LENINGRAD - Here, in this historic former capital of Russia, prominent American and Soviet citizens have been exchanging ideas in what has come to be known as the ``Dartmouth Conferences'' - the oldest regularly scheduled meetings between representatives of both countries. The meetings were originally suggested by President Eisenhower as a way of scouting the ground for the diplomats. The first exchange between the two countries took place at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1960. The Kettering Foundation of Dayton, Ohio, is the American sponsor.
The meeting here in Leningrad was significant not just because of the 30th anniversary of the exchanges but because of the candor of the Soviet delegation in exposing to full view the near-breakdown of the economic and political systems of this country. Georgi Arbatov, generally regarded as the Soviet Union's leading America-watcher and Chairman of the Soviet delegation, was open and direct in disclosing the details of the present economic crisis. He said that the Gorbachev government recognized it had perhaps no more than a year to show enough improvement to persuade the people that it deserved to stay in power. He reported that shortages of food and essential goods were producing deep political unrest. The government was facing a fiscal crisis which required an infusion of about $23 billion dollars. Meanwhile, the government is attempting to hold the lid down on what threatens to be explosive inflation.
Perhaps the grimmest picture of all came from Anatoly Sobchak, mayor of Leningrad. Mr. Sobchak, well-educated, articulate, and persuasive, came very close to President Gorbachev in a recent national popularity poll. Sobchak told the Americans that the opposition to Leninist communism both as an ideology and as an economic system was so severe that citizens were petitioning to change the name of their city.
For 70 years, Sobchak said, the government had propagandized the people about the infallibility of Marxist-Leninist ideas and about the advantages the Soviet worker possessed over the capitalist working class. But the sober truth, now apparent to the masses of the Soviet people, is that workers under capitalism are better paid and enjoy incomparably better living conditions.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was an Intourist guide, from whom in the past one could expect stock phrases, was explaining the government's new program for increasing production:
``Unfortunately,'' she said, ``people don't take it seriously. They've been deceived by the government so often for 70 years that they've lost all faith in anything the government says. But at least they don't put us in jail because we say what we think.''
One insightful comment came from my cab driver.
``Gorbachev has the courage to tell us that socialism in the Soviet Union was a failure,'' he said. ``He's trying to correct the mistakes that have piled up over all these years. It's almost an impossible job. He needs help. He can't grow all the food and produce all the clothes and the shoes we need all by himself. The whole system has to be corrected. He needs outside help. We all need outside help.''
Money is not enough to solve the basic problem of the Soviet Union. The main need is to get the wheels of production turning. Gorbachev seeks not just political freedom but economic freedom. He wants a market economy. But offering incentives may not be enough. The knowledge base for a free enterprise system in the Soviet Union is too thin. It is not just the absence of government control. It is the presence of numberless gears in good working order - a managerial group that understands the organization and functioning of an industrial plant; a labor force that knows how to work with technology; a distribution system that uses refrigerated trucks or trains and warehouses; merchandising and retailing capabilities.
What the government of the US can most usefully do is to stand behind American business - both in meeting the present Soviet emergency and in creating long-term projects. The instability of the ruble right now is hardly an incentive to American business. But the value of currency is directly proportionate to the productivity of a society, and there is every likelihood that joint ventures between American business and Soviet government sources can begin to turn things around. With currency stabilization, convertibility of the ruble offers the prospect of reasonable profits.
Economic muscles won't happen overnight - in the Soviet Union or anywhere else. But evidence of progress, however slight, will go a long way in the Soviet Union today. The Soviet people have learned patience the hard way. Even a glimmering of hope will enable them to maintain or restore their trust in Gorbachev. He needs time. The United States is in a position to help him get it.