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The new Russians

DID you happen to notice that photograph of Mrs. Gorbachev talking with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in London the other day? Her husband, Mikhail Gorbachev, who is billed as the likely next headman in Moscow, was standing on the side of the picture, but she was in the center and it was her trim, well-tailored figure and her bright, attentive, intelligent smile that made the scene.

Something new has been added to the Kremlin's image. We are accustomed to the occasional photograph of Kremlin wives. Usually they are on the side of the picture, always round in figure and dowdy in clothing and hair style. Mrs. Gorbachev is the first Kremlin wife we have seen who looks as though she could join in a group with Nancy Reagan, Geraldine Ferraro, and Rosalynn Carter - and keep up with any subject, including fashions.

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We don't know that Mr. Gorbachev is the heir apparent in Moscow, although the fact that he was sent to London, obviously on a diplomatic scouting mission, is an almost certain sign. At 53 he is the youngest member of the Politburo. Not often, if ever, has the communist regime in Moscow sent its youngest member off, unaccompanied either by the headman, who is still Konstantin Chernenko, or the foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, to keep an eye on him.

Clearly, his purpose is to glean from the British all they know and will tell him about what is going on in Washington and the extent to which President Reagan has authorized US Secretary of State George Shultz to negotiate when he meets with Mr. Gromyko in Geneva on Jan. 7.

The Russians, more or less correctly, assume that Mrs. Thatcher is the foreign head of state closest to President Reagan. She undoubtedly has a better slant on Reagan's thinking about upcoming negotiations than anyone else at her level within the Western community. For the Russians, it is essential to go to Geneva with the best information they can get on the great continuing mystery in Washington.

Has the President decided to give Mr. Shultz authority to make real United States concessions on arms controls?

There has been a lot of talk about what Mr. Shultz would like to be able to offer. We know that leading officials at the State Department think the time is ripe for trying to do real business with the men from Moscow. But we also know that at the Pentagon Richard Perle has his heels dug in against any concessions, and against any deals of any kind. Add that Mr. Perle is known to enjoy the full confidence of his own boss, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

That photograph of Mrs. Gorbachev in London suggests what seems to me a further reason, which I have not yet heard mentioned elsewhere, for getting on with talks with the Muscovites.

Right now it is obvious that the Soviets are still in a trough of a period of both political and economic stagnation. Their economic growth rate is bumping along at about 2 percent. The American rate is soaring at around 7 percent. This is a reversal of the '50s when their growth rate was faster than ours and the ebullient Nikita Khrushchev could with some reason dream of the day when the Soviet economy would outstrip the American.

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But just as the condition of the '50s gave way gradually to the reversed roles of the two superpowers today, so too may today's condition give way to something new and different.

You can't look at that picture of the Gorbachevs in London and not know that they are aware of Russia's present stagnation and have some lively ideas about what needs to be done to get their system moving again at a better rate.

And you also know that if Mr. Gorbachev does become the next leader in Moscow , he is going to want to shake things up - do his utmost to put his country back in the running of industrial and economic progress.

In other words, we may be nearing the end of a period of Soviet stagnation. It won't last forever. It just might make a lot of common sense to try dealing with them now when they are behind and know it. Ten, or even five, years from now the situation might be less to their disadvantage.

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