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Soviet leader fails to boost bold reform. Speech takes unexpected tack in reassessing history

A speech by Mikhail Gorbachev yesterday suggests that, for the time being at least, he is seeking a middle ground between those who want radical change in the system and those who want more-gradual reforms. This would be a shift for the Soviet leader, who has previously spearheaded the reform drive. The speech, presented at a meeting to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, failed to provide the far-reaching reassessment of Soviet history predicted by supporters of radical reform.

This seems destined to disappoint the supporters of substantive change, who were hoping for a sharp break with the authoritarian methods of the Soviet Union's past. In yesterday's speech, Mr. Gorbachev expressed views on key points of Soviet history that do not go as far as assessments published recently by writers and academics in the Soviet news media.

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Contacted by telephone immediately after the speech, economist Vasily Selyunin, a supporter of radical reform, expressed the fear that Gorbachev was ``spinning his wheels.''

Gorbachev criticized those who were impatient with the slowness of change - an apparent reference to Boris Yeltsin, the Moscow Communist Party chief who told the Central Committee on Oct. 21 that he wanted to resign his official posts for this reason. The Oct. 21 meeting had been called to discuss the report, and it is quite possible that Mr. Yeltsin's announcement was a reaction of disappointment to the draft speech. Gorbachev also warned that resistance to reforms would grow as the country entered the next stage of its transformation.

Gorbachev read the 2-hour speech without any sign of his customary digressions or extemporizations. Soviet sources had stressed beforehand that the speech was a collective effort of the Central Committee.

The report offered a partial restoration of the name of Nikolai Bukharin, who was executed by Joseph Stalin in 1938.

Bukharin was a strong supporter of Vladimir Lenin's New Economic Policy, which in many way prefigured the present reforms. He was an opponent of the rapid agricultural collectivization carried out by Stalin between 1929 and 1932.

The speech balanced denunciation of Stalin's purges with approval for his leadership during World War II. (Gorbachev did, however, announce that the ruling Politburo had established a commission to reexamine Stalin's ``excesses.'') It offered carefully modulated praise for Nikita Khrushchev, who began the process of de-Stalinization in the mid-1950s. But in its assessment of Leonid Brezhnev, the report concentrated its criticism on the Soviet leader's later years.

Mr. Selyunin welcomed the comments on Khrushchev and Bukharin, and Gorbachev's repetition of his determination to carry out radical reform. But he said he was surprised by the ``incomprehensible zigzags'' in the report's analysis of Stalin.

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``In the '20s, Stalin was correct [according to the report],'' he said. ``In the '30s, he committed crimes. In the '40s, during the war, he was correct. In the '50s, he was wrong again.''

Selyunin, who maintains that the seeds of the country's present economic difficulties were sown when Brezhnev and others overthrew Khrushchev in 1964, also expressed surprise that Gorbachev had been so mild in his criticism of Brezhnev.

Other prominent Soviet intellectuals have asserted recently that Brezhnev initiated the ``moral rehabilitation'' of Stalin immediately after he came to power in October 1964. Gorbachev's mild characterization of Brezhnev yesterday was reminiscent of the views expressed recently by Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranking Soviet leader.

Reformers were expecting a speech very different from Gorbachev's. A few days before the speech, a senior Soviet editor said that he expected it to be a major political event - ``the equivalent of Khrushchev's speech to the 20th Party Congress,'' which heralded the start of the campaign against Stalin and the rehabilitation of surviving political prisoners.

The editor expressed the hope that the speech would say that ``the 1917 revolution created a free world, and free market of ideas, and a free economy, but that Stalin stopped this process.''

Other radicals were hoping for a full rehabilitation of Bukharin.

Gorbachev praised Bukharin's political line in the late '20s, but criticized his ``mistakes'' in the '30s. He quoted Lenin's assessment of Bukharin, which in part describes him as the favorite of the party and its most important theoretician. But this assessment has long been available to the Soviet public. It is included in a 1981 play by the writer Mikhail Shatrov, still running in Moscow theaters.

Gorbachev's comments on collectivization also seem to distance him from his intellectual constituency. He says collectivization was carried out incorrectly by Stalin, but was a transformation of ``fundamental importance.''

Some reformers have been scathing in their analyses both of collectivization and the present-day state of collective agriculture.

In a lecture earlier this year, the economist Nikolai Shmelyov maintained that 5 million to 7 million peasants had been deported during the collectivization. The result, he noted, was a 40 percent drop in grain production and the halving of livestock in the countryside. He also expressed doubts that very many of today's collective farms would ever become financially efficient.

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