When former New York Times Moscow bureau chief Hedrick Smith's The Russians first appeared 14 years ago, the Iron Curtain was intact, the Cold War was still raging, and reform, he concluded confidently, was quite impossible.
Like a lot of other observers, Smith was wrong. And when he returned to Moscow in 1988 for the first time in more than a decade, the veteran journalist now reports, he was astonished by how much Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of perestroika had already transformed a once fearful and passive nation. Thus began a two-year project to gather material for this book and to film last spring's documentary for American public television, Inside Gorbachev's USSR.
Smith's technique is simple: seek out an assortment of interesting and articulate middle-class professionals and get them talking. What emerges from his interviews is a powerful sense of a country gripped by uncertainty as well as hope. ''The excitement over glasnost and democracy has dissipated,'' a nervous filmmaker tells Smith. ''When it was new, people were in ecstasy at all the new things that were possible to say and do and see. But now, people notice that it has brought nothing new in their lives.''
Smith discounts such gloomy assessments. A ''historic divide has been crossed,'' he concludes: ''The entire process of reform (has) gained a momentum of its own.'' For the sake of Smith's talkative, likable ''new Russians,'' one can only hope that he is right. B