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Shadows and whispers: power politics inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev.

Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev.

DuskoDoder. Random House, $19.95. Among the best of a long line of good Washington Post correspondents assigned to the Moscow beat, Doer's instinct for nuance and intrigue suited him admirably for the post during a series of power struggles within the Kremlin hierarchy. From 1981 to 1985, he saw the leadership of the Soviet Union shift from the tired rule of Leonid Brezhnev to the dynamic but short reign of Yuri Andropov, then give way to a last gasp of the old guard under Konstantin Chernenko, and finally revert to Andropov's young protege, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Correspondents in the outsideworld get their stories through legwork, leaks, interviews, and press conferences; Moscow correspondents figure things out by comparing rumors and clues. By putting together a number of clues--such as Moscow radio canceling a jazz program, then a humor program, and substituting classical music, and all the lights being on in the offices of the Ministry of Defense--Doder concluded that the ailing Andropov had probably died and wrote a story to that effect. Andropov was indeed dead, but the Post checked out the story in Washington with Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who checked with the American Embassy in Moscow and told the Post: "It's bullshit.' The Post then toned down the story and played it on page 28.

In the waning years of Brezhnev'srule, clues of the maneuverings about the various centers of power--the KGB, the military, the Party, the intelligentsia--were there for perceptive observers to see. A thinly-veiled satire on Brezhnev's lax rule appeared in the Leningrad magazine, Aurora. In 1982, after a corruption scandal involving the lover of Brezhnev's daughter, a Pravda article contained this sentence: "Children reveal, as if in a mirror, the psychological conditions and convictions that prevail in their familities.' The KGB and the armed forces in particular were alarmed by the drift in policy and the growing economic weakness under Brezhnev. But, as Doder notes, a coup--as in the Khrushchev affair--would have been so traumatic that the various elites preferred to wait for the death of a leader.

When Andropov succeededBrezhnev, it was with the support of the military and the KGB rather than the Party. For one thing, the years of rich living and corruption had made too many Party officials vulnerable to the ire of the ascetic Andropov; for another, the Party ideologues were afraid that the reforms Andropov stood for would take on a life of their own and get out of control.

Curiously, Doder found in theascension of this former KGB chief a certain similarity to the election of John F. Kennedy, in that it created an electric feeling that change was in the air, that things were on the move again. In his 15-month tenure, Andropov broke the old guard's control of the Politburo, forcefully set in motion social and economic changes, and put new, young people in positions of power to make sure that the changes would go forward. Andropov's initiatives--interrupted temporarily after his death by the brief rule of party hack Chernenko--enabled his protege, Gorbachev, to hit the ground running.

How fast and to what effect Gorbachevcan run is part of the larger question of the degree to which Soviet society is amenable to change. There is no doubt that Gorbachev is set upon drastically reinvigorating the ailing Soviet economy. But, aside from party ideologues, the public itself exerts a strong and sometimes overriding influence. To accomplish Gorbachev's purpose would involve eliminating the massive government subsidies that keep a lid on food prices and keep rents extremely low; the monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment, Doder notes, is about equivalent to the price of a bottle of vodka. To make that kind of change in the Soviet pricing system would stir up resentments that the Soviet leadership is wary of. The desire of the general population for economic reform is exceeded only by its unwillingness to bear the short-term costs of such reform--a tendency not unique to the Soviet people.

Doer is an astute observer ofthe dynamics of Soviet society. If he can be faulted at all it is for being absorbed in the machinations of Kremlin power politics to the point of having tunnel vision. He is probably justified in his impatience with his Washington editors when they distract him with requests for "reaction' to the latest U.S. arms proposal; he recognizes that as part of a rather meaningless propaganda war. What is harder to understand is why Doder scarcely mentions the Afghanistan war, which paralleled his watch, and offers no insight into how the various factions stood on an event which certainly must have been a significant source of argument, friction, and politicking in the Soviet inner circles.
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Author:Reed, Leonard
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1987
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