A superb look at the Soviets
From the Yaroslavsky Station: Russia Perceived, by Elizabeth Pond. New York: Universe Books. 296 pp. $12.95. Western leaders no longer believe Churchill's dictum that Russia is a ''riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.'' They pay too many billions for intelligence estimates to take that attitude any longer.
And yet their reactions to the game being played from the Kremlin side of the chess board are often conflicting and confused. So, therefore, are the perceptions of the public.
One need only listen to speeches by top Reagan officials to hear the latest version of this inconsistency. On the one hand the USSR is depicted as on the march to world dominance backed by impending nuclear missile and conventional arms superiority. On the other hand Moscow is said to run a failing system whose ideology is passe and whose economic base is in decline.
One cannot fault CIA technical analysis or university scholarship for this new evidence of Churchillian perplexity. We are quietly awash in evidence. It is possible that total American research on the Soviet Union may contain more nuggets of useful information than are available even to the members of the Kremlin Central Committee, which still must deal with artful creators of Potemkin facades.
But nuggets are not bullion if they are scattered through a vast ore bed. Mining is needed. And by an intelligent, research-minded, widely traveled, hardheaded but intuitive observer.
Elizabeth Pond is all of these. And she has written what is, simply, the best single popularized volume now available explaining the Soviet people, their rulers, their system, their country. It is more useful even than that splendid 1976 best seller by Hedrick Smith (''The Russians'') and the same year's overshadowed but thought-provoking ''Russia - the People and the Power'' by Robert Kaiser.
''From the Yaroslavsky Station'' (''Russia Perceived'' in its British edition) is comprehensive, carefully documented, but above all overflowing with a feel for Soviet reality set against a backdrop of Russian history.
Miss Pond's frame for this exactingly precise portrait is simple: a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad from the Yaroslavsky Station in Moscow to Vladivostock on the Pacific. But what a trip! It makes Paul Theroux's ''Great Railway Bazaar'' extravaganza look like the petulant and superficial wandering of an Edwardian picnicker.
For Miss Pond not only lets us get to know a typical Russian family (as they return to their pioneering home in the Far East); she also uses each great landmark along the rail route as a peg upon which to hang meticulously observed and researched studies of factories and the economy, collective farms, dissidents and prison camps, nationality groups, intelligentsia who rebel or appease, leaders old and new, the military. And finally she ventures some shrewd projections and speculations about the future course of this ideology-bound, heavy industry-possessed, security-obsessed empire with its dutiful but ingeniously evasive middle-class society.
The result is a deep-reaching portrait of many layers of Soviet civilization that goes far beyond mere travel writing.
We are now more than a year past the late Nikita Khrushchev's deadline for ''burying'' the West economically. By 1980, he promised, communism would have fully arrived in the Soviet Union, and Moscow's economy would be matching or outperforming the American economy.
It isn't. And Miss Pond clearly and methodically shows why: ''The system has generated giant successes. It has also generated giant problems. . . . For instance, ''only 1.4 percent of Soviet consumer goods currently meet international standards and receive the official Soviet quality seal certifying this.''
''A tableware enterprise . . . turned out 11.2 million stainless steel spoons but only 1.8 million knives. Those who frequent the cheaper Soviet cafeterias don't expect to see knives at all and automatically take two forks to tear . . . cabbage apart.''
The crucial failing, she says, is in the area of technological change. Rigid centralization of authority, unwillingness of plant managers to tamper with existing methods in order to adapt to new research findings, secrecy that prevents the spread of innovation, security wraps on defense-originated technology - all are deterrents to modernization. The inefficiencies and diversions put a cumulative drag on growth of the economy, which has slowed down in the last five-year plan and, Miss Pond says, is showing signs of slowing down even more in the 1980s. So much for Khrushchev's boast of burial-by-economy. What of burial-by-missile dominance? If the Khrushchev promise for 1980 failed, will the current American strategic forecast of a so-called ''window of vulnerability'' in the mid-1980s prove accurate? Miss Pond's analysis leads her to think not. She appraises in detail the cautious, conservative strategy of Kremlin leaders. She notes their tendency to nibble inexorably at undefended squares on the chessboard; but not, since Khrushchev in Cuba, to make the dangerous grand play. Does this mean that future Soviet leaders will follow the logic staring them in the face: that swords divert too much manpower, resources, and innovative talent from plowshares; therefore it is sensible to reach an accommodation with the West and shift priorities?Again Miss Pond's analysis leads her to think not. She points out what a low incentive Kremlin strategists currently have for the kind of cautious arms control step both superpowers talk about. A simple freeze on defense spending would, for instance, raise Soviet growth rates in the civilian sector only about one-tenth of 1 percent. Will disparate nationality groups overcome the centripetal pull of Moscow bureaucracy and heavy-handed Russian nationalism, as some scholars suggest? Miss Pond obviously relished her contacts with the varied and colorful minority groups whom the czars strung together into an empire. But, although she expects sporadic attempts by minority groups to loosen the Muscovite bands, she also feels that the behemoth will muddle through in the remainder of this century. What of the intelligentsia, the thinkers described by that Russian-coined word which applies broadly to a wide segment of the population - including schoolteachers, doctors, and university students. But it also has a specific, narrower meaning in Russian history: ''precisely those alienated intellectuals who held up a critical mirror to Russia's passivity and boorishness,'' says the author. Does this latter group of intelligentsia still exist, and will they provide leadership, as in the past, for evolutionary change in the Russian system?Here, too, Miss Pond comes to a Realpolitik judgment: that the broader intelligentsia - teachers, doctors, students - provides more recruits who go along with the centrally controlled system; and that, joined with the middle class, they constitute a coalition against sudden change.''Most Russians, she concludes, ''will continue to be studiously apolitical and simply ignore rules wherever possible rather than try to change them.''Should Westerners, then, wash their hands of trying to deal with the Russian leaders or people in anything other than an adversary fashion? Miss Pond's research details many reasons for not taking this attitude. Perhaps the best is a moral one: the USSR, she concludes, is a ''bastard Western state born without benefit of Renaissance humanism, Reformation individualism, Enlightenment rationalism or counter-Enlightenment empiricism. Its state of mind is molded by the frozen Volga and peasant suspicion of the outside world. And yet a bastard is also a brother. Perhaps that is what fascinates us so in Russia - and makes us so uncomfortable. Russia is an alter ego. . . .''Earl W. Foell is the Monitor's Editor.