The truth set them free but didn't cure their ills

May 22, 1994|By John Newman

In the mid-1980s, Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a U.S. intelligence veteran and highly regarded authority on Russia, predicted that the lifting of information control in the country would lead to a fundamental change in the very nature of the state. Scott Shane's new book, "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union," illustrates just how accurate that prediction was.

Mr. Shane's central argument is that the lifting of controls in information actually destroyed the Soviet Union. His premise is not that the truth destroys all states, but that it destroys states that owe their existence to the suppression of truth.

"Dismantling Utopia" is remarkably easy to read in spite of the heavy nature of the subject. Mr. Shane, the Moscow correspondent of The Sun from 1988 to 1991 and currently a member of the paper's Metro staff, does not shy from comparisons to the United States, and his analogies help the reader understand the unique and momentous changes that have taken place in Russia.

In George Orwell's "1984," an individual confronted by the very fragment of the abolished past that can "blow the Party to atoms" becomes paranoid and throws it away. The Soviet citizen confronted by such a fragment in 1989 does the opposite: He embraces the truth. It is because of this difference, Mr. Shane argues, that public access to information played a central role in the breakup of the Soviet empire.

"Dismantling Utopia" contends that by 1987 the Soviet leadership found itself in a fatal predicament. Their lock on information was a key source of power, but it had become a crippling handicap for the country. It was no longer possible for the senior leaders to run the country in the absence of vital information on the economy. Ultimately, they had to choose between control and information.

Mr. Shane skillfully draws the reader into his subject by focusing on a young man named Andrei Mironov, whose case shows how little the Soviet government understood the nature of the information problem.

The KGB became interested in Mr. Mironov only because of his socializing with foreign students of Russian language at Moscow's Pushkin Institute. The irony, Mr. Shane observes, is that while the state recognized Mr. Mironov as an enemy, it never understood just how subversive he was: "Despite the energy of its shadows, its interrogations, and its searches, the KGB conducted such an incompetent investigation that it never cracked the samizdat ring." Mr. Mironov's underground publishing ring, Mr. Shane says, was the real threat.

The author argues persuasively that Mikhail Gorbachev did not foresee that the Soviet system and freedom of information were mutually exclusive. The country's people had long been ready for information, information the pre-Gorbachev state was not about to give them. Then along came Mr. Gorbachev, who understood that information control had become a blindfold for the regime, and so he eased up on control of the media.

But Mr. Gorbachev was still committed to communism. Mr. Shane explains his dilemma as the inherent contradiction of a reforming despot: how to retain absolute power while introducing reforms; how to hold out hope for improvement without confronting a revolution of rising expectations.

Mr. Gorbachev's dilemma, Mr. Shane observes, proved insoluble. The Soviet leader's experiment unleashed a revolution that was fatal to his party, to his country and to his own political career.

What Mr. Shane takes away from both the information revolution and the Soviet collapse is decidedly mixed.

Control of information was incompatible with economic strength and so, for survival, information was unleashed -- and the state collapsed as a result. Yet this momentous achievement was also negated, for Mr. Shane finds the moral landscape and public mood in Russia worse in the two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union than during the hopeful two years that preceded its demise.

Even today, he says, there is a tendency to clamp down on the media at the first sign of political crisis. The public appetite for information is fading, as the 20th television show on corrupt politicians is now old hat. "The feast that had followed a long famine had come to an end," Mr. Shane writes.

He postulates twin continuities of Russian history -- before and after the country's revolution of 1917. These traditions are imperial expansion abroad and despotic rule at home. Can they now give way before new historic factors? Mr. Shane would like )) to think that the way information contributed to the collapse of Communist rule marked a distinct break with these traditions.

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