ROY MEDVEDEV is a prominent Soviet dissident, but a highly unusual one. His scholarly output, for one thing, is prodigious (11 books over the past eight years, some written jointly with his brother Zhores in London). A self-professed "scientific socialist," he has on the one hand been warmly embraced by Western left-wing intellectuals, while on the other frequently taken to task for his abhorrence of "revolutionary" rhetoric, his firm advocacy of gradualism, and perhaps most of all for his view tha change in the Soviet Union will come about not through the efforts of History's chosen instrument, the working class, but largely as the results of reforms instituted "from above."

His following in Russia, as far as one can tell, is negligible, and among Russian emigres he is regularly denounced as a fawning opportunist, an enemy of dissent, and (why not?) as an agent of the KGB. As for the authorities, they have thus far subjected him only to intermittent harassment, bemused as they probably are by his refusal to participate in organized dissident activities, his popularity with the Italian Communists (who have published some of his works), and his obstinate use of Marxist terminology (he was thrown out of the Party in 1967).

Five years ago, I spent several hours with Medvedev in his Moscow apartment, and found him neither the wily monster as portrayed so often in the emigre press, nor the prophet of the socialist utopia, as he appears to some of his admirers in the West. Instead, before me was a softspoken man, rational, with some questionable views, yet withal determined to convince by force of argument rather than by thunderous obiter dicta. Now that we have the translation of his interviews with Piero Ostellino (Moscow correspondent of Corriere della Sera), the English-speaking reader can judge for himself what manner of man is Roy Medvedev, and how valid or invalid are his views. The title On Soviet Dissent, incidentally, is somwhat misleading, for the interviews range far and wide, from Medvedev's opinions on Lenin and Stalin to his observations on the present state of Soviet-American relations. There is also a chapter on "Dissent in the USSR, 1978-79," written especially for this book, as well as the text of an interview conducted by another Italian journalist in February of this year.

What is the person, then, that emerges from these pages? And what does he think about Russia's past, present, and future? He is, indeed, a socialist deriving his general view of the world from the basic tenets of Marx and Engels, yet refusing to accept them as a binding and rigid "ideology." In the past, his fidelity to the founding fathers extended also to Lenin. But now, he clearly holds the latter repsonsible for many of the foul misdeeds of his successors, though he still argues that some of the distinguishing elements of the Soviet system, such as "the one-party dictatorship, limitations on discussion within the party, censorship, and [the] use of violence against political opponents," were not "inherent" in Leninism, having been introduced in the heady 1917-20 period as purely "temporary" measures. (One can only wonder whether, having divested himself of his former uncritical adulation of Lenin, Medvedev may yet come to the conclusion that the smilarities between "Leninism" and "Stalinism" far outweigh their dissimilarities; in any case, his lingering attachment to the founder of the Soviet state helps to explain the furious fire that Medvedev has drawn from many of his Russian and Western critics.) On the other hand, while in the past he had advocated at best a multi-socialist party system for the Soviet Union, he now comes out four-square for "the existence of non-socialist parties, too," fully conceding to his relentless interlocutor that in "an authentic democratic situation," non-socialist parties would have the right "to install a non-socialist democracy."

"Democracy" is in fact the single most important concept in Medvedev's thinking. In an interesting aside, he professes his admiration for the "socialism with a human face" that inspired the Czech reformers in 1968, yet adds that "this is an unfortunate name, because what must be changed is not just the face, not just the facade of the colossal structure of 'actually existing' socialism," but also "what is hidden behind it." "Above all, " he observes, "socialism must be fused with democracy in the fullest sense;" it must "provide for freedom of speech and of the press, freedom for political minorities, and it must emphatically repudiate all violence toward dissenters, respect religious rights, and eliminate all artificial obstacles for religious groups." At times Medvedev seems to depart altogether from his "materialist" assumptions (surely axiomatic to any self respecting "scientific socialist," one would think), as when he asserts that "the most important instrument for change remains the truthful word."

Yet however revealing this observation, it remains tangential to Medvedev's fundamental approach, which stipulates a gradual evolution and democratization of existing Soviet institutions. He has spelled it out most thoroughly in his book On Socialist Democracy (1975), and in his present interviews he offers some further comments about it. His aversion to facile generalizations or romantic overstatements is also evident in his assessment of the current status of Soviet dissent. His description of the origins of political opposition in the Soviet Union (which he maintains exested even in the darkest days of Stalinist terror) is emeinently judicious. So is his criticism of the tactics pursued by some of his fellow-dissidents, as well as of some of their views (e.g., the nationalist-mystical school represented by Solzhenitsyn), and his conviction that there are foraces in the USSR which " are able in many cases to do far more good for the progressive and democratic development of our society when they are working 'within the system' than when they find themselves outside it" (a point frequently overlooked by foreign observers). His prognosis for the future is somber yet by no means hopeless: the "democratic movement, " as it's been known since the mid-1960s, is clearly on the decline, with most of its members either in jail, in exile, expelled from the country, or forced into silence. Yet this, he insists, is but a passing phase: certain historical processes cannot be reversed, the quest for "social renewal and moral regeneration" cannot be thwarted, and sooner or later " a new generation of dissidents will also appear." In the February 1980 interview, which took place during the latest wave of brutal reprisals against dissidents (the exile of Sakharov, more arrests, more expulsions, and the removal of thousands of "undesirables" on the eve of Moscow's Olympic Games), his mood is even more bleak, his concern about his personal safety more acute, his comments about the government's methods more scathing, yet his belief that opposition cannot and will not be eradicated remains as firm as ever.

Now, Medvedev's philosophy will not endear him to Ronald Reagan and his dyed-in-the-wool advisors, nor will his advocacy of "genuine detente" and disdain for President Carter's human-rights theatrics find favor in the eyes of groups such as the Coalition for Democratic Majority which periodically dispenses paper-awards to Soviet human-rignts activists at $100-a-plate dinners. Indeed, democratic socialists, too, will find some of his views -- such as the qualified admiration for Lenin, the conviction that the Soviet Union is still basically a "socialist" society, or that the Soviet Union, all its iniquities notwithstanding, is ahead of Western democracies "in the area of social and economic rights" -- faintly absurd, if not downright appalling. Still, among the voices of Soviet dissent that speak to us from within our midst and from across the oceans it is good and useful to have that of Roy Medvedev -- occasionally wrong, frequently sound and refreshing, and always calculated to confound friends and foes alike.