WHEN Mikhail Gorbachev took power four years ago, he was shocked by the state of the Defense Council, the secretive committee of top political and military leaders that oversees military policy. It simply was not working. But cleaning things up, he recalled last week in an impromptu address to the Supreme Soviet, turned out to be a ``very painful'' business.
``It was so painful that I began to receive information that the Defense Council and its chairman [Gorbachev] were moving too sharply, and the Marshals requested me to bear this comment in mind.''
In other words, unnamed senior military commanders were telling the Soviet leader to slow down.
Soviet and foreign observers say Gorbachev's comments are the clearest sign yet that the Soviet leader faced serious opposition from the top levels of the military after he came to power in 1985.
They also betray Gorbachev's deep unhappiness with the present state of the armed forces.
Mr. Gorbachev said he talked to the Marshals. ``The vast majority'' of them, he said, finally came round to the need for major changes in the military.
These comments are taken from Gorbachev's remarks during Supreme Soviet hearings to confirm Gen. Dmitri Yazov as defense minister. The statements were excised from the televised version of the speech, and were not carried in the Soviet news media. But the remarks quickly began to circulate in Moscow in a highly dramatized and distorted form.
The accepted wisdom until now has been that the military escaped the worst effects of stagnation, as the Brezhnev years are known. Vast amounts of money had been spent on defense under Leonid Brezhnev. The armed forces were well-armed, well-trained, and well-equipped, and were worthily fulfilling their duties, Gorbachev told the 27th Communist Party Congress in February 1986.
His line these days is sharply different. The military needs ``radical reconstruction,'' he told the Supreme Soviet. In the armed forces this process is ``still more difficult than in society.'' The situation has begun to improve, he said, but reform is still far from complete. And ``a lot of people don't like it.''