The question of where the USSR is today and is headed tomorrow - economically, politically, socially - provides a dominating backdrop to the Bush-Gorbachev summit now under way in Washington. It's evident that the country is in the midst of a revolution, in its own way as profound as that of 1917. The type of society which emerges, and its relative health, will obviously be key to US-Soviet relations in the years ahead. For the first time free to explore all aspects of their society's performance and to publish their findings, Soviet social scientists are now generating a wealth of data on present conditions - the inescapable raw material from which the new order will have to be fashioned. The economic data, which show weaknesses greater than what most American experts thought even a few years ago, are getting the most attention.
At a recent conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, leading Soviet economists plumbed the USSR's economic performance compared to the US and other nations. As Andrei Revenko of the Institute of Economics of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences pointed out in his paper, such comparisons are very tricky business still.
Revenko thinks the per capita gross domestic product of the USSR is somewhere between 25 and 40 percent that of US, probably closer to the former. Yuri Dikhanov of the Division of Economics of the USSR Academy of Sciences has arrived at similar estimates. He put the real per capita GDP of his country in 1985 at 29 percent that of the US, about the same level as Hungary and Brazil. Dikhanov calculates that the Soviet personal consumption level in 1988 corresponded to the American level in 1916, and that the Soviet GDP is now much smaller, in comparison to US, than it was before the Russian Revolution.
But the work being done in the USSR which is most important for trying to assess where the country is and where it may be headed, isn't the new economic analysis. Rather it's the sweeping assessment now being attempted of the Soviet Union's social and moral fabric.
Tatyana Zaslavskaya, who directs the All-Union Center for Public Opinion Studies in the USSR, has been called the world's most influential sociologist. Given her access to the political leadership and the apparent use it is making of Center studies, this may well be true. At a recent meeting of experts in public-opinion research, Zaslavskaya argued that the core problem in the Soviet Union today isn't the economy, but the society's basic organization and ethos. ``The five years of perestroika have clearly demonstrated,'' she stated, ``that not only the command-administrative system of economic control but the entire social system should be dismantled.''
A legitimacy crisis occurs when large segments of the populace lose faith not only in a system's performance capacities but in its essential values as well. The Soviet Union which Zaslavskaya's studies depict is in the midst of a full-flown legitimacy crisis. Only 20 to 25 percent of Soviet citizens are now ``consistent supporters'' of the Communist Party, while ``principled critics'' comprise 35 to 40 percent. The Soviet system of income distribution was, in a recent survey, called fair or just by only 3 percent of all respondents countrywide and basically unjust by 53 percent, with the other 45 percent offering less severe criticism.
Zaslavskaya argues that the corruptions of the Soviet system have done far more than anger the public. ``One of the important barriers on the road to revitalization of our society (and the one hardest to surmount) is the loss by a large proportion of the population of the most elementary moral criteria. This manifests itself not only in that theft, swindling, and violence have become so widespread, but also in that people ... so easily justify and forgive such acts.'' Here the state has played a big part as teacher. The ``typical features'' of its behavior toward its citizens, Zaslavskaya argues, have long been ``unreliability in keeping promises, cruelty, treachery, callousness, mendacity, and other `qualities' which, taken as a whole, mean immorality.''
With the old order delegitimized, without a new one yet established, Soviet opinion is enormously volatile and unpredictable. Zaslavskaya characterizes Soviet public sentiment in terms of its ``transient character, its instability, morbid sensibility and explosiveness.'' Amid these combustible materials the new social order struggles to define itself. While Soviet social scientists have hopes, they are today profoundly uncertain what form the new society will take.