From the Review section of the San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, October 21, 1990

SOVIET UNION 2000: Reform or Revolution


Walter Laqueur et al.

Reviewed by Jock O'Connell

A joke making the rounds in Moscow earlier this year held that there were two ways -- one realistic, the other fantastic -- for resolving the deepening crisis of the Soviet economy. The realistic way called for people from outer space to come and sort out the nation's ills, while the fantastic solution assumed the Soviet people could straighten things out all by themselves.

In Soviet Union 2000: Reform or Revolution, Walter Laqueur and five colleagues assess the prospects for the "fantastic" solution. One of America's leading authorities on the Soviet Union, Laqueur is currently with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. In assembling this work, his aim was to put the complex economic-political-ideological-nationalist challenges confronting the Kremlin leadership into a manageable, future-oriented perspective. Had he pulled it off, this would volume have significantly aided our understanding of the sometimes perplexing developments unfolding inside the other superpower.

Regrettably, though, this is a disappointing book. Very simply, the authors bite off far more than they can satisfactorily chew in a series of relatively brief essays. (The entire book comes in at just under 200 pages.) Even worse, there is a nagging suspicion that Laqueur has merely cobbled together a few friends' treatises for the purpose of manufacturing a "new" book on a hot topic.

As in many such academic smorgasbords, much of this work involves repetitious descriptions of the same points. And even though the book breaks little new ground in scholarship, this is no entry-level text. Rather, the authors seem to be writing for an already well-informed readership even though such readers would paradoxically be among the least likely to find what these authors have to say to be very compelling or original.

Moreover, because it tries to cover so many bases, the book is not especially helpful to anyone desiring more detailed information about specific aspects of contemporary life in the Soviet Union. For example, American business executives pondering commercial ventures in the U.S.S.R. will not find the book very useful. (Those seeking a superior introduction to recent Soviet affairs might try Laqueur's 1989 solo effort, The Long Road to Freedom (Scribner's), which has just been issued in paperback.)

Laqueur himself contributes three of the book's eight chapters. While he writes cogent essays, he sets the tone for his colleagues by dishing yesterday's hash. The exhausted state of the Soviet economy is analyzed by Gur Ofer of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ofer reaches the hardly startling conclusion that the public's fear of change is a major obstacle to economic reform. Similarly pedestrian is the assessment of the centrifugal forces of nationalism by former State Department and CIA analyst Paul A. Goble.

Conservative defense analyst Edward Luttwak predictably aspires to the Cassandra role with his discordant chapter on the continued modernization of Soviet military capabilities under Gorbachev. John Erickson of the University of Edinburgh deals with the political role of the Soviet army in an age of perestroika. Finally, in a largely pointless but perhaps obligatory chapter, Princeton University professor Arthur Waldron examines the future of Sino-Soviet relations.

The book's contributors cautiously hedge their collective bet. They do feel that, given the magnitude and complexity of the problems facing the Soviet Union, the chances of Gorbachev, Yeltsin or anyone else pulling off successful economic reforms in the near future are exceedingly slim. Nonetheless, as Laqueur writes, "total breakdown seems almost equally unlikely."

That may be the case. But the impression one gets is that the authors base this conclusion on nothing more substantial than their sheer inability to imagine the Soviet Union dissolving into chaos.

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