Russia's decay continues; Gorbachev saw it coming; The last Soviet leader, a towering but tragic figure, earned the right to say 'I told you so.'


Could life after communism have turned out better for Russia and its former Soviet neighbors? Mikhail Gorbachev insists that it could have. And things are so dismal today that his argument, tainted as it is by self-justification, is worth a fair hearing.

In the eight years since Boris Yeltsin used the aftermath of the failed coup against Gorbachev to maneuver his rival from power, the Russian economy has shrunk steadily and natural riches have been spirited abroad. Wealth has been monopolized by a handful of unprincipled oligarchs while millions have slipped into destitution.

Life expectancy for Russian men, ravaged by alcoholism, has plummeted. Once-conquered diseases such as tuberculosis and diphtheria have become epidemic. Crime has blossomed, and organized gangs operate with near impunity.

Neither has Yeltsin's democratic promise panned out. Yeltsin turned tanks on his own parliament in 1993 and loosed bombers on rebellious Chechnya in 1996 and again today. His mental state seems only slightly less precarious than his physical state, which is ever more susceptible to colds that land him in the hospital for days. His decrepitude, and the rumors of family corruption, is an eerie echo of the last years of Leonid Brezhnev.

All this gives Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, still as physically and mentally robust as Yeltsin is impaired, an irresistible opportunity to say "I told you so." Like the retired principal who stops by school every month to tut-tut at the chaos and declare that he would have run things differently, Gorbachev periodically issues statements or publishes books recalling his glory days and decrying the current state of Russia.

Now he has published in English a new collection of essays and reminiscences called "Gorbachev: On My Country and The World" (Columbia University Press, 300 pages, $29.95). Proposed to the publisher last year by Stephen Cohen, an expert on Russian politics at Princeton University, it combines three short works already published in Russian: the first on the Russian revolution of 1917 and the nature of Soviet socialism; the second on the sudden demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the question of whether it was inevitable; and the third on what Gorbachev still calls "the new thinking," his coinage for the aggressively nice-guy policy with which he ended the Cold War.

The hard-liners who tried to oust Gorbachev in August 1991 made their move on the eve of the scheduled signing of a new treaty of union that the Soviet leader had hammered out with Yeltsin and leaders of the non-Russian republics. Gorbachev asserts the treaty would have transformed a super-centralized country into a truly free union of sovereign states.

That transition, he argues, would have permitted old economic relationships -- between, say, wire makers in Uzbekistan, picture-tube factories in Latvia and television plants in St. Petersburg -- to remain intact. It would have preserved a slimmed-down central government in Moscow to prevent or mediate ethnic disputes. It would have permitted a gradual, carefully managed move to a market economy, avoiding the hyperinflation and unemployment of shock therapy.

But the failed coup provoked so powerful a public reaction against the old regime that the Soviet system and all chances of reforming it were swept away overnight. Republics rushed to assert their independence, close their borders and erect trade barriers. Unscrupulous characters used political clout to grab huge shares of the national wealth.

All this might have been avoided, writes Gorbachev. His claims merit consideration, if for no other reason than his assured place as one of the towering political figures of the century. His courageous achievement in ending Soviet despotism without a lurch into bloody revolution or war, while not exactly what he intended, was epoch-making.

But Gorbachev's could-have-been theory does not hold up to scrutiny. The idea that the Soviet bureaucracy would willingly have turned over most of its power to the republics and become a modest, coordinating body is absurd. As was demonstrated by the coup, engineered by the heads of the KGB, ministry of defense and interior police, the central government was absolutely unable to share real power and control.

Likewise, it would have been neither desirable nor even possible to preserve the economic linkages created by Soviet bureaucrats while moving to a market economy. The attempt to plot production from Moscow led to an economy where some products were grossly overproduced (concrete, a kind of baby food no one liked, certain sizes of shoes) while others were disappearingly scarce (just about anything anyone wanted). The harrowing difficulty of moving to a market economy was precisely that all the old ties would, by definition, have to be broken.

The key to Gorbachev's analysis, ultimately, is wishful thinking. "I consider it my greatest sorrow and misfortune," he writes in a revealing moment, "that I did not succeed in preserving the country as a single whole."

But if Gorbachev's basic thesis cannot be sustained, the book contains much insight and candor. Some of his essays on the Soviet era are the most penetrating and honest he has written, often illustrated with excerpts from long-secret transcripts of Politburo meetings.

Gorbachev's verdict on the Soviet system is infinitely harsher than he ever articulated while he ran it; his comments resemble those of the most stridently anti-Communist Western historians.

He squarely condemns the Soviet state as totalitarian, writing of the "need to reject and condemn unconditionally the totalitarian system, a system that tramples on all that is human in human beings, that turns people into slaves." He says the arms race turned "the military- industrial complex into the primary factor governing all politics and public consciousness in the U.S.S.R." Of the Stalin period, he writes that unceasing propaganda created "a deeply rooted delusion bordering on mass psychosis."

Such comments are particularly interesting in light of Gorbachev's long devotion to Marxism-Leninism and the Communist Party. It was his clinging to the vocabulary and trappings of the dying political era that tried Russians' patience and made Yeltsin's anti-Communism seem refreshingly honest by comparison.

Since his humiliation by Yeltsin in 1991, Gorbachev has been a marginal, almost ridiculous figure at the outskirts of Russian politics.

Could that be changing? As surely as he succeeded Gorbachev to power, Yeltsin has now succeeded Gorbachev as the most despised of Russian politicians.

And there are signs of a mild Gorbachev revival. The former leader's unfeigned affection for his wife, Raisa, as she lay dying of leukemia this fall prompted an unprecedented burst of admiration for him in Russia. Now he has been tapped as a possible leader by a new social democratic party forming in Moscow.

This book is the product of a supple mind, ready to revise opinions and able to think broadly about the fate of Russia and the world. Gorbachev certainly is unlikely ever to be elected to any office, let alone to the Russian presidency. But it is hard to imagine that he would not be a better leader for this troubled giant of a nation than Yeltsin or many of those who might replace him.

In Russia, stranger things have happened.

Sun reporter Scott Shane was Moscow correspondent for the last four years of the Gorbachev era and is author of "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union."

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