soviet economy has never been to satisfy the needs of the people; the focus is the needs of the state.

There is little room for nuance in this view of history, little discussion (or room for discussion) of economics. This sets Heller well outside the tradition of Kremlin-watching that closely tracks shifts in alliances, or looks to economic development as a source of change in Soviet political culture.

And yet, there are moments this book helps explain. In a haunting but little-noted exchange during the recent Soviet party conference, Gorbachev responded to a speaker who seemed to be calling for solving problems with ``the fist'' by turning the question back to the delegates. ``If you want, let's start using our fists,'' he said. The remark was greeted with loud applause. At a time when many Kremlin-watchers seem dazzled by the bright array of glasnost images, a sober look at deeper sources of resistance to change may be a useful corrective.

Gail Russell is on the Monitor staff.

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