College Park AMONG THE speakers at a conference of this week at the University of Maryland to explore the post-Cold War world was a man named Roald Sagdeev. On both the personal and public level, this soft-spoken scientist and scholar embodies the dramatic events that have taken place during his 58 years.
Soviet Russia had existed for just 14 years when he was born in 1932 in Moscow. Stalin was about to impose a reign of terror which would claim 20 million lives. By the time Roald was 8, the Soviet Union was at war with Germany -- a conflict that would claim the lives of another 25 million of his countrymen, and leave Stalin still in control.
In this grim setting Roald Sagdeev in the early 1950s entereMoscow University, where his classmates included a bright student from the hinterlands named Mikhail Gorbachev.
After college the two went their own ways -- Gorbachev entering politics, Sagdeev setting out on a career that would make him one of his country's leading physicists in the age of space and the arms race. He played a key role in both, and when his old classmate Mikhail Gorbachev emerged in 1985 as leader of the Soviet Union, Sagdeev became a key adviser. He lost favor to some degree in 1988 when he moved close to Andrei Sakharov in the demand for faster democratization.
Increasingly Sagdeev's work brought him to America, and last February the most improbable event of his extraordinary life took place: He married the granddaughter of a former American president, Dwight Eisenhower. Today the couple live in Bethesda, not far from the University of Maryland, where Roald teaches physics. But he retains his Soviet citizenship, and in fact is an elected people's deputy.
Just back from his most recent visit to Moscow, Sagdeev finds parallels between what has happened during the past five years and what followed the 1918 Revolution -- strains of thinking that run through his country's troubled history.
One strain is fatalistic, even apocalyptic, in the view that no matter what regimes and leaders come and go, things don't change much in Russia; life is grim and unpredictable -- always has been, always will be.
A second group he calls the pragmatists -- exemplified by the popular leader Boris Yeltsin and his counterparts as heads of the restive 16 Soviet republics. This group seeks the rapid integration of the Soviet Union with the Western world.
The third group Sagdeev calls Russophiles or Slavophiles, who see an idyllic Russia of the past. Its spiritual leader, perhaps, is the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who now lives, of all places, in Vermont. This group is strongly nationalistic, and Sagdeev sees a danger that such people will become obsessed with conspiracies -- "Jewish plots," "Masonic plots" and the like.
Such is the roiling volcano that his old friend Gorbachev sitastride. Even so, Sagdeev tries to be optimistic. The country had a bumper crop this year. The problem, he says, is not production but that the distribution system has broken down and has become corrupted by people out to make a fast buck. The central government, meanwhile, has degenerated to a core of the old military-industrial complex, and you can't exchange guns for butter.
So the cities like Moscow and Leningrad now confront a winter with serious food shortages. Moscow has already begun to dip into its reserves of powdered milk. Pharmaceuticals have just about vanished from the market.
He believes that the situation demands a massive emergency food aid program like that which Germany has already initiated. A single American cargo plane a day could bring enough milk to Moscow to get the babies through the winter -- and to buy Gorbachev the time he desperately needs to impose some order to the chaotic Soviet economy.
Otherwise, Sagdeev fears, there is a risk that if the economy collapses, the ensuing social disorder will inevitably lead to a military takeover with consequences no one can predict -- including who would be in control of 23,000 nuclear weapons which still exist as a haunting skeleton of a Soviet Union that was once a "superpower."