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A Soviet 'emigr'e's anecdotal account of USSR special forces

SPETSNAZ: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE SOVIET SPECIAL FORCES by Viktor Suvorov, New York: W.W. Norton. 206 pp. $17.95

AN 'emigr'e from the Soviet Union has a tough time of it. He has been brought up in a harsh ideological system and a tradition that teaches that things are either good or evil, black or white, with no ambiguities.

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If the young Russian or Ukrainian learns his lessons well, he comes to believe that ``socialism'' (the Soviet state ideology) is good and humane, while ``capitalism'' and ``imperialism'' (the Soviet caricatures of Western political systems) are inhumane and oppressive, and must someday be vanquished.

In this cosmic struggle, the young Soviet citizen is taught that you are either on one side or the other. There is no in-between, no compromise, no neutrality. ``Whoever is not with us is against us,'' Lenin said, and his political heirs agreed, at least until Mikhail Gorbachev came along.

Lenin did not invent this attitude. He merely continued in a time-honored Russian tradition. There has been little, if any, toleration of political, social, or religious pluralism in Russian history. You were either with the czar 100 percent, or you were subversive. You were either with the Russian Orthodox Church 100 percent, or a dangerous heretic.

This civil religion is nurtured and kept alive in three Soviet institutions: the Army, the KGB, and the Communist Party bureaucracy. Without it, each would lose much of its reason for existence.

So a Soviet 'emigr'e coming from any of these institutions has special problems adapting to the West. It's not bad enough that there are 30 kinds of coffee to choose from. There is no longer one political truth, but hundreds of strands of confusing, competing, and contradictory truths. Yet the 'emigr'e's background and education do not equip him to deal with such ambiguity.

Thus the 'emigr'e, without being conscious of it, often takes the easy way out. He retreats into ideology, usually somewhere on the right to far right. Here there are no ambiguities; anything smacking of Marxism-Leninism is bad, while anything and anyone espousing undying opposition to left-wing ideas is good.

But it goes further than that. The 'emigr'e believes the Soviet Union is tough, strong, and powerful, while the West is wimpy, naive, and weak. Everything the Soviets do, or have ever done, has some nefarious aim behind it. The West, the 'emigr'e believes, should have no truck with evil communism, but should make every effort to oppose and destroy it.

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These facts must be borne in mind when reading Viktor Suvorov's latest book on the Soviet military, ``Spetsnaz: The Inside Story of the Soviet Special Forces.'' Suvorov shows signs of falling into the black-or-white trap rather than recognizing the many shades of gray.

It is good to be reminded that the Soviet Union has thousands of specially trained reconnaissance troops - called spetsnaz, short for spetsialnoye naznacheniye (special purpose) - whose job it is in time of war to find and destroy the West's nuclear weapons, disable communications, assassinate political leaders, and wreak general havoc behind the lines.

Suvorov, a Soviet Army officer who defected to the West, points out that the Soviets do not play by Marquess of Queensbury rules. Some examples: Some Soviet Olympic athletes are spetsnaz soldiers. Soviet troops are not instructed that it is against international convention to fire on military ambulances marked with a red cross. A wounded spetsnaz soldier will be killed immediately to preserve secrecy and avoid endangering a mission. Spetsnaz training is especially brutal and dehumanizing.

But there is much in Suvorov's anecdotal narrative that is just plain wrong or oversimplified. His contention that Stalin signed a peace treaty with Hitler to allow Germany to spend itself fighting the West, and thus be unable to resist a Soviet invasion, is not generally accepted. And Suvorov contends that every Soviet international athlete, every commercial representative, every military attach'e, and many tourists are affiliated with spetsnaz.

In addition, Suvorov does not acknowledge that the West has its own special forces, many of which are trained for similar purposes. At the end of the book, he fantasizes about a ``Red Dawn''-style spetsnaz attack on Washington in which the soldiers are sneaked in as Soviet Embassy personnel. He is apparently unaware that the US government closely monitors the entry and exit of Soviet diplomats and strictly limits their number within the United States.

Another major problem with the book is that it is already outdated. Suvorov wrote it in Russian in 1987; it has just been translated into English. But his anecdotes take place in the 1960s and '70s. The political forces now at work in the Soviet Union are affecting every aspect of Soviet life, including the military. And the record of spetsnaz in Afghanistan, where it was widely deployed, shows that, although it is a highly effective fighting force, it can be effectively countered.

The West should not be complacent about Soviet military capabilities or intentions. Western leaders should not get so carried away on a wave of good feeling created by Gorbachev that they forget he still leads a totalitarian nation with the world's most massive military machine. But there is no need for the paranoia that a literal acceptance of Suvorov's anecdotally supported analysis would engender.

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