If you think that Mikhail Gorbachev is blowing fresh breezes across the U.S.S.R., some observations that my wife and I made on the scene may give you second thoughts.
We visited the Soviet Union just a year ago, entering the Socialist Fatherland into Siberia by rail at the little village of Kyakhta, on the border with the Mongolian Peoples Republic in the Buryat Autonomous Soviet Republic. Our train traveled north to Irkutsk, then west for more than 5,000 miles across Siberia and ended its run at Moscow two weeks later. It wasn't the regular Trans-Siberian Railroad, but a special train, chartered from the Soviet government by an American tour operator, Society Expeditions Inc., of Seattle, Washington.One day in September, our train passed through the city of Tyumen. I hadn't heard of Tyumen before. It is one of a long list of cities that appear on the route maps of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Tyumen is located about 200 miles east of Sverdlovsk.
But, as I discovered, Tyumen is very important. It is the center of the oil fields of Eastern Siberia. The day before our train passed through Tyumen,
Mikhail Gorbachev himself had been in town. He had flown from Moscow, 1,200 miles to the west, to meet with the Communist Party leadership and the heads of the Tyumen trade unions. We knew none of this, nor were we aware that on Sept. 7, his speech was published in Pravda, since, being unable to read Russian, we did not read Pravda. But the following September day, Mr. Gorbachev's remarks had been translated into English and were published in full in a special supplement to Issue No. 37 (3181) 1985 of the Moscow News, the English-language newspaper published for tourists and distributed free in the Intourist hotels.
Here's what the Soviet prime minister had to say, in part:
"It must be constantly kept in mind that the successes achieved by the Tyumen oil and gas workers strengthen the country's might, accelerate its steps, while their failure rock the economy and slow down our progress.
"That is why the CPSU Central Committee is troubled by Tyumen having failed to fulfill the oil production plan for the third year now. The unfulfilling of assignments creates problems in the economy. In the meanwhile, the lag is not reducing but is increasing . . . It has now be come clear that the time of "gold gushers," if it can be put that way, of easy oil, is coming to an end.
"The central departments and the Party, governmental and economic management organs in Tyumen displayed sluggishness and took to the road of least resistance in overcoming problems, deciding to compensate for their own failings by increasing the stress on the large fields. Not only the oil workers, but constructors, power engineers and transport workers proved to be unprepared to work in the new complex conditions . . . The machine builders are letting the oil and gas workers heavily down the same as they did before.
"The progressive methods of mechanized extraction are also being introduced very slowly, the oil fields are not fitted out technically adequately, and there are many cases of unreliable operation of machinery and equipment . . . The industry's science bears a large share of the guilt for the situation that has taken place in the West Siberian region. The industry's research organizations spent nearly all they had over several years to justify the situation that has taken shape. But then the institutes are not lawyers offices. The country's main oil and gas producing area has not a single research production association.
"The lessons of the oil workers must be firmly learned so as not to repeat the errors. I visited Urgenoi, the main gas field. The scope and rates of its development are really impressive. But when one gets better acquainted with the state of affairs, one finds out that here too commissioning of new capacities, the development of repair facilities and road building are lagging behind and automation is poor.
" . . . It is the same now, when it is necessary to equip the Arctic gas fields with the aid of superblocks, the Ministry of Oil and Gas Construction has again proved to beunprepared to do this . . . "
It was a litany of failures. Mr. Gorbachev's speech about those failures demonstrated his ability to speak truthfully and forthrightly about Soviet reality. His facts are apparently common knowledge to Soviet citizens, certainly those in Siberia. But they are certainly not well-known in the West.
Perhaps Prime Minister Gorbachev also revealed something more than he intended about his own political position, and the realities of Soviet politics, when he spoke in Tyumen. After reciting this long record of failures, failures in planning, failures in manufacturing, failures in production and failures in research, Mr. Gorbachev then proceeded to conclude:
"It was useful and interesting to see what gigantic work is being done here. Siberia is called the land of the future. But already today this land is multiplying the glory, wealth and might of our Motherland. Permit me to wish you success in work, good health to you and your families and all the very best in life!"
Failure is success and glory. Only in the U.S.S.R.! Perhaps the Tyumen speech summarizes both the strength and weakness of Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership: candor without admitting that the system itself causes the problems.