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From the Review section of the San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, September 24, 1989

THE LONG ROAD TO FREEDOM: Russia and Glasnost by Walter Laqueur (Charles Scribner's Sons; 315 pages; $19.95).

Reviewed By Jock O'Connell

There is an enduring popular fantasy in the West that, had it not been for the Bolshevik coup d'etat in 1917, Russia would have evolved into a liberal democracy much like the other major powers of Europe. Not surprisingly, the era of glasnost and perestroika is often perceived as Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign to put his country back on the road to political and economic freedom.

This new book by Walter Laqueur, one of America's leading authorities on Soviet affairs, is a potent antidote to such unwarranted beliefs and to the wildly optimistic expectations they generate. By drawing on his intimate knowledge of Russian history and contemporary social commentary in the USSR, the Georgetown University professor provides a lucid and balanced account of Soviet reforms under Gorbachev.

Laqueur is no Pollyanna. He is not at all encouraging about the future progress of freedom in the Soviet Union. Indeed, he thinks the champions of glasnost have gone about as far as they can for the time being. Much of his book describes the monumental economic and social problems faced by Soviet authorities as well as the considerable aversion to substantive reform that seems endemic to Soviet society. A synonym for publicity, glasnost is the essential but exceedingly risky ingredient in perestroika, the long overdue restructuring of a notoriously inefficient and wasteful economy. Before the Soviet system can remedy its ills, it must first overcome its natural instinct to cover them up. But can it? Since Soviet economic and social problems are structural in nature, serious reforms menace the system and those who derive power or security from the status quo.

The spasm of candor Gorbachev has unleashed is a novel and profoundly unnerving experience for most Soviet citizens, not merely those 18 million apparatchiks whose careers might be threatened by change. Soviet society, having long ago worked out a modus vivendi with authoritarian rule, is hesitant to exchange what is predictably bad for a world of uncertain promise.

Laqueur offers a fascinating look at political and social thought within the Soviet Union today. Although there are obvious constraints -- virtually no one within the USSR argues for the adoption of a western-style, pluralist democracy -- the spectrum of public opinion is much wider than generally assumed in the West. But, as Laqueur observes, Soviet opinion leans much more heavily toward the right than to the left and is, in fact, often downright hostile to Gorbachev's reforms. His discussion of the "Russian party," a powerful conservative movement with its disturbing mixture of nationalism, fascism and racism offers an especially emphatic rebuttal to those expecting greater liberalism in Soviet society.

Clearly, glasnost is not irreversible. Like the pro-democracy movement in China, glasnost and perestroika are a good deal more fragile than most press reports indicate. As a largely Moscow phenomenon, its intellectual impact -- there are as yet few material results -- is less and less evident as the distance from the Kremlin grows. And so it is likely to remain unless the Gorbachev reforms deliver the promised goods.

Admittedly, books are of limited use in assessing events that are still unfolding. The virtue of Walter Laqueur's volume is that it eschews the instant analysis favored by our increasingly peripatetic network news anchors. Instead it offers the sort of comprehensive briefing on Soviet society and politics that enables readers to more intelligently interpret future developments in the on-going drama of Soviet life.


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