ON MY COUNTRY AND THE WORLD

By Mikhail Gorbachev

Translated From the Russian by

George Shriver

Columbia Univ. 300 pp. $29.95

YELTSIN'S RUSSIA

Myths and Reality

By Lilia Shevtsova

Carnegie Endowment. 341 pp. $44.95; Paperback, $19.95

Reviewed by Abraham Brumberg

Though a confirmed Gorbachev groupie, I find it difficult to lavish praise on his newest oeuvre, On My Country and the World. More is the pity, for there is probably no other man in recent history who did so much to alter the political map of Europe and bring to an end the scourging Cold War that haunted the world for half a century. Pace President Reagan, conservative Republican and Democratic politicians, intellectual warriors a la Norman Podhoretz and others, the Soviet Union did not collapse because of U.S. military supremacy nor because of capitalist superiority. It collapsed because of its burgeoning flaws and contradictions and the corrosive decline that an antiquated organism could no longer cope with. A real challenge to surmount these blights could not come from without; it had to spring from within the bowels of the Soviet establishment.

Which is precisely what happened more than forty years ago, when Nikita Khrushchev, for all his one-time slavish devotion to the Soviet dictator, launched his campaign of "destalinization." Yet there was only so much Khrushchev could or would do. In 1946, George Orwell put it starkly: "Either the Russian regime will democratize itself or it will perish."

When Mikhail Gorbachev came onto the scene, the conditions for a real attempt to transform the Soviet system were far more propitious. Moreover, Gorbachev was not a Khrushchev doppelganger: Long revolted by Stalinist policies, open to Western values, lacking his predecessors' need for personal glory, he turned, bit by bit, from a haphazard Leninist into what was, for all intents and purposes, a social democrat.

This process, and why Gorbachev, for all his astonishing successes and good intentions, could not consummate it have been examined before by many scholars and journalists, and for that matter by Gorbachev himself. Why, then, is his new book so disappointing? For one thing, it is not exactly "new," its nearly 300 pages consisting of recycled speeches, statements and interviews. Of the three major sections, only one, dealing with the last two troubled years of his tenure, focuses on the actual events of those years, leading up to the comic-opera putsch in August 1991, which, while a fiasco, sealed Gorbachev's fate.

Yet unhappily even this section does not amplify what he has already told us in The August Coup: The Truth and Its Lessons, published in 1991. Moreover, many of Gorbachev's observations border on the insipid. Was socialism built in the Soviet Union? he asks challengingly -- yes and no. Collectivization was "astonishingly cruel, a terrible blow was dealt to the countryside." But "were alternatives possible?" Yes, says Gorbachev, but "they were condemned and cast aside" -- ignoring who exactly it was who "condemned" them and who benefited from the condemnation. Obiter dicta parade as sagacities -- e.g., "the roots of the crisis of contemporary civilization lie in a profound separation from the genuine interests of humanity." And so on.

My Country and the World makes it clear why more and more Russians came to regard Gorbachev as something of a blabbermouth. Amid a frightful economic situation, with shops running out of goods and those goods that were available prohibitively expensive, disillusionment and bitterness grew, and disclosures about Stalin and others, so electrifying when they first appeared, now seemed a bore. In the meantime, Gorbachev's capacity for turgid speech-making did not diminish by a hair. I remember an exasperated Russian woman who taught American Government in Sverdlovsk saying to me: "I can't take it. This man's weakness for filibustering rhetoric is absolutely insufferable!"

Gorbachev, as these pages unhappily illustrate, rattles on, and he is not a particularly profound or innovative thinker. Yet we must not forget that initially his views, whether on the need for greater pluralism in Soviet life or for a "new thinking" in international relations, were delightfully fresh, original and revelatory. This was when they mattered; this is what made them so original, in this lies Gorbachev's inordinate strength and the key to his remarkable achievements. His latest book, for all its blemishes, is a forceful reminder of it. One can only hope that one of these days his countrymen will again come to pay him the honor of gratefully acknowledging this truth.

Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality, by Lilia Shevtsova, is a bird of a different plumage. Shevtsova has for years been virtually her country's only Sovietologist (or Russianist, as she would probably be referred to now) who has opted for the snappier and social-science-garbed categories favored in the West instead of the opacity typical of Russian political writing. This was welcomed by the Western Sovietologists associated with think tanks such as the Rand Corporation, the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who promptly secured Shevtsova a position as a senior associate in its headquarters in Washington and in its office in Moscow.

The result of her work is an opus that covers the 10 years of Yeltsin's reign and ends with some ruminations about the future. Although most of those events have already been treated quite extensively, in books by Jonathan Steele, Anatole Lieven and Robert Daniels (see in particular the latter's Russia's Transformation: Snapshots of a Crumbling System), Shevtsova provides additional interesting details and some shrewd observations. In particular, she is good at illuminating the Stalinist and even pre-Stalinist roots of some of the most odious features of the Yeltsin era (democratic changes of the past decade and a half notwithstanding), such as lawlessness, corruption, sanctimonious rhetoric, outright lies and criminal methods used or contemplated in dealing with Yeltsin's enemies. (My favorite was the suggestion by Yeltsin's long-time associate Gennadi Burbulis, a consummate cynic and former "professor of Marxism-Leninism," that high-frequency radiation be used as a means of "discouraging" anti-government demonstrations.)

But in the end, what does the author tell us? Like so many of her Western colleagues, Shevtsova seems to lack a sense of the absurd. She discusses "economic reforms" and their tergiversations even though, as has been pointed out by many analysts, nearly all of them have amounted to massive theft and led to the creation of social disparities far more drastic than those under communism and in most capitalist countries, and to the collusion between the criminal Mafias and the government apparatura. She leaves no stone unturned in scouting every twist and turn of Yeltsin's political shenanigans, every cabinet reshuffling, without stopping to consider that these steps (invariably welcomed by Strobe Talbott and others as yet another breakthrough to a democratic system) had in fact no deeper meaning than another attempt by Yeltsin to keep his nose above water. There is nothing in her study about the appalling health and environmental problems faced by Russia, which threaten its very existence; there is nothing about the lunacy of its foreign policies that have led it to launch the obscene attacks on Chechnya in the name of "national security": All this, apparently, is of no concern to a political scientist specializing in the Soviet Union.

At a loss to find the mot juste ("political pluralism in Russia remains weak," she observes in what must rank as the Sovietological understatement of the day), Shevtsova resorts to an avalanche of terms. The Soviet regime, she says, was one "in which elements of democracy, authoritarianism, post-totalitarianism, delegate democracy [what, that too?], bureaucratic authoritarianism, oligarchic rule, sultanism, and even monarchy are intertwined," although it is "unlikely," she adds in a baffling aside, "that the outcome in Russia will be a Latin American-style military coup."

Well, thank God for that.

Abraham Brumberg has written widely on Russia.