I confess—I know Russian. This ability has been causing me a lot of irritation lately. I have been bombarded with questions from people who don’t know the language, about what is really going on in Moscow now. In my answers, in order to be absolutely unbiased, I always rely on “Pravda.” I mean not just the Russian word which implies “truth”; I am also talking about Pravda, the major organ of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Because from Pravda, much more than from any other Soviet publication, can one deduce the tone of the current internal debates, and decipher the real meaning of the dispatches sent by the Party to all segments of the society, from an impoverished kolkhoz to the strategic naval force.

I usually only glance through Pravda (and even that I do rarely), but after the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in December 1987,1 was curious enough to take an issue of the paper and examine it thoroughly. Several months later, I repeated the procedure, and this is the result of my impressions.

Compared to, say, a major American daily, which can break your leg if you drop it, Pravda is very meager—it has just six or occasionally eight pages. The front page is devoted mainly to domestic affairs and to the leading editorial, a broad Politburo directive of the day.

In the December 1987 issue, the editorial called for the Communists to be at the avant-garde of the struggle for more effective management of kolkhozes and factories. Directly beneath it was a large photograph of a middle-aged man in a three-piece suit with medals, standing next to a lathe, explaining something to a young machinist dressed in overalls. “A Dedicated Communist and a Hero of Socialist Labor, Machinist Grishin Shares His Experience,” the caption said. Also on the front page were a number of short reports from different regions of the country, some praising, some critical: milk quotas had been fulfilled in Kirghizia, but four million mole pelts were rotting in a warehouse in Vologda; transport workers were doing a good job in Yakutia, but furniture manufacturers in Georgia were making shaky stools. One item voiced the complaints of a provincial Party official about the inadequate number of propagandists who could explain the nature of glasnost to people in the provinces, while another informed the Soviet reader of the creation in Moscow—in the spirit of the new friendship—of a joint Soviet-American commission to study the problem of dancing.

The front page of the current Pravda is almost the same, except that instead of one photo of a Hero of Socialist Labor there are three—of a woman plasterer, a steelworker, and a combine-operator—and the short reports from the provinces are a bit more critical: yes, the coal miners of Pavlodar fulfilled their work quotas, and the kolkhozniks of Zaporozhye exported watermelons to Poland, but the locker rooms in an elementary school were painted badly and a nurse was rude to an elderly patient.

However, while there is no significant difference between the December 1987 and the present issues of Pravda, an unbiased observer has to admit that some change is noticeable. There are now more reports denouncing apparatchiks and blaming them for the country’s ills than there were before. But the West should not get too excited. As has happened so many times in the past, once again the blame is placed squarely on individuals (Stalin, Brezhnev, Chernenko, or some middle-level provincial party hacks). In all these reports, there is not even a hint that maybe there is something wrong with the fundamentals—Marx’s teachings or Lenin’s methods and there is no attempt to look honestly at the communist system. On the contrary, Pravda‘s current leitmotif is a nostalgia for “True Leninism.”

This is why Gorbachev’s perestroika is so different in principle from what went on in Hungary in 1956, or in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Those were honest attempts either to alter the system substantially, as in Prague, or toss it out entirely, as in Budapest.

Not so in Moscow.

As Robert Novak has observed, what is now happening in Moscow is not a process of genuine democratization (which according to even the latest Amnesty International report is not taking place), but a desperate attempt at modernization—a backward 19th-century police state trying to transform itself into an efficient 21st-century police state.

After Brezhnev’s death, the Soviet economy found itself in a precarious condition. To survive as a modern state and not slide down to the level of, say, Ghana, the Soviet Union had to do something quickly. If we use as a metaphor for Brezhnev’s Soviet Union people in rags polishing tanks, then it simply became apparent to the younger Politburo generation that to polish the tanks efficiently one needs modern polishing equipment (thus the renewed passes to the West), and that people in rags should, from time to time, be given at least a new pair of galoshes, or they will turn in an extremely inadequate performance. (Thus the slight relaxation in the stranglehold over the economy and the censorship of literature.)

Pravda is a peculiar paper. In order to get important information, one has to read between the lines. A brief piece in the December 1987 issue was revealing. Unobtrusively tucked away in the corner of the page, it informed the reader of a Politburo meeting on Soviet foreign policy held shortly after Gorbachev’s return from the Washington summit.

Squeezed between praises for his achievements in the US and salutes to his performance at the Warsaw Pact Conference which followed, was a half-sentence about the Politburo decision to modernize the entire Soviet railroad system. Why was such a purely domestic policy project included in so important a foreign policy meeting, and why was a project of this magnitude given such scanty treatment in Pravda? Could it be that the Politburo, immediately after signing one missile treaty, and with another in the works (with all the verification provisions), had adopted its rarely-mentioned project of constantly moving missiles around on railroad tracks to make them undetectable? Understandably, comrade-members would not be eager to overpublicize that.

They didn’t mind, though, overpublicizing the successful pencil production in Syktyvkar, or the conference in Moscow in which participants gave speeches with titles like: “Measures to Accelerate Augmentation of the Country’s Food Resources on the Basis of Developing Agro-Industrial Integration and Cooperation and Converting Enterprises to Full Economic Accountability and Self-Financiation.”

Since the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam are brought up so often by the American press, it is interesting to see how Pravda treats the Afghanistan issue. Well, it treats it, plain and simple, as a nonissue. There is an occasional upbeat report about the Red Army’s brotherly help to the Afghan peasants fighting feudal-capitalist bandits, or a dull editorial on the blossoming cooperation between the two communist countries.

Once in a while, one can spot something significant. The December 1987 Pravda informed its readers about the Central Committee’s plan to “develop direct links between the regions and districts of Afghanistan with the regions and districts of the Soviet Union,” including common water and energy supplies and interchange of party cadres. This casually reported plan amounted to nothing less than an attempt to absorb Afghanistan physically into the Soviet Union.

This was, of course, several months ago. An article in the current issue, entitled “An Uneasy Road to Peace,” is about the throng of refugees coming back from Pakistan, the “Peace Hotels” built for them by the Communist government, and the beloved leader Najibullah greeting his returning brethren. The tone of this article remarkably resembles that of a Pravda piece written after the Chernobyl disaster. In a feat of creative journalism, its author described the people of Chernobyl returning to their homes; he wrote of the beautiful sunsets, of the young lovers walking hand in hand along the river bank, and of the nightingales.

Well, if Afghanistan is a nonissue, there is always a thoughtful essay in the paper about something important. In December 1987, such an essay discussed Soviet youth. The author admitted (in the true spirit of glasnost) that Soviet youth are no longer a monolithic group: of course, there are many who are dedicated Komsomol members committed to the party and the state, but there are also those who are much less committed, who admire unapproved writers, organize unauthorized shows and concerts, thus putting their “egotistical impulses” above their duty to the state; and, finally, there are some who don’t give a damn about the Soviet state and its goals, embracing instead such despicable philosophies as Nazism and mysticism.

The author—a distinguished pedagogue—conceded the problems and put forward an ingenious idea. What Soviet youth need now, he suggested, is . . . parachute towers. Before World War II there was at least one such tower in every town; now they are few and far between. He went on to tell of a young man whose “decadent” life-style changed drastically after he signed up with an amateur parachute-jumping group.

The essays in the current Pravda range from one about a successful Soviet emigre artist now living in New York, who has suddenly (or maybe not so suddenly?) become a frenzied Soviet patriot, to one on Hungary with a very meaningful passage which called the patriotic Hungarian premier Imre Nagy—hanged by the Soviets in 1956—a right-wing extremist. The essay’s message is transparently clear: don’t make a grave mistake, comrades, Gorbachev’s perestroika in Moscow is very different from the one attempted in Budapest in 1956.

Meager as it is, Pravda doesn’t allocate much space to news from abroad. Called “international information,” such news is usually strewn across pages four and five and divided into two sections—news from the brotherly (communist) countries, and reports from the enemy (capitalist) camp, with an occasional piece on the Third World, such as a laudatory article on the life of Indira Gandhi. In the way news from abroad is presented—what is omitted, emphasized, or distorted—I detected absolutely no change from December 1987 to the present. The nature of the reports on the enemy camp is encapsulated in a Soviet joke about two old women standing in a kerosene line. “I can’t bear it any longer, waiting for three hours to buy a gallon of kerosene!” one says. “Yes, but still, we’re lucky,” the other responds, “at least our government supplies us with the kerosene. Who does it for the people in the capitalist countries?”

The objective of the articles on, say, joblessness in Rome, or drug wars in Munich, or terrorist rampages in Paris, is to convince the Soviet people that no matter how hard their life might be, life in the West is incomparably worse. These longer pieces are intertwined with shorter ones bashing the usual rotten pack—South Korea, South Africa, Paraguay, Chile, and Israel—or vehemently defending the great Panamanian patriot Noriega against American warmongers.

The articles on the brotherly camp are less emotionally charged. Among the reports on a new cow-milking technology developed in East Germany, a Soviet-Bulgarian collaboration on porcelain making, a new subway extension in Budapest, and a Soviet opera production in Havana, there is a piece on the exhibition in Beijing of Soviet holograms, depicting, in three dimensions, Lenin’s personal belongings. This last report has better positioning than the others, signaling Gorbachev’s present priority of renewing brotherly relations with Beijing.

“Brotherly relations” and new Moscow “peace initiatives” are stock phrases in Pravda. Nowhere in its pages can one find reports on the Soviets’ latest drastic increase of military pressure on Northern Europeans, particularly Sweden and Norway; or on their recent unprecedented build-up on the Red Sea islands of Perim, Dhalak Kabir, and Socotra off Southern Yemen, with more than 40,000 Soviet troops deployed there; or on a transformation of Da Nang airfield and Cam Ranh Bay naval base in Vietnam into probably the two largest Soviet military facilities abroad; or on the current astonishing number of mishaps with different kinds of American missiles, as well as the Challenger (mishaps which SDI Head Lt. General Daniel Graham characterized as having one chance in a million of being coincidences); or on a chain of mysterious deaths—in plane and car crashes and assassinations—of numerous European scientists associated with SDI research. If General Graham’s observation is correct, we might presume that under glasnost the KGB first chief directorate responsible for external operations is anything but pulling back.

A friend of mine, a scientist from Moscow now living in the West, put it quite succinctly. “You know,” he said, “it might sound paradoxical, but living in the Soviet Union, I didn’t fully comprehend the beast it is. In a way, it was like living inside a tiger’s belly—it stank awfully, you couldn’t move, but you didn’t see the teeth. Now I am outside, and I can see them all; I can see the whole beast.” Reading Pravda I can, too.