Past as Prologue in Soviet Tinderbox. Present are the conditions - malaise, shortages, defeat - that heralded earlier upheavals

THE Soviet Union, in the very near future, is likely to undergo a cataclysm on a scale unprecedented in its 71-year history. This forecast has very little to do with what Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is or is not, or with what he does or does not do. It is based on the lessons of Russian history. In each of Russia's prior upheavals, three conditions (call them the bunt factors, from the Russian word for ``rebellion'') have been present: A crisis of confidence in the moral foundations of the regime; a drop in the living standard, which for many Russians means poverty and hunger; and military defeat.

All the bunt factors were present in the three upheavals predating the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution - in 1861, 1905, and February 1917 - and all are present today.

Indeed, the USSR is in a state of spiritual turmoil for which there is no precedent in its history. It is gripped by a crisis of confidence so great that, without overcoming it, the regime will not be able to preserve even the minimum of moral consensus necessary to keep society together in the absence of mass terror. Unlike the Khrushchev days, when causes of malaise were called ``deformities'' and ``deviations,'' today they are recognized as systemic pathologies.

For example, in Literaturnaya Gazeta, perhaps the most popular Soviet weekly newspaper, essayist Maya Ganina characterizes Soviet ``culture'' as follows: ``To steal at one's working place, without a second thought, everything that can be stolen. ... To decimate rivers, forests, the atmosphere to secure one's personal prosperity....

``Our mothers and fathers were prevented from spiritual death by the belief in the `temporary' nature of lies all around them. Alas, our grandchildren, our children, even our younger brothers and sisters, accepted [lies] as the only possible state of the society. They did not know any other relationship between the word and the deed, could not conceive of one. It is at that moment, marked by no one, that this `culture' began to dominate, a culture whose foundation is LIE.''

The prominent Soviet historian Yuri Afanasyev, writing in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, sees Soviet history as six decades of ``socialism without freedom and without bread and butter.''

As for the second bunt factor, poverty, the USSR went through tougher times in absolute terms in the '30s and after World War II. What is different today is the absence of Stalinist mass terror, and, perhaps more important, relative impoverishment. For the first time since Stalin ended the New Economic Policy in the late 1920s, a falling living standard has come after the longest period of economic growth - slow, but consistent - in Soviet history.

In the Kirov region of the Russian northwest, ration cards allot 500 grams (slightly over a pound) per person per month of what is not even meat but only cooked sausage. The allotment of butter is only 400 grams. Even these allotments, however, are becoming a luxury. In more and more regions of the USSR, people have an opportunity to get a pound or two of meat only twice a year on the most important Soviet holidays: the anniversary of the October Revolution and the First of May. Soviet citizens consume 30 percent less meat and 30 percent fewer dairy products than in 1970. Forty-three million Soviet citizens now earn less than 75 rubles per month ($1,500 a year by the ridiculously inflated official exchange rate), the official poverty standard.

The Soviet minister of health reports that 30 percent of hospitals lack indoor toilets, and every sixth hospital bed is in a facility with no running water. Soviet witnesses report that after rescue workers pulled corpses from the ruins of the Armenian earthquake, they washed their hands in local moonshine vodka - there were no other disinfectants available.

A woman from southern Russia, in a letter to Komsomolskaya Pravda, says, ``My son fought in Afghanistan, my husband was killed in an accident in the mine. I have brought up two son-soldiers, and I have not earned a cake of soap. What do we call all this?'' Even in Moscow, the showcase of the USSR, it is nearly impossible to buy toothpaste or soap.

But it is the military defeat in Afghanistan that gives the first two bunt factors most of their explosive power. Historically, the popularity and even legitimacy of Russian governments have derived less from popular well-being than from foreign policy successes. Russia's prestige abroad, equated with expansion, military might, and diplomatic coups, has been used to justify domestic political and social conditions. Misery at home has been forgiven, if not forgotten, in the glow of patriotic pride - perhaps the only consistent link between the rulers and the ruled.

In the '70s, the regime was forgiven degradation and corruption so long as the USSR lumbered from one foreign policy success to another. By stopping and, in some cases, even reversing the trend, the Reagan administration forced Russia to look inward. In that sense, Ronald Reagan is at least as responsible for Mr. Gorbachev's reforms as Gorbachev himself is.

WHAT sort of a giant permutation of the USSR can we expect? Again, looking back at Russian history, one can envision two scenarios. First, the USSR could peacefully evolve into a freer, more Westernized society, as in 1861, when Alexander II freed the serfs and brought fundamental, irreversible, and progressive reforms, and in February 1917, when, according to Lenin, Russia became ``the freest country in the world.''

But the country could just as realistically change violently, as it did in 1904-05, when strikes and armed uprisings resulted, in effect, in a constitutional monarchy. The worst is also possible: a violent and bloody disintegration, as in October 1917, followed by a virulently anti-Western, radical, and xenophobic regime.

Time is running out on Gorbachev's chances to bring fundamental changes from above. But there are no signs of massive disintegration of the Army, which was the key factor in the success of the Bolshevik Revolution. So between the two extremes - Alexander's peaceful and benign revolution and the bloody chaos of 1917 - the middle road of 1905 would seem the most likely outcome: a series of major disturbances forcing a significant change in the power structure.

IT is equally difficult to predict what will precipitate the crisis. Eastern Europe has always been the rock on which the hopes of Russian and Soviet domestic reforms have been smashed.

The Hungarian uprising in 1956, for example, fatally wounded Khrushchev's de-Stalinization; the Prague Spring of 1968 buried the Kosygin economic reforms.

The 1990 parliamentary elections in Hungary, the first in which independent political parties will be allowed to participate, should be watched closely. The communists have already guaranteed themselves the post of president and the key ministries of foreign and internal affairs, and defense. But what if the communists lose so overwhelmingly that the opposition refuses to cooperate with them? More far-fetched things have happened.

Gorbachev, if still in power, would face a horrible dilemma. Military intervention would end d'etente, Western aid, and domestic economic reform and liberalization. But nonintervention would cost him his position, if not his life, by outraging the party leadership. In either case, a crackdown would be followed by violent resistance, starting, perhaps, in the non-Russian peripheries, such as the Baltic states, and carried into Russia proper.

Crafting an effective policy that takes these explosive possibilities into account is the Bush administration's greatest foreign policy challenge. Hovering like a pre-storm cloud over US-Soviet relations is the question of questions: Are we as well prepared to manage the major transformation of the USSR as we managed its containment?

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