The Soviet Union has reached the peak of its military power by reducing its economy to a shambles. If it continues to lavish its resources on the military, the economy will further decline, eventually imperiling the military budget. If the Soviets shift investment to the civilian economy, less money will remain for guns. If the Politburo permits significant economic reform through decentralization and free markets, the effect on Eastern Europe, China, and other communist countries would politically destabilize the Soviet Empire. The Soviets are stuck and will probably try to improve the existing system rather than reform it. Soviet leaders have no option but to continue to rely upon the same cold-war rhetoric so often used to galvanize the citizenry into action. Such is the general thesis of The Soviet Paradox by Seweryn Bialer.

Bialer is, in some ways, as perplexing as the Soviet Union itself. A leading Sovietologist and director of the Research Institute for Internal Change at Columbia University, he has written a comprehensive and lucid book on Soviet domestic and foreign policy. Based on the latest research of a wide variety of Sovietologists, his major conclusions are measured and insightful. Chapters on the dynamics of leadership, succession, and the problems of systemic reform are especially illuminating. Now and then, though, the author lapses into statements that suggest that he has perhaps taken one too many trips to Moscow.

In a chapter on “Assumptions and Perceptions,” Bialer writes: “Unlike the Nazis, the Soviets do not want war with their adversaries. They do not propagandize or glorify offensive military action as the means by which to achieve their international goals.” If Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and those annual November military parades through Red Square do not evidence a Soviet eagerness for war, they make clear, at least, that they want peace on their own terms. But that’s all Hider said he wanted. Elsewhere, Bialer discusses recent Soviet military adventures—which makes his assertion about Soviet reluctance for war all the more curious.

Even more dubious is Bialer’s assertion that “in Stalin’s day true believers could and did excuse and accept the cruelty, viciousness, and oppressiveness of the Soviet construction of socialism as long as they believed that it represented the extreme and unique birth pangs of a better world.” Stalin’s henchmen were probably not so idealistic. The evidence indicates they were terrified that if they did not torture and execute with sufficient enthusiasm, they themselves and their families would become victims. The theory that Stalin had to be cruel to modernize and improve the Soviet Union was never provable, and 68 years after the Revolution, the Soviet Union is still a comparatively primitive and backward country.

Like other commentators, Bialer favorably describes Mikhail Gorbachev as “suave, witty, and vigorous.” Bialer says nothing about the lapses in Comrade Gorbachev’s suavity when asked in public about the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. Bialer’s favorable assessment of Gorbachev similarly fails to explain why the Soviet leader so crudely mishandled the Chernobyl disaster. And Gorbachev still prefers to subject political troublemakers to forced psychiatric imprisonment rather than impale them on a witty bon mot.

Bialer discusses the American policy of détente, which some analysts date to May of 1972 with the signing of Salt I and the Agreement on Basic Principles of Relations. Like most, Bialer believes détente was dead by 1979 with the invasion of Afghanistan, and really dead with the 1981 imposition of martial law in Poland. But arguably, détente died as early as the October War of 1973 between Egypt and Israel, when we learned that at the time the Soviets signed Salt I they were preparing the Egyptians for war against Israel. Or you could date the death of détente in December of 1974 with the passage of the Stevenson Amendment on the Export-Import Bank Bill limiting loans to the Soviets for the next four years. The fall of Vietnam in April of 1975, the introduction of Cuban troops in Angola in late 1975, the Soviet airlift to Ethiopia in the fall of 1977, and Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December of 1978 all belied any meaningful sense of détente—though Bialer would, implausibly, like to see a sobered version of the policy revived.

Bialer believes that “the age of ideological crusades, with their high level of emotionalism and self-righteousness, is over, at least for the great powers.” Specialists on the Soviet Union have been saying this for 30 years, and yet even a cursory look at the latest Party Program shows that the Soviets still zealously defend their system as legitimate and attack ours as illegitimate. Bialer himself admits that worsening domestic circumstances will force party leaders to employ ideological rhetoric to inspire new economic sacrifices. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan has again dared to label the “evil empire” and champion distinctively American values in foreign policy.

In a work that stresses Soviet economic problems, Bialer incredibly claims that “hunger in the Soviet Union has been abolished.” That statement must warm the heart of the Soviet host for Bialer’s many Moscow visits. From available documents, we know that rickets, a disease caused by vitamin deficiency—virtually unknown in the U.S.—is widespread and was found in two out of every five dead infants in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970’s. The Soviet infant mortality rate runs three times higher than the American rate. Why are all those well-fed babies dying?

Bialer blames the Reagan Administration for the “deterioration” in U.S.-USSR relations. Reagan’s harsh rhetoric was “impossible for the [Soviet] leaders and elites to swallow, especially as they followed so suddenly upon a decade of civility.” The Vietnamese, Ethiopians, Afghans, and Angolans share a keen appreciation for the civility of the 70’s.

To improve U.S.-Soviet relations, Bialer proposes more regular communication and exchanges at all levels from summits on down to the little people “on the basis of strict reciprocity.” This will be difficult, since by making nongovernmental exchanges equal, all private groups from the U.S. would have to be controlled, staffed, and led by the CIA, a comparatively small and benign organization when compared with the KGB.

This is an important book in many respects, but one can’t help but think Bialer has been at the Soviet exchange trough too many times. He must be perpetually applying for the next Soviet visa and wondering how his scholarship will play in Moscow.


[The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline, by Seweryn Bialer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) $21.95]