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Why the routineness of change in Soviet Union is exciting

On an inside page of a regional American newspaper (The Boston Globe) this past week there were several news stories out of Moscow of events that would have been inconceivable before Mikhail Gorbachev became head man in the Soviet Union. All four were given relatively brief and routine treatment. Change in the Soviet Union is now so frequent as to seem routine. It no longer seems radical even when, by pre-Gorbachev standards, it's almost earthshaking.

It is indeed radical when an official of the secretariat of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet declares that Soviet elections in are not only undemocratic and rigged, but routinely ``falsified.'' This was stated by one Yuri Korolev to Tass, the official Soviet news agency, and transmitted by Tass to the world.

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Just under that startling piece of news was another six-paragraph story about Mr. Gorbachev receiving in the Kremlin, and having a chat ``in a good atmosphere'' with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. He is Vatican Secretary of State and personal envoy to Gorbachev from the Pope.

A third report, by Tass, told of a general strike in Yerevan, capital of Soviet Armenia, and of the fatal shooting of a Soviet police officer during rioting in Baku, in neighboring Azerbaijan.

On the same inside page was the continuation of a report on the ``rehabilitation'' of four officials of the original Soviet government. The four were convicted of ``treason'' in the ``show trials'' after Lenin's death in 1924 that resulted in the consolidation of Stalin's power.

A day later the flow of official news from Moscow told of Soviet officials in Riga, Latvia, sponsoring a march memorializing the mass deportations of thousands of Latvians under Stalin. A monument to the deportees has been authorized.

Similar memorial demonstrations were authorized in Lithuania and Estonia and have taken place.

On the same day it was learned in Washington that during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow, Soviet Minister of Defense Dmitri Yazov handed to US Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci a formal apology for the fatal shooting of a US Army major, Arthur D. Nicholson Jr., in East Germany in 1985.

In the pre-Gorbachev era, Armenians did not riot, or, if they did, the rioting was suppressed quickly and brutally and no word ever leaked out. In the pre-Gorbachev era, papal secretaries of state were not invited to the Kremlin; victims of Stalin's ``terror'' were not rehabilitated; Baltic states did not memorialize lost compatriots; and there would seldom have been an apology if a Soviet sentry killed a US Army officer.

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Until now the changes in the Soviet Union have been seen largely in terms of Gorbachev's attempting to reinvigorate the stagnant economy in order to get his country back into the mainstream of modern development.

The conventional wisdom among Western Moscow-watchers has been that the purpose is only to strengthen the Soviet state, which is as dangerous as ever. Besides, can Gorbachev achieve his purposes and survive?

Things are going beyond that point. He is remaking the culture as well as the politics and economics of the Soviet system. He may not succeed, but the changes go far beyond what is necessary were his only purpose the reinvigoration of the obsolescent economy. Gorbachev calls it restructuring. It is indeed. If he succeeds, he will undo the kind of Soviet Union which Stalin created.

When Deng Xaoping began the great economic reforms in China, it experts in China noted that he was the beneficiary of Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution. That wave of terror set China back in many ways. It also disrupted the structure of China's Communist Party. Deng has had a relatively easy time pushing his reforms because he could operate almost in a political vacuum.

Gorbachev's greatest problem is how to overcome the vested and self-perpetuating party hierarchy which settled itself upon the Soviet people from the time of Stalin through Brezhnev, a hierarchy which enjoyed privilege and omnipotence and practiced public infallibility.

If Gorbachev can inject free and fair elections into the Soviet political system, his country will end up as something very different from what it was when he took up the reins of power. This thing in Russia is going farther that Western experts have yet recognized or accepted.

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