In the last two years, the Soviet economy has shown signs of revival from the slump that held it fast at the beginning of the 1980s.
Then, growth rates were declining; industrial production rose only 2 percent in 1981, the lowest rate since World War II. Harvests were poor, and widespread food shortages in 1980 moved the leadership to undertake a new all-out effort in agriculture.
Now, there are indications of improvement -- indications repeatedly stressed in November when the Soviet parliament met for the pro-forma adoption of the 1985 budget. Officials rattled off positive statistics, each offered as proof that the latter half of the 11th five-year plan, now in effect, was better than the first.
Whereas industrial output went up only 6.4 percent in 1981-82, it rose 8.8 percent in 1983-84. The 1984 figure of 4.4 percent even exceeded the plan's goals. Projections for industrial growth in 1985 were slightly lower, but at 3.9 percent they were still higher than during the slump.
The revival is modest, and some of the 1984 numbers are only provisional. But, say western analysts here, the figures show that the post-Brezhnev campaign for greater productivity -- coupled with drives against sloth, inefficiency and corruption -- has had some effect.
But while the downturn has been slowed, the problems inherent in the centrally planned Soviet economy have not gone away. As Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko pointed out in his budget message last fall, children's shoes are still hard to find in the stores, and one-third of the nation's trucks fail to deliver their goods on time.
As the Soviet Union entered the late 1970s, it became clear to experts here and in the West that the days of extensive growth, fueled by large infusions of labor and resources, were over.
The byword now is "intensification," as the Soviets try to make the most of their existing production facilities, extract less easily accessible resources and cope with a slackening in the growth of their labor force.
The labor problem has been called "enormous" by academician Abel Aganbegyan, a leading Soviet economist. In the last five years, the Soviet labor force grew by only 3 million -- 2.5 million in central Asia -- compared with 11 million in the previous five years. Projections for future growth are lower yet.
"For the first time in our history, we face the necessity of ensuring production growth purely by increasing labor efficiency," Aganbegyan wrote in September.
In another article in the Soviet magazine Science and Life, Aganbegyan noted that whereas production of fuel and crude products rose by 30 percent every five years before 1975, the figure for 1980-85 is only 5 percent.
Agriculture, which soaks up more than 30 percent of Soviet investment, is still a problem area. Although 1983 was a record year for overall agricultural production and both meat and milk production rose in 1984, the grain crop last year was again disappointing.
Another top concern is to do a better job of getting scientific and engineering expertise out of Soviet institutes and into the factories.
How to harness technology for economic ends is a recurring theme here lately; it will be the topic of the next plenum of the Communist Party's Central Committee. The topic has taken on particular importance as the Soviet Union faces the consequences of falling behind the West in the computer age.
Often, the bottleneck in getting technological innovations into production is only met by another bottleneck at the factory level, where managers resist innovation.
An article in June noted that a plastics factory in Kazakhstan had bought a press for 600,000 rubles in 1967; it stood unused for 17 years and finally was thrown out. A Leningrad fish factory had no room for a 150,000-ruble conveyor belt it had ordered, so the belt was stored away. In all, the article said, 4 billion rubles worth of equipment lies unused in Soviet factories, despite a fine against not installing new equipment.
Many discussions on economic problems in the Soviet press end on a common theme, calling for a more rational wage structure that ties salaries to performance, to bring about higher productivity and a better distribution of jobs.
In 1983, then Soviet president Yuri Andropov launched a series of economic reforms aimed at what many experts argue are the root causes of Soviet economic problems. The reforms, begun in five ministries last year and targeted for another 21, were designed to give local managers more authority and provide incentives to workers and managers to increase productivity.
But recent articles have noted that, in practice, much of the vaunted decentralization has not occurred: Ministries overseeing the reform industries won't let go of their authority.
One story, recently published in the newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya, summed up the kind of headaches faced by Soviet planners as they try to squeeze a better performance out of the vast, sprawling economy.
According to the newspaper, a factory in the city of Bryansk was ordered to produce 35 modern road-building machines during the current five-year plan. The all-union ministry in Moscow and its local equivalent agreed that the new, more powerful machines were badly needed, so they promised the factory to help out with the equipment needed to produce the new machines.
But, according to the article, instead of producing 35 machines, the factory so far has produced only 10 -- two a year.
By the newspaper's account, the explanation lies somewhere deep in Gosplan, the state's central budget and planning agency. Gosplan apparently never allocated resources for the new production, and the factory, already overbooked with work, was unable to meet the demand.
Gosplan justified its decision by calling the machinery request "unimportant," noting that in other cases in which the same new machines were ordered for road-building crews, they were rejected.
Why? Because the faster the machines prepared the road bed, the quicker the supplies -- cement, sand, metal -- had be delivered for the work to be completed. Until delivery was speeded up, the roadbuilders did not see the point of switching to the faster machines.
The article draws its own conclusion: "New technology demands new attitudes . . . figuratively speaking, if a man who is used to riding a horse is suddenly made to drive a diesel locomotive, he needs not only greater knowledge, but a different level of culture and thinking. This is a psychological barrier overcome very slowly by road builders."