If anyone at the Soviet Embassy wondered just what was being published under the name of Mikhail Gorbachev and titled "Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World," publisher Simon Michael Bessie had the answer yesterday morning.
"This is a proud day," Bessie said. "It's a real book."
He even said it twice: "A real book." This description may have been akin to the doctor in the Charles Addams cartoon coming out of the delivery room to say "It's a baby" to the odd-looking father. But the point, Bessie said, was that the 256-page book was more than an "amassing of propaganda." In fact, he said, the Soviet leader had let himself be edited.
"We did find areas where we thought ideas could be more clearly expressed. He accepted perhaps 50 percent of our suggestions."
Under the imprint of Cornelia and Michael Bessie, the book will be distributed by Harper & Row, which has published writing by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of "The Gulag Archipelago" and e'migre' archfoe of the Communists.
"That's the first time I've heard of that," said Ambassador Yuri Dubinin, after accepting a copy of Gorbachev's book.
The press conference was not accompanied by the usual balloons, bumper stickers and announcements of a 26-city author tour (plus appearances on "Good Morning America" and selected call-in shows). There were hardly any chairs, so everybody stood while Dubinin read a long statement about the Soviet-American relationship and mutual understanding. There weren't even any books -- they'll hit the stores in about two weeks -- except the one that Michael Bessie handed to Dubinin.
It was an impromptu affair, apparently triggered by a press conference in Moscow yesterday to announce the publication of 300,000 copies in Russian. Dubinin also pointed out that the Soviet Union is about to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Russian revolution, and after throwing in a mention of an impending agreement with the United States to get rid of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, he said he found "meaning" in this confluence. The Soviets may be even more obsessed than Americans with coordinating public events and anniversaries.
The press conference was a surprise and "not entirely voluntary," said Bessie. "Obviously we would have preferred it if the press had been able to see copies of the book."
"We heard about it about 10 minutes before it started," said his wife Cornelia, who added that she and her husband had merely expected to come to Washington to present a copy to the ambassador.
For those who can't wait for the book to go on sale at $19.95, there is an excerpt in this week's U.S. News & World Report. In that sample, Gorbachev proves to be a knitter of generalities in a style reminiscent of American party platforms and those full-page newspaper advertisements heralding less-developed countries' latest developments, such as improved Romanian potash production. It follows the modulated tone that Gorbachev took yesterday in a speech commemorating the Bolshevik revolution -- decrying the excesses that occurred under Stalin, but balancing criticism with praise for his industrialization and collectivization.
"We carry out all our transformations in accordance with socialist options, and we are looking for answers to questions brought up by life within the framework of socialism," Gorbachev writes, signaling to those made by uneasy by perestroika, or restructuring, that the policies accompanied by the better-known glasnost, or openness, will not be carried too far too fast. "We are measuring all our successes and mistakes by socialist yardsticks."
He proposes an easing of centralized control of economic planning and production, and working from the bottom up.
"We should start with enterprises and amalgamations, the main link in the economic chain. We should start with finding the most effective economic model for them, then create the optimum economic conditions, extend and consolidate their rights, and only on that basis introduce fundamental changes in the activity of all higher echelons of economic management."
Even if the book fails to be a page-turner, it will probably be a must on policy makers' coffee tables, which will help account for a portion of sales of the 200,000-copy first American printing.
"It's been called 'the book of the year by the statesman of the year,' " said Michael Bessie.
Lately, a few hairline cracks have appeared in the brimming teacup of Gorbachev's public image of self-assurance and success. He refused to set a date for his long-expected trip to Washington, then reversed himself and said he'd be here on Dec. 7. Also, one of his strongest allies, Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin, recently came under attack by other senior party leaders during a dust-up over the perestroika reforms. Dubinin denied any fissures, however: "I can point to no dissent or lack of unity in the Central Committee. There is no opposition to perestroika." But he added, "We are not saying that perestroika goes by itself. It is something very difficult."
In his speech in Moscow yesterday, Gorbachev himself criticized a "certain increase in the resistance of the conservative forces" in the Soviet Union.
Sovietologists will be able to pore over the U.S. News excerpt for hidden meanings. Among lay readers, those most likely to be worried or outraged are American feminists.
Long accustomed to citing the high percentage of women in the Soviet work force -- the fact that a majority of Soviet doctors are women has been a favorite example -- they will see Gorbachev urging study of "what we should do to make it possible for women to return to their purely womanly mission." The problem, he writes, is that "engaged in scientific research, working on construction sites, in production and in the services and involved in creative activities, women no longer have enough time to perform their everyday duties at home -- housework, the upbringing of children and the creation of a good family atmosphere. We have discovered that many of our problems -- in children's and young people's behavior, in our morals, culture and in production -- are partially caused by the weakening of family ties. This is a paradoxical result of our sincere desire to make women equal with men in everything."
The book, which closely follows the publication of a collection of Gorbachev's speeches, will be published in at least 17 other countries and "all the major languages," Bessie said. He refused to say how much money Gorbachev will be paid, but pointed out that it will go to a Soviet government agency in charge of copyrights.
Meanwhile, Dubinin did his bit to push sales. Asked about how he could reconcile his denial of dissent over perestroika with Gorbachev's statement that reforms aren't happening fast enough, he said, "All I can say is, read the book."