A REAL RUSSIAN conversation, one of the delights of Soviet life, is an intense, prolonged discussion of virtually every topic that comes to mind. It takes place in a homely setting -- around a kitchen table in a cramped communal apartment -- and one leaves it, at dawn, exhausted, excited and eager for more.

Robert and Hannah Kaiser's Russia From the Inside is a real Russian book about the gritty Soviet reality that a casual tourist could never see. Photographs and commentary reveal Russian attitudes toward everything from child-rearing and apartment hunting to Marxism-Leninism and the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call World War II. Kaiser explains Soviet cliches, contemporary jokes and the fundamentals of the system of privilege and blat, or pull, that are the real currency in the Soviet Union's nonmarket economy. There are scenes from a trial for "political hooliganism" -- in this case, writing anti-Soviet graffiti on factory walls -- and from the life of a dedicated young doctor in a remote area, whose village helped finance her medical education. We see the extraordinary results of crash programs in industry, science and the arts, the pomposity of official Soviet functions and the poverty of modern collective farm workers -- still tied to the land (they are not given the internal passports necessary to travel), and still trapped in the muddy, provincial towns that Gogol described a century and a half ago.

This is not a pretty, polished book. There are no picturesque grannies, photogenic Pioneers or sinewy workers at the hero projects of communism. The 200 photographs, most by Soviet photographers, are in an often grainy black and white. When they are beautiful -- and many are -- it is despite the notoriously poor quality of Soviet film and camera lenses.

The reader will not recognize many scenes. Even familiar landmarks are shown from something other than the picture postcard angle. St. Basil's domes appear above the gables of an old wooden house; Leningrad's Nevsky Prospekt is shown in gray mid-winter from an icy canal embankment. These photographs are details from the backdrop of everybody Soviet life: Cloakrooms, ice cream stands, offices, and cafeterias, meeting halls, nurseries and cemeteries. They are scenes that a Russian might disdain as too mundane, and that a savvy Western traveller might pass up to avoid a skandal -- Russians prefer visitors to photograph scenes typical of "tne new Soviet reality," and vociferously object if a foreigner's camera is pointed in the wrong direction.

The photographs are not simple, and to help explain them, Robert Kaiser provides lengthy captions and a rambling commentary that can lead in a few pages from the intelligentsia to women's liberation to shopping tips (get in line first, then ask what is for sale). The text is not supplemental, as it often is with coffee table books; it is essential to an understanding of the photographs. We see a member of Moscow's elite stopping to read a "wall newspaper" (the daily Pravda pasted to a bulletin board on the street), but we need the caption to know that the hat, gloves, shoes, and overcoat the man is wearing are all badges of his high rank in Soviet society. We see a comfortable middle-class Muscovite apartment -- comfortable, as Kaiser explains, because there is more than one room, because the family owns a new television, and most important, because it is in Moscow, the ultimate luxury. Of course, the family shares a kitchen and a bath with two other households, and there is no carpet -- carpets are deficit items," essentially unavailable except in the special stores reserved for the Soviet upper class.

Russia has long been an image-poor country. Westerners read current newspaper articles, not to mention Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in a visual vacuum. If pressed, they might be able to conjure up a May Day parade in Red Square, an assortment of portraits (writers, Romanovs and revolutionaries), and some scenes from the film version of Doctor Zhivago. Russia from the inside helps fill this gap with an exceptionally detailed an insightful look at modern Russian life. It could easily have been twice as long.