End of an era?

HELP of all kinds, and expert relief workers from more than 40 countries, have been flown to the quake-stricken areas of Armenia. One report said that there are about 900 workers from outside the Soviet Union helping in the damaged cities and villages. This could not have happened from the end of World War II until these days of Mikhail Gorbachev. During the Stalin era, which lasted on through Leonid Brezhnev, the USSR that Stalin had molded never admitted that disasters such as this one in Armenia occurred. Since a disaster was not admitted, no outside help would have been invited, or accepted. The USSR of Joseph Stalin isolated itself from the family of nations.

Habit inherited from those days still operated when the nuclear power station at Chernobyl went berserk. The disaster was not admitted at once. But when the spread of radiation reached other countries, Moscow finally came clean, told the outside world what had happened, and invited and received outside help.

This time there was no cover-up at all. The disaster was admitted from the beginning, its dimensions reported, and offers of help accepted.

Czarist Russia in the days before World War I was a member of the family of nations. True, its behavior was in some ways less than modern. It exiled political dissidents to work camps in Siberia. Yet it was in many ways an open society. Its disasters were admitted. It gave and received help.

The treatment of those sent to Siberia in the czarist era never even remotely reached the level of brutality that prevailed during the Stalin era. Czarist Russia traded with the outside world. It took part in international conferences. It was, in fact, the primary mover in negotiating the Hague conventions, which attempted to mitigate the horrors of war.

The Stalin era dates from a speech Stalin made on Feb. 6, 1946. The war was over. The Russian peoples were expecting the reward of consumer goods for their heroism and sacrifice during the war. Those high hopes of the people, and the hopes of the outside world for a cooperative USSR in the postwar world, were snuffed out by that speech.

It argued that the USSR needed military strength to protect it from a presumably hostile capitalist world. It announced a series of three five-year plans with emphasis on heavy industry. He proposed to drive up steel production from about 20 million tons during World War II to a new high of 60 million tons. Stalin offered his war-weary people guns instead of butter.

This was the speech that alarmed the outside world. This was the speech that triggered the famous ``Mr. X'' report from Moscow by George Kennan, which proposed a long-term Western policy of ``containment'' of the USSR.

Stalin's Russia was determined to ``go it alone,'' determined to arm itself, determined to become the strongest and most influential country on earth.

The behavior of Mr. Gorbachev in New York last week was the behavior of a man who thinks of his country as a member of the family of nations. The wide-open disclosure of the disaster in Armenia is the behavior of a country that is a member of the family of nations.

Nothing proves that the USSR of tomorrow will remain, in its own eyes and in its behavior toward others, a member of the family of nations. But certainly as of the past week, Gorbachev has led his country out of its self-imposed isolation.

Moscow's behavior in this affair could not have happened from the date of the Kremlin speech of Feb. 6, 1946, until Gorbachev set about the dismantling of Stalin's system. This is a new era.

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