With Karl Marx over his Shoulder

September 23, 1990|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

Standing there under the portrait of Karl Marx, he could have been one of the few surviving old Bolsheviks, back for one last hurrah, one more speech urging all good comrades to cling to the spoils of the Revolution.

His words read a bit that way, too, as he said nationalists demanding independence from Moscow should cool it, that "reason must prevail over passion if there is to be a climate conducive to the settlement of disagreements." It could have been one of those departed Kremlin bosses, Nikita Khrushchev or Leonid Brezhnev, offering a veiled warning to Warsaw or Prague.

But it was a different old battler, Ronald Reagan, who discreetly wasn't wearing his Cold War veterans cap with badges for all the campaigns he had fought on the other side. There he stood in the erstwhile enemy camp, at the heart of what he used to call the evil empire, telling today's Kremlin bosses to keep up the good work.

That was last week in Moscow, the same time and place where another, younger politician seemed to be reading from one of Mr. Reagan's discarded scripts as he spoke to that same Supreme Soviet. He was urging the most drastic step yet toward participatory democracy in Soviet Russia, a first-ever national referendum on land ownership.

That, of course, was Mikhail Gorbachev, from whom nothing comes as a surprise any more.

No doubt we could dig out of Komsomolskaya Pravda some of Mr. Gorbachev's youthful speeches to demonstrate how his line has changed since he was an ambitious apparatchik, climbing the ladder of party orthodoxy. But in Russia, it is cruel to quote politician's ancient speeches back to them today.

It is easier to do that to Mr. Reagan, because we are not in a frenzy of historical rerevisionism here, so the archives are not closed for repairs. It also is easier on Mr. Reagan, since he doesn't have to run for office again, and he always could take a joke.

As regularly as Moscow celebrated the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Mr. Reagan marked Captive Nations Week every summer of his eight years in the White House.

He did it with boiler-plate rhetoric about how, "Throughout the Baltic states, Eastern Europe and Asia, now in Africa and Latin America, nation after nation has fallen prey to an ideology that seeks to stifle all that's good about the human spirit." He spoke of "forced labor and mass imprisonment, famine and massacre, the police state and the knock on the door in the night."

"Let us once again reaffirm our faith that the aspiration for freedom will ultimately prevail over the rule of force and coercion" in those parts of the world, his proclamation said.

Almost everyone outside Great Russia itself agreed, especially the people of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - the specific captive nations whose 1939 takeover in the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact this country pretended not to recognize. But then, as Mr. Gorbachev brought on perestroika and those nations demanded the independence the White House had championed so loudly, Mr. Reagan and his successor fell mute.

Mr. Gorbachev's survival in office, and the accompanying end of the Cold War, were obviously more important to our president than any implied promise of support to three tiny nations that didn't have a single ICBM among them. And so silence, or at most noncommittal encouragement, became U.S. policy.

Till now, however, nobody important on our side has seemed to speak for Mr. Gorbachev by telling the Baltic nationalists to sit down, don't rock the boat, that "differences can be resolved in ways that are fair to all" if only they are reasonable.

Mr. Gorbachev, amid all his economic troubles, is still trying to strike a deal to give the non-Russian Soviet republics more autonomy without giving them independence from Moscow. He has made drastic concessions, but so far none has satisfied the 13 republics that have declared some form of sovereignty.

If he has said once, he must have said a hundred times during these negotiations that something can be worked out, but "reason must prevail over passion if there is to be a climate conducive to the settlement of disagreements." Those were Mr. Reagan's words Monday, and what ever he meant, they do not mean that the Kremlin should or will give up control of the Baltic states.

Let us imagine Mr. Reagan's comments on anyone who talked that way a few years ago during his evil-empire period, when he suggested that the nuclear-freeze movement was just a Commie plot. But let us not say them out loud, for this is a family newspaper.

Mr. Reagan must have given poor bedeviled Mikhail Gorbachev his only light moment in months.

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