Not many years ago, the world would have been astonished at some of the proposals made by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in his keynote speech this week at a Communist Party conference in Moscow. In fact, if he really means what he says, Gorbachev is advocating a different Russia.
That there is a conference being held at all is unusual enough. It is the first general meeting of the party since 1941. It is not an exercise in formality, either. There are differences among the 5,000 delegates - some opposing economic and social reform, and others wanting to push change even further than Gorbachev.Gorbachev had harsh words for Stalin, who ruled the country with an iron first from 1924 to 1953. He said Stalin talked democracy, "but the reality was something else." He said Stalin left Russia with a "bitter heritage," and that subsequent leaders allowed stagnation to grip the country, particularly the economy.
The world is not used to hearing such admissions from the Kremlin.
After listing the failings of the past, Gorbachev made many proposals for change. Some of the more radical and interesting ones include:
* Impose a 10-year-limit on terms of office for all political and official posts, including Gorbachev's own job as Communist Party general secretary.
* Turn the Supreme Soviet, the 1,500-member, rubber-stamp parliament into a full-time legislative body with expanded powers. Membership would be cut to less than 500 and all deputies would be elected, instead of appointed.
* Lease land to farmers to grow their own crops, as a way to end chronic food shortages. The proposal stopped short of abolishing the collective farms.
* Reform the system of setting consumer prices so that the government is less involved in subsidizing products. If this takes place, it would likely cause sharp increases in prices and cause citizens to grumble. But less government and more free enterprise are essential if Russia is to overcome its chronic food shortages.
* Guarantee religious believers full rights as Soviet citizens.
Lest this sound as if democracy had broken out in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev also emphasized that the reins of power would be kept firmly in Communist Party hands, and that the party would not allow any organized challenges to its authority.
Gorbachev says he wants to make life better for the Russian people in order to demonstrate the "advantages of socialism."
There is no doubt that a more open, consumer-oriented Soviet Union would pose less of a threat to the rest of the world. But one observation and several questions are in order.
The world should be wary and continue to support military defense. Despite the internal changes being pushed by Gorbachev, the Soviets continue to build bigger and more accurate nuclear-tipped missiles, continue to make enormous efforts at espionage, continue to spread "disinformation" about the West in the Third World, and continue to finance revolutions in many places.
Yet even if Gorbachev is sincere, there are questions. How much can one man do to change a deeply entrenched system? The opposition is powerful. How much change will a huge system of bureaucracy allow? Inertia is a formidable weapon. And if profound changes are made, will they last?
In any event, the drama being played out in Moscow is fraught with possibilities not seen since the earliest days of the Russian Revolution. The outcome could affect us all, one way or another.