BERLIN — A Russian right-wing dissident from perestroika was recently quoted as saying that there is an obvious explanation for what has happened to the Soviet Union: It is the result of a Western plot.
He said that he had been told in the army that the CIA's ambition was to infiltrate the Soviet Communist Party and leadership so as to overthrow the Soviet system from within. They obviously have succeeded. Mikhail Gorbachev is the CIA's man. What other explanation fits the facts?
This Russian's conviction that a Western conspiracy has ruined the U.S.S.R. is, of course, the mirror image of the belief held by many in the West until very recently -- and by some even today -- that glasnost and perestroika are really a vast deception to cause the West to drop its guard. Eventually, this theory says, there will be a lightning strike by the Soviets to conquer a muddled and complacent West.
Little more than a year ago there was a revival of interest, in some Western circles, in the claims of Anatoly Golytsin, a 1961 Soviet defector who said that a hyper-secret inner circle of Communist officials directs a huge and successful long-term program for taking over the Western countries from within.
His claims were accepted with deadly seriousness by James Angleton, for many years the CIA's director of counter-intelligence. More than a decade of highly disruptive but inconclusive spy hunts followed in all the Western intelligence agencies during the 1960s and early 1970s, because Golytsin said they had been infiltrated and subverted by the KGB. Angleton ended his career convinced that the head of the CIA itself, William Colby, who fired him, was a Soviet agent.
A fearful symmetry indeed. They control us -- or do we control them? Or do they, controlling us, tell us to believe that we control them, or inspire us to suspect that they control us, as methods of reinforcing the power of those who tell us these things? Whose interests, after all, were really served by Golytsin and Angleton?
There was a conference of historians in Moscow in December, where American and Soviet scholars reconsidered the events of the 1950s when Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev led the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Among the things noted was the gross scale by which Washington overestimated Soviet nuclear power at that period.
In the early 1950s, when the U.S. had a thousand atomic bombs and the long-range bombers to deliver them, the Soviet Union had 20 to 30 bombs and no delivery capability. Soviet leaders lived in fear of an American first-strike they were incapable of preventing.
Georgi Arbatov, head of the Soviet Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies, said that, contrary to Western belief at the time, Nikita Khrushchev had no subtle motivation when he provoked the Berlin crisis of 1961. He had no plan. He hadn't even consulted the Soviet Army's leaders or the Politburo.
Khrushchev also had false rocket emplacements built to deceive the U.S. about Soviet power, with the perverse result, as the American analyst Raymond Garthoff observed at this meeting, that the U.S. simply built even more missiles to attack the U.S.S.R.
And so it goes. Only now are we beginning to appreciate the magnitude of the misinformation and misunderstandings at work throughout the years of the Cold War.
This is to some extent inevitable in any international conflict, but it was greatly worsened by the totalitarian character of Soviet society. The bias of a totalitarian system is to deceive, including deception of its own population and governing bureaucracy for purposes of political control. The normal reaction of a rival power, to distrust its enemy, is reinforced when that society's government is lying to its own people.
An ideological system further complicates matters because it deprives its opponent of the right to interpret the ideological power's behavior in a normal way. It has to be assumed to be acting, in important respects, out of non-pragmatic, ''non-rational'' motives, dictated by ideology. It cannot be depended on to act in its own logical or practical interests.
This too is a problem when important cultural differences exist, as in the case of Saddam Hussein. His rational interest surely cannot be served by war with the United States and its allies. Yet he perseveres on a course toward war out of an estimation of the situation, and of his and his country's interests, radically different from that which an outsider today must make.
We were extremely lucky that misunderstandings, intellectual blindness and cultural as well as ideological bias never quite took us over the cliff during the Cold War. We are not so fortunate today -- or so it seems, as the day approaches when, in the Gulf, death will again establish its dominion.