MIKHAIL GORBACHEV'S recent flirtation with the church in the Soviet Union added to the mystery about the man. Some suspect that he secretly believes in God. Others explain his references to the Almighty and to the Bible - and the state's enthusiastic support for this year's commemoration of the millennium of Christianity in Russia - as a cynical attempt to manipulate the religious community in the United States and other foreign countries. A small group among American fundamentalist Christians claims the Soviet leader is the Antichrist, the Devil's agent on earth, who is about to conquer the world.
Yet reasons behind his surprising behavior are more political than personal; their orientation is more domestic than foreign. His ambitious program of reforms simply cannot be accomplished without resurrecting moral and spiritual values and without broad societal support. The church might play an important role in this process.
Such an approach requires a sharp break with past policies. A former friend in Moscow, who had rare access to the archive of Lenin's original documents, told me an interesting story some years ago. During the Civil War the regional Commmunist Party committee in southern Russia sent a cable to Lenin regarding its intention to appoint a certain comrade to a high position. He was chosen, the committee noted, because he did not drink or smoke, and was not a womanizer. Lenin responded: ``The Soviet republic does not need angels. You failed to mention what are this comrade's abilities.''
Soviet leaders after Lenin adhered closely to the first part of the telegram, tolerating no angels in the power elite. There has been even less toleration since Marxism-Leninism divided morals along class lines, between capitalists and communists. Anything serving the interests of the proletariat and the USSR, as defined by its leaders, was moral, and vice versa. But in the end blind loyalty and obedience were rewarded. The same professional abilities that Lenin wanted to promote became the first communist casualty.
Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, recently provided an illustration about the ongoing destruction of talent and respect for professional knowledge in the USSR:
When a vacancy was created at the top of a planning and finance department in a prestigious institution, the leadership and party bureau suggested a knowledgeable specialist for the post. Later an opinion appeared that such a responsible department must be headed by a communist. The candidate for the job learned of it and hastily applied for party membership. The action was labeled as that of a careerist. The party bureau rejected her application, and she eventually left the institution.
Concentration on professional knowledge and performance, rather than on party membership and infighting, is still the best recipe for failure in the USSR. Millions became members of the Communist Party at an early age to promote their personal interest. A Pravda reader recently complained that many people use their party cards to make themselves a career and secure benefits. He concluded that a ``true communist should not seek a fatter slice of the cake but choose hard work.''
Mr. Gorbachev would like to change this situation. In his speech at the Communist Party conference on June 28, he described ambitious plans for a ``fundamentally new state.'' The Communist Party would continue as ideological leader but yield numerous functions to a powerful president. Gorbachev also plans to create an expanded legislature, chosen by secret ballot.
The problem is that Gorbachev's radical program poses concrete dangers to total party control:
If he tried to make the party more efficient, purging it of all unprincipled careerists, members may be few.
If he regrouped the party around selfless but naive idealists, while limiting its role, it would be a party devoid of talent and of most ambitious people. Its pretensions to a leading role would be a joke.
Gorbachev's public exposure of monstrous abuses of power in the USSR under his communist predecessors, and his open questioning of formerly sacrosanct communist dogmas, makes many hard-line communists uncomfortable. They are too committed to the past to start anew. To keep the situation under control, Gorbachev has to look for broader support beyond the Communist Party. The church might become one of his new allies.
These and other potential dangers posed to the totalitarian rule of the Communist Party by Gorbachev's reforms make many in the West rightfully skeptical; they question the sincerity of his most daring maneuvers, including the new approach to religion. The most fervent believers in the old communist dogmas see progressive crises in the USSR and take Gorbachev much more seriously. They suspect he is ready to sharply curtail the power of middle and lower level party echelons to rebuild Russia, portraying himself as its savior.
Thus, surprisingly, the most hard-line, anti-Western communists in the USSR find themselves sharing their intensive dislike for Gorbachev with communism's staunchest Western critics. Some post-World War II political realities are obviously withering away while the new ones have not been precisely defined yet.
Milan Svec is senior consultant at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, the National Defense University.