Upheaval in the Soviet Union

FOR decades (centuries, really) Russia has seemed immune from the modern principle of accelerating change. Save for the occasional surge caused by a revolution or world war, change in Russia - Tsarist or Soviet - has been glacial. Whether by reason of tyranny, temperament, or isolation, Russia has been a great but ponderous immutable on the world scene. No more. Not only has the Soviet Union experienced dramatic upheaval in the short Gorbachev era, but developments are occurring at an ever faster pace. One result, both in the Soviet Union and the West, are equally accelerating fluctuations in people's emotional response to change.

A striking feature of the summer of '89 has been the speed with which the euphoria of spring, when the Soviet people voted in their first competitive elections in 70 years and the new parliament convened in an atmosphere of freewheeling debate, has given way to the gloom of autumn. After what is, in historical terms, just the blink of an eye, Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms are said to have failed and Mr. Gorbachev himself to be on the ropes.

Yes, people are responding to more than will-o'-the-wisps. The Soviet economy, already anemic, is getting more so. Swift-moving events in Eastern Europe make the Kremlin edgy. And the nationalities turmoil confronts Moscow with the greatest threat to its control and, indeed, to the very rationale of the contemporary Russian state in modern history.

Still, the breathless and apocalyptic commentary that extraordinary events give rise to is generally wide of the mark. People living through great events simply have a vantage point too low and a horizon too narrow to assess them accurately.

A 19th-century statesman noted that nations have a lot of collapse in them. Modern examples of national resilience abound - notably Japan and Germany after World War II.

The Soviet people have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to absorb hardship (World War II) and yet stolidly to go on. Without underestimating the magnitude of current developments in the Soviet Union, it's unlikely that this is quite the pivotal, sea-change era in Russian history we're told it is. Soviet political culture is still far from receptive to democracy in the true Western sense; meanwhile, as there are centrifugal forces that would pull the Soviet Union apart, there are counterbalancing centripetal forces that will tend to keep it intact.

The question of whether the West should help Gorbachev is, we think, the wrong one. It presupposes an ability to affect Soviet developments that is, in fact, beyond the West's powers. The West can, and should, offer moral support to and, when asked, even advice on the liberalization of Soviet politics and economics. But the key thing the Western nations can do for Russia is, in the conduct of their own affairs, to continue being models of Western values - freedom, democracy, openness, and due process.

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