LONDON -- Immediately after Josef V. Stalin died in March 1953, the new leaders of the Soviet Union, preoccupied until then with strategies for their own self-preservation, woke up to the fact that a new world was unfolding beyond their borders.
The European colonial powers -- Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy -- were weakened by war and had no will to hold together the vast territories they had colonized in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. From India, to Kenya, to Indonesia, colonial populations agitated and rebelled.
For the Kremlin, reaching out to these emerging nations was not exactly a matter of choice. The Cold War had begun. The hostility of the United States was manifest. Before anything else, the Soviets feared their encirclement, which the United States was eager to effect.
Winning friends became a matter of national survival. Thus was born the Soviet foreign-assistance program to the poor countries, which ran uninterruptedly, growing all the while, from 1954 to the mid-1980s.
During that time the Soviets signed economic assistance contracts with 57 new countries. Their outlay rose from $64 million in 1957 to $2.4 billion in 1983. It reached an all-time high of $5.7 billion in 1980. In 1983, outside the regular program, Cuba alone received $3.8 billion, according to statistics compiled by Quinton V. S. Bach, author of "Soviet Economic Assistance to the Less Developed Countries," and a visiting researcher at the London School of Economics.
The Soviet program, Mr. Bach said, was not successful in that "it did not convert anybody to socialism," as it had intended. But it was not entirely unsuccessful, either: It kept those countries on or near the Soviet border friendly, countries like India and even Turkey, which was a part of the NATO alliance.
It also had tremendous impact as propaganda. The United States was living through a demeaning period of paranoia. People who were alert during those early years remember televised film of Soviet leaders, Nikita Khrushchev and later Leonid I. Brezhnev, arriving in New Delhi, India, or Accra, Ghana, being greeted effusively and thankfully by the local leaders for their grant of a steel mill or oil refinery.
Back in the United States, the propagandists of the Cold War published books and pamphlets and otherwise got out the alarming news that the West was losing.
The Soviet aid efforts among the emerging nations in those early days of desperation -- and the U.S. response to them -- encouraged the image of a globe divided into three blocs. Soviet-American competition for their allegiance made people in the poorer countries feel they had something to withhold from -- or confer upon -- the rich states, led by the United States, or the socialist states, led by the Soviet Union.
Both blocs had much to confer on their putative clients.
The Americans and the Soviets each provided large amounts of tied aid, loans at low interest rates, technical assistance. The Soviets were particularly generous with their scholarships. Thousands of bright young students from Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Algeria and other new countries spent time in Moscow universities.
It took only a catchy name to fix firmly in the collective imagination the notion of a tripartite world. The name, invented by a Frenchman, was the Third World.
As it turned out, the West did not lose the Cold War. The Soviet Union was hardly in the competition by the middle of the last decade, and probably had not even been in it at all. It is surprising that it turned out that way, for from the beginning many of the leaders of the new states spoke a language that seemed to suggest a different outcome.
The explication by India's Jawaharlal Nehru of the "non-aligned" position smelled too much of socialism for many in the West. An attitude gained ascendancy in Washington: You're either with us or against us. And, in fact, many of the new leaders did seem to be with the Soviets and against the United States.
So many of these men had found the opinions of left-wing groups and parties in the West congenial. All were against imperialism. Some, of course, were unrelenting Marxists: Mao Tse-tung in China, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Samora Machel of Mozambique. Others were merely middle-class leaders, such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, or caudillos without much formal ideology, such as Col. Muammar el Kadafi in Libya or Gamal Nasser in Egypt.
But all were revolutionaries and all spoke the language of revolution -- a language dying only now as the state that inspired it dies. That was the language of Marxism-Leninism.
"Marxism-Leninism gave them the tool of analysis that explained everything," said J. Boyer Bell, an expert on insurrectionary movements. "It explained the dynamics of revolution. It conveyed their grievances. It became the language of national liberation."
Everybody used it, this language. It was perfect for mobilizing people. It propelled the Chinese peasant revolutionaries to their victory. And China became a model. The language used there was the language of national liberation, its sentences sprinkled with light-up words like "the masses" or "progressive forces" or "imperialists."
The problem, Mr. Bell said, was that Marxism "teaches you how to get power and hold it, not how to create a working economy." Many who tried to apply the Marxist formulas failed.
The fact was, the competition for the allegiance of the Third World was over even before the coming to power in the Soviet Union of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who saw it as a waste and a source of international instability.
By that time, most of the Soviet Union's assistance to its Third World clients was military anyway. Weapons were all the Kremlin had to give. By the early 1980s, the Soviets could no longer afford to give away tractors, steel mills and other infrastructure items on the generous concessionary terms that had characterized their earlier largess -- 12 years to repay, in goods or commodities, at a fixed 2.5 percent interest rate.
And by that time, so many of the leaders of the Third World had begun to realize the Soviet system offered a dead end.
Zimbabwe's Mr. Mugabe, a true Marxist, has declined to turn his food-rich country over to planning and farming cooperatives for fear he would wreck its productivity. Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique quickly abandoned his predecessor's Marxism.
The old revolutionary leaders of Africa -- Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia -- are only memories today, historical figures linked to the emergence of the Third World. The Sandinistas held power briefly in Nicaragua and were then turned out, having failed. Fidel Castro still militates in the Caribbean, of course, but no one expects his rigid system to survive him.
The least of the problems the poor countries of the earth have to deal with is nomenclature. They are Third World; Less Developed Countries; Emerging Countries; Countries of the South. But they are poor -- members of a sad and squalid club. Poverty is their problem, poverty caused by inefficiency, corruption and debt.
There are no states in competition for their allegiance now, and there haven't been for more than a half-decade. They live well or badly according to the sufferance and generosity of the wealthy nations of the world, feeding them through international agencies. The crash into oblivion of the Soviet Union has not made much of a noise in those regions.
AS THEY SAW IT . . .
"In the end, one or the other will triumph -- a funeral dirge will be sung over the Soviet republic or over world capitalism."
-- Vladimir I. Lenin, 1920
"Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you."
-- Nikita S. Khrushchev to Western ambassadors in Moscow, 1956
"They don't ask much of you. They only want you to hate the things you love and love the things you hate."
-- Boris Pasternak on Soviet bureaucrats, 1960
"There's no hope, because there's no faith. People don't believe in God. They don't believe in the Communist Party. They've DTC forgotten how to work."
-- Father Ioann, village priest in Plosko-Kuzminka, Russia, 1990
"We pretend to work; they pretend to pay us."
-- Soviet saying
Q: Daddy, how did we light our homes before there were candles?
A: Electric lights.
-- Current joke amid Soviet power brownouts
"Those three republics have no right to declare the Soviet Union nonexistent. What do they mean, there's no such country as the U.S.S.R.?"
-- Mikhail S. Gorbachev, interview with Time magazine, reacting to the announcement of the Commonwealth of Independent States, December 1991
AS OTHERS SAW THEM . . .
"I have been over into the future, and it works."
-- Lincoln Steffens, autobiography, 1931
"[Russia] is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."
-- Winston Churchill, broadcast talk, 1939
"The march of freedom and democracy . . . will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history. . . ."
-- Ronald Reagan, 1982
"The Soviet Union as we know it no longer exists."
-- Secretary of State James A. Baker III on Dec. 19, after three Slavic republics formed an independent commonwealth