Planning, Soviet style -- it's the quantity, not the quality, that counts
I have a recurring dream that one day Leonid Brezhnev will rise ever so slowly, clear his throat, straighten his tie, and announce to his Soviet party faithful:
"14 . . . 29 . . . 12 . . . 76 . . . 18 . . . .
"And furthermore, 21."
Soviet society plays by the numbers.
Part of this, no doubt, can be traced to the relentless, and relentlessly troubled, planning of the Soviet economy.
There are targets, sub-targets and sub- sub-targets for just about everything. Quantity has traditionally meant more than quality. That, said President Brezhnev in a speech I did notm dream, is a problem.
That speech, before the Soviet Communist Party congress here, lasted precisely 3 hours and 40 minutes, the Kremlin's chief foreign press spokesman said. There were two intermissions. It was full of numbers.
But much more than planning is involved.
Moscow officials seem to retain much of the basic (and understandable) insecurity of the early Soviet state. There is a consuming need to assert this country's (undeniable) superpowerdom. There is a need to explain, to justify, above all to compare Soviet achievements with those of the West.
That's where the numbers come in.
The soviet Union is more democratic than the West: "Millions" of people took part in discussions in preparation for the recent party congress, official accounts stress. Pravda said it got more than 22,000 letters from readers, "a vivid manifestation of socialist democracy."
Even Mr. Brezhnev -- his warning about overquantification aside -- told the congress there had been "thousands of reports of the labor achievements of Soviet people dedicated to the congress . . . and hundreds of thousands of letters."
The congress unanimously seconded Mr. Brezhnev's policy plank, and unanimously reelected him and all fellow members of the ruling Communist Party Politburo.
Soviet people are better off than Westerners: While quoting President Reagan's vivid description of America's economic crisis, Soviet newspapers announce that per capital income here has risen by one-sixth in the past five years.
Some 10 million apartments or houses have gone up in the past decade. Prices for necessities like bread, milk, and meat are said to have risen by a grand total of zero percent. Production of consumer goods, Mr. Brezhnev told the congress, doubled over the past 10 years.
If there are problems -- like the shortages of meat, housing, and high-quality consumer goods indicated in other portions of the Brezhnev address -- the numbers don't show them.
The Soviet Union is a superpower, with the stress on "super":
"attending this congress," Mr. Brezhnev told the closing session, "is the largest number of delegations from communist, workers', and other [foreign] revolutionary parties in history. . . ."
Party ideologue Mikhail Suslov announced the exact figures.
There were figures, too, in the Soviet media for foreign journalists accredited to the press center set up for the congress. How did the center work , its director was asked by the government newspaper, Izvetia.
"I'm not a great lover of statistics," he replied. Then came the "but" and a battery of numbers: 30 press conferences or briefings, a total of 400 questions asked. . . .
The phenomenon seems contagious. Ask a Muscovite about the weather, and he's apt to give you the outside temperature, to the degree. Tell him where you are from, and he'll likely ask you for a population figure.
One party appartchikm recently gave the standard political briefing to a group of visiting US students.
"Since the [second world] war," he said, "the US has intervened militarily 54 (or 64, I am hopelessly bad on numbers) times, while the Soviet Union has never intervened."
Mouths dropped open. "How about Hungary? . . . How about Czechoslovakia?" came the rebuttal.
at first, the party man denied the Soviets had fired their guns in either crisis. When he saw the argument just wasn't washing:
"OK, OK," he conceded. "I'll give you Czechoslovakia and Hungary. But you're still ahead 54 to 2."