The Perils of Russia-Watching

DROVES of Sovietologists these days should be wearing dunce caps and standing ashamedly in the corner. None of them, whether of liberal ``revisionist'' or of conservative ``traditionalist'' persuasion, anticipated the rapid collapse of communism and the other dramatic events that have taken place throughout the communist world in 1989 and '90. No Western analyst came close to imagining such startling Soviet phenomena as official declarations of independence by most of the 15 republics, including the large Russian Republic; streets full of angry demonstrators waving the tsarist flag and denouncing Lenin and the official creed; a debate-ridden Supreme Soviet; above all, a Soviet government ready to cooperate with ``imperialist'' America along a number of promising avenues, including meaningful arms control.

Winston Churchill once described the USSR as ``a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.'' Prof. George F. Kennan, dean of Sovietologists, once told a group of Russian-studies scholars that in predicting Soviet events, ``there are only various species of ignoramuses.''

Yet to have caught no inkling whatever of the approaching sea change that has come over the Soviet empire during the past year and a half certainly leaves the arcane science of Kremlinology red-faced. That's why so many post mortems on flawed Sovietology are being published.

Four recent articles of this type, published in The New Republic, the British journal Encounter, and the French journal Geopolitique, mince no words. Prominent Sovietologists are singled out by name and raked over the coals. Sabre-sharp indictments are thrust at a number of academics by such eminent authorities as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Conquest, Wolfgang Leonhard, Lord Alun Chalfont, Alain Besancon, Francoise Thom, and Brian Crozier.

Their case against such colleagues, whom Conquest describes as ``harmful professors,'' as Jerry Hough (Duke), Seweryn Bialer (Columbia), Moshe Lewin (London School of Economics), and Archie Brown (Oxford) boils down to the accusation that they were taken in by Soviet propaganda. They were sold, say their accusers, on the possibility of progressive evolution of the Old System. In denying, as many of these campus Sovietologists did, that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian police state, the way was opened for a gross misunderstanding of contemporary communism and, above all, the powerful grass-roots opposition to it throughout the Soviet bloc.

As Brzezinski put it in his fiery indictment printed in the September number of Encounter, in the 1960s and 1970s Sovietology's wheels were thrown into reverse by ``revisionist'' scholars: ``The whole concept of totalitarianism was under great intellectual assault. One textbook after another denounced [the concept]. Instead, the contemporary Soviet Union was actually described by scholars as governed in a manner not fundamentally different from democracies of the West. Later some specialists even waxed enthusiastic on the reforms introduced by Brezhnev ....''

Today, of course, the Brezhnev regime, to the chagrin of the revisionists, is uncompromisingly scorned in the Soviet Union. It is bitterly excoriated for having put the brakes on even partial reform, for stolidly maintaining a rigid ``administrative-command'' and police-state government. Yet Hough had gone to great pains in various of his textbooks to ``prove'' that Brezhnev's Russia was not much different from Reagan's America.

Despite these indictments of ``liberal'' Sovietologists, however, they had one advantage over the traditionalists. Whereas the latter virtually ruled out any possibility of change whatever, given the permafrost Soviet totalitarian structure, militarism, and a cowed population, the ``revisionists'' always held out the hope that structural change eventually would occur. Hough, a ``quantifying'' behavioralist, tabulated the ages of new officials and assiduously tracked their various party assignments. His research convinced him that ``fathers and sons'' (as Russians call it) generational change was bound sooner or later to lead to Young Turk reformism in the USSR.

In this prediction he was partly right. The fight for change is largely spearheaded by members of the ``post-Stalin'' generation. Conservative Sovietologists, meanwhile, thought that the ``sons'' would merely try to better the ``fathers'' in devising new props for the Old System.

At first, indeed, the conservative analysts' expectations seemed to be borne out by what happened in 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev took over as a ``preserver'' of a slightly-altered system, rather than a reformer.

But popular pressures and creeping reformism within the Communist Party itself - overlooked by most observers - are becoming determinant factors influencing Soviet policymaking. To everyone's surprise that huge country seems to be nearing the nadir of anarchy, to be spinning out of control. As a result, it is likely to defy any scholarly prophecies concerning its future.

Perhaps this is why few Sovietologists dare make any predictions in these inscrutable times.

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