Konstantin Chernenko, homey Russian proverb at the ready, came into public view for the first time this week -- in Dusko Doder's solo interview -- almost exactly 20 years to the day after a Soviet leader who was rarely out of public view, Nikita Khrushchev, was deposed.
I'd met Khrushchev two years earlier, in 1962, with a group of American journalists who interviewed him in the same Kremlin chamber. The stubby, peasant- born leader was wearing one of those unlikely well-tailored suits that Nina Petrovna was said to have ordered for him in Italy. He fidgeted with pencils (made at Sacco and Vanzetti Pencil Factory No. 1) during the translation, impatient to resume talking. There was no aide at his elbow to ensure that the thread was not lost. He declared, among other things, that Russia had both an "unstoppable" missile and an anti-missile missile that could "hit a fly in space." That was the story, though we, and perhaps he, didn't really know what it meant.
It was exciting, and not just because the interview made the front page of Pravda as well as The Post. The Cuban missile crisis, creating the sense of immense nuclear fragility against which subsequent peace initiatives came to be measured and treasured, had not yet occurred, and Khrushchev was keeping the flame hot under Berlin. Yet there was an unmistakable if vague sense of promise in the air, emanating from his authenticity as a personality and his fabulous record of having dismantled Stalin's terror.
Two years later, Khrushchev, while vacationing, was "liberated'" from his duties "in view of advanced age (70) and deterioration of health," as the official lie put it. Actually, he was kicked out for the umiliation in Cuba and for wanting to change too many things too fast -- even Russian spelling. His public fingerprints were quickly removed: a new page for April 17, without note of his birthday, was sent around for the standard desk calendars.
Still, Khrushchev left an abiding mark, not least, I have always thought, on the generation of American students of the Soviet Union who came of political age in his time. The mark was the cautious expectation -- sometimes, to confess, the not-so-cautious expectation -- that the Soviet system, supposedly frozen in political permafrost, could thaw, could be changed from the top down, could admit internal reform. The same system, it followed, could share with Americans a perception of a common nuclear fate and could become a partner of the United States in making a more peaceful world. All this could happen, that is, if the right person ran the show.
Today, of course, the mood is more sober. People in the West are not so ready as they once were to suspend disbelief in the Soviet system's built-in conservatism and immunity to change. The example of Khrushchev's vigor ("My nature does not permit me to keep quiet and not criticize if I see faults in work") has faded, to be replaced by the example of the smothering of his vigor. The controlling image of the Soviet system in the Western mind emphasizes its bureaucratic, consensus-seeking and historically perverse qualities.
"You might smile," said a Polish writer, Jerzy Lovell, "but I would call Khrushchev the 'last romantic of the revolution' -- if you take romanticism as an excess of imagination unsupported by judgment, a belief in the unlimited possibilities of human nature and the certainty that some individuals are geniuses with a special calling." True, the romantics are gone. In their place are organization men, clerks, of whom Chernenko is surely one.
The reversion to the post-Khrushchev Soviet leadership to type forces a new requirement on Americans struggling to find some basis for hope that things will get better rather than worse. It is not possible, if it ever really was, to imagine that one remarkable man in the Kremlin can somehow shake the Soviet Union into a new orbit. Nor is it possible to expect that the two societies, both being large industrial structures, will tend to "converge" and shed the social and cultural distinctions that feed their hostility.
Nor, from their point of view, can the Soviets realistically expect American society to be made over into the distorted pictures of FDR (seen strictly as an anti-Nazi partner) and John Kennedy (as a test-ban partner) that Moscow often holds up for purposes of invidious comparison with Reagan.
The requirement on both sides is for sobriety, more empathy, careful demands, modest expectations and a readiness to keep on plugging for a safer world. These are the essential post-Khrushchev virtues.