The crisis in the Baltics makes it ever harder to keep up confidence in Mikhail Gorbachev as a reformer and to evade the question of whether his weakening, loss of nerve, return to true roots or collapse, whatever it is, will allow Soviet foreign policy to stay on the friendly and cooperative track of the past few years.
In foreign policy circles in both countries, there is a longing not to break stride. The State Department is protective of a link that has delivered much and promised even more in the American interest, not least the forthcoming summit and strategic arms reduction treaty. The naming of a reform-minded professional, envoy to Washington, Alexander Bessmertnykh, to replace the resigned Eduard Shevardnadze as Soviet foreign minister marks Gorbachev's bid to confirm his American connection.
Under the surface, nonetheless, the surge of unreconstructed police and military tendencies in the Soviet Union threatens the still-fragile structure of Soviet-American collaboration, constructed as it was on our expectation of their steady reform. Complaints by Moscow hard-liners that Gorbachev's foreign and defense policies have carelessly eroded Soviet power and prestige are a part of the burden he now bears.
The Bush administration struggles to keep a tight focus on the Persian Gulf, where Moscow is supporting American policy -- true, from the rear. The president is coming under broad pressure to react to Moscow's Baltic repressions by moving farther along the spectrum that starts with verbal condemnations and ends with a return to the Cold War.
The administration should be reacting stiffly. Soviet historian Yuri Afanasyev, writing just after Shevardnadze's resignation (New York Review of Books, Jan. 31), surveyed the possibility that Gorbachev might get a quick financial and technological fix from the Western democracies and warned that the Soviet empire was "quite capable of imposing its power over the looming crises in its component nations ... "
Still, because the Soviet-American stakes are so high and because the Soviet situation is still in flux, the administration should not be rushing to write off Gorbachev and the Kremlin altogether.
Some Americans on the right argue that Gorbachev, by drawing his country back to domestic renewal and by committing to a course that promises internal convulsions way out to the horizon, has already made the single great international contribution that it was in the Kremlin's power to make. By this outlook, a Soviet Union that now goes sour, having retreated from the world, cannot return to it in any more than a mischief-making and symbolic way, and the United States should shed its illusions and make the best of it.
But this argument rests on a cynical premise that the misery and incapacitation of the Soviet Union are its best features and that they can be put to American advantage. It ignores the risks to human dignity and international stability (including a Gulf settlement) that could be posed by a Soviet turn back to authoritarianism. It ignores the possibilities of enlightened cooperation.
There is not reason yet to equate the conservative trend in the Kremlin with a conservative takeover. I recall, with some personal chagrin, the demands made on the early Bush administration to show confidence that perestroika was "irreversible." The Bush people caught up to this standard just in time to witness Soviet reform start going into reverse. It is a cautionary lesson to those who would project any movement in Soviet politics, in any direction, out to the end. Better to hedge a bit and see how events go.
This is the approach taken by a wise American historian, Robert C. Tucker (The New Republic, Jan. 21). He leaves open the possibility of another historically familiar Russian cycle in which reform breaks down into unrest, disorder and civil war, but he is also eager to see Soviet democracy triumph and, if circumstances permit (at the moment they don't), to see Americans help.
I have been listening to Stravinsky's still-phenomenal "The Rite of Spring," written on the eve of the Russian Revolution. As Stravinsky knew -- recall those slabs of dissonant sound, those primitive spiky rhythms -- spring was no gentle thing but a savage wrenching. A critic wrote that Stravinsky was responsive to "the spontaneous music of life and nature" in Russia. You could add that he was anticipating a couple of political springs, first the Russian Revolution and then Gorbachev's effort to undo part of that failed revolution 70 years later. "The Rite of Spring" ends with the hopeful flutter of a flute, nailed into place by a hard-won orchestral chord.