STALIN'S SUCCESSORS ranks easily as one of the most timely, informative and thoughtful books on the U.S.S.R. in recent memory. Seweryn Bailer, Director of Columbia University's Institute of International Change, is a distinguished expert on Communist affairs, and the present volume is the result of years of personal observation and reflection, prodigious reading and scrupulous research. At a time when so much public discussion of the Soviet Union is dominated by the simple-minded formulas (all the way from the resurrected notion of the Communist Plan for World Conquest to the conviction that once SALT is ratified and the U.S. Department of Commerce removes its restriction on trade with the Soviet Union, the way will be cleared for a peaceful resolution of all outstanding East-West issues), it is salutary to have a work that asks us to set aside our penchant for facile or ideologically motivated assumptions, and to see the U.S.S.R. in a dispassionate and icily objective manner.

Brezhenev's Russia, says Professor Bialer, represents a distinctive state in the evolution of the Soviet system. Stalinism itself went through several phases, and it was the third -- that of "mature Stalinism" (not, I fear, the choicest of terms) that the Vozhd (Leader) bequeathed to his successors. This was a system totally subordinated to the will of a single dictator, governed by massive terror, inbued with a nationalistic and paramilitary ethos. Its economy was geared also exclusively to the goal of expansion regardless of human cost. The party and government elite enjoyed considerable privileges, yet these were largely vitiated by Stalin's adroit methods of preventing any of the overlapping bureaucaracies from acquiring too much power, as well as by the fear and insecurity that permeated all sectors of society. No wonder, then, that Stalin's death was greeted with relief by the men who administered his Byzantine empire, and that one of the first acts of the new leaders was to introduce a measure of greater stability into the system and their policies.

Bialer has interesting things to say about Khrushchev's interregnum, but central to his book is a detailed examination of the Brezhnev period. He has characterized this above all by what had been sorely missing under Stalin (and for different reasons, under Khrushchev) -- namely, overall stability. Under Brezhnev, the abolition of wholesale terror has been accompanied by an institutionalized system of rule and by a larger (though firmly circumscribed) degree of popular participation and public discussion -- if not, Bialer empasizes, about the merits of given policies, then at least about how to best implement them. The economic system has become more rational, and the basic material demands of the consumer have been satisfied more fully than ever before. The former boorish apparatchik lording it over his subjects has been gradually replaced by the more sophisticated and pragmatic professional. The lot of the peasants -- which under Stalin differed little from that of serfs in Tsarist Russia -- has improved, as has that of the industrial workers. While the last 10 years have seen the emergence of an impressive movement of political dissent, it does not pose a threat to the regime, which (for various reasons enumerated by Bialer) has been able to contain its potential impact on the rest of society. And the elite, no longer at the mercy of Stalin's malignant and manipulative whims, has already developed a strong sense of identification with the system as as whole.

To call attention to such resilience is not to say that it is bound to endure. In fact, behind the evidence of firmness and constancy Bailer detects an accumulation of forces that may seriously shake "the stability of the system . . . in the coming decades." One of them is the clash between the fierce (and in many respects repellent) nationalism of the ruling elite and the increasing assertiveness of the numerous ethnic groups in the U.S.S.R. Another one is the impending succession -- which, as Bialer demonstrates, will affect not only the aging top leadership, but many intermediate hierarchies, too. The stability of the Brezhnev regime has been attained at the price of a certain immobilism, a reluctance (or inability) to come to grips with the burgeoning problems of the Soviet society -- shelving them, as it were, for the future. There are many people who have become impatient with this state of affairs, who have their own ideas, and who are waiting for an opportunity to put them into effect.

By far the most acute problem facing the Soviet leaders is that of the economy. As Bialer puts it in his last, most compelling and most tightly argued chapter, "The Policies of Stingency": "The era of extensive Soviet economic development, when high rates of growth were assured through growing increments of labor and capital, is ending; and an already poor situation is aggravated tremendously by an impending energy crisis and by demographic trends." He supports his contention with a staggering array of data (e.g., on the precipitous explosion in Central Asia, whose Moslem inhabitants show little enthusiasm for migrating to points west of the Urals): and he argues eloquently that the only real solution would be a profound "reform [of] the entire system of planning and management." Yet far-reaching structural reforms are alien to a regime that has survived precisely because of its determination to sacrifice economic innovation for the sake of political stability. Will its successors follow the same course? What options do they have? Bialer (wisley enough) leaves the first question open, while dealing masterfully with the second.

The three chapters on foreign and military matters demonstate effectively the author's resolve to shun the easy answers and to illuminate a problem by giving due weight to all its shadings and comlexities. At the (unavoidable) risk of gross simplification, let me single out some of his conclusions: The recent Soviet military buildup is huge and inherently ominous. It has not been dictated by Moscow's wish to achieve strategic or even overall politcal superiority over the United States (which would be impossible), but rather by a set of factors including a particularly Soviet (and perhaps traditionally Russian) concept of national security. The latter is conditioned by pervasive fear of China, by (justifiable) doubts about Moscow's East European allies, and by a mixture of envy and fear of the United States. Another factor is Moscow's unflinchable resolve to attain the status of a global power, with all the consequences that would flow from it -- above all, the "right" of a superpower to attempt to increase its influence throughout the world (a "right" in the Soviet view, fully exercised by the United States). Soviet expansionism may be expected to continue, as will attempts to deploy military force. At the same time, the Soviets are determined to reach a military and political agreement with the West in order to avoid a confrontation likely to result in a nuclear holocaust. The competition between the two powers is bound to persist and may in fact become more acrimonious and dangerous -- that is, unless the West succeeds in persuading the Soviets that they have much to fear as well as (preferably) much to hope from the United States and its allies. Broadly speaking, this would involve firm resistance to aggression combined with a readiness to seek negotiable solutions.

For all its merits, Stalin's Successors is not without flaws. With some notable exceptions, it is marred by a malaise afflicting so much political writing these days: a profusion of footnotes, many of them of questionable relevance, a preocupation with sundry theoretical "models" and "paradigms," often equally if not more irrelevant to the subjects under discussion, and the use of a dense professional jargon calculated to leave the general reader (for whom -- among others -- the book is intended ) pining for fresh air. What, for instance, is one to make of the following sentence:

"Third, with regards to the symbolic spheres of all diverse functional and organizational elite segments, and especially with regard to those segments whose primary functions themselves are in the area of the symbolic integration of elites and of society, the development and expression of norms and values which would conflict with the core values of the political regime are forcefully and unhesitatingly counteracted and contained, and the primacy of the latter rigidly preserved."

Surely there are simpler was to say that the Soviet regime resists democratization?

To move to more substantive matters, I am afraid Bialer, in his commendable effort to draw necessary distinctions, occasionally resorts to parallels and generalizations that are dubious at best, misleading at worst, "Bolshevism in power," he writes, "in theory and practice, and among all its factions, was strongly authoritarian; but to equate it with mature Stalinism is similiar to the equation of authoritarian tendencies in the American polity with fascism." Well, I rather think that even "immature" -- let alone "mature" -- Stalinism had far more in common with the system that spawned it than any "authoritarian" movements in the United States share with Mussolini's Italy, Peron's Argentina, or Hitler's Germany. Similarly, while Bialer is on the whole right in stressing the limited appeal of the dissidents and the population's willy-nilly acceptance of the system, he fails, in my opinion, to give adequate weight to the potentially explosive nature of widespread grumbling and discontent about the lack of the most elementary staples of food and consumer goods -- one that can easily be affected by developments such as the current upheaval in Poland. On November 11, The New York Times Moscow correspondents reported on conversations overheard at one of the ubiquitous store-queues. "Look at Poland," said one man, "they don't like to stand in line. They're doing something about it." An atypical comment? Or perhaps a straw in the wind? The fact is that there have been numerous accounts of increasing popular impatience and resentment, and of the regime's anxiety about the contagious effects of Poland's unrest on neighboring Lithuania, Ukraine -- and beyond. Perhaps such evidence does not have the force of aggregated statistics. Yet it can hardly be discounted.

One could cite other examples; what they amount to are not fundamental errors of fact or judgment, but rather the misguided offspring of Bialer's compulsion for punctiliousness and objectivity. His future works, one hopes, will skirt such traps. In the meantime, he has given us a wise and enlightening book -- one, I feel certain, that will long be used as a major source for an understanding of today's U.S.S.R., and of its possible shape in the years to come.