WHAT IS Mikhail S. Gorvachev's policy of glasnost all about? Is it a move, albeit tentative and complete, toward genuine freedom of the press? Or is it window-dressing designed to deceive the West into a false complacency regarding the true nature of the Russian communist system? Or can it be that glasnost is neither of the above and represents a peculiarly Soviet phenomenon which cannot be understood in familiar American terms?

Russian-English dictionaries offer a variety of translations, ranging from "openness" -- which smacks of propaganda. The political history of the term strongly supports the former, more far-reaching, interpretation.

For a Westerner eager to understand glasnost origins and contradictions there is hardly a better way to start than with Angus Roxburgh's new book Pravda: Inside the Soviet News Machine. Pravda is the official organ of the communist Party Central committee and by far the most important Soviet newspaper. It is in its pages that those who want to go "beyond socialism" would be likely to receive the Kremlin's verdict. "The rest of the soviet press takes it cue fro Pravda, and the rest of the world studies it -- not only as the official voice of the Kremlin, but as a facinating mirror in which Soviet life is reflected, and at times distorted."

Roxburgh is well qualified to write a history of Pravda. Currently with the BBC External Services, he spent three years in the Soviet Union. In addition to his library research, Roxburgh was able while in Moscow to visit the Pravda editorial offices and to interview in some depth a number of its staffers.

Pravda achieved its pre-eminent position among the Russsian media at the time of the Bolshevik revolution of November 1917. One of the new regime's first moves was to close papers associated with other parties and to confiscate their printing plants. In accordance with the view of V.I. Lenin, buy that time the undisputed Bolshevik leader, Pravda ws not really supposed to be in the information business. Instead it had to act "as a collective propagandist and organizer," under the direction of the party leadership.

During the Civil War and immediately afterward, Pravda on occasion provided a platform for debates between Bolshevik factions. But by the late '20s, as Josef Stalin consolidated his power, Pravda had become his personal weapon. The paper functioned under guidance from Stalin's private secretariat. In the '30s, that guidance turned Pravda into an important tool in the political purge. Headline sin the paper during the mass terror were remarkably graphic: "Squash the Reptiles," "For Dogs -- a Dog's Death" and "No Mercy to the Traitors of the Motherland." To demonstrate popular endorsement of executions Pravda would go so far as to publish instantly "five full pages of letters of support and resolutions passed by workers at various factories (in some cases by the night shift, when Pravda must already have gone to press)."

When Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler in August 1939, the very word "fascism" disappeared overnight from Pravda's pages. AFter the war it was Pravda that orchestrated the Soviet media crusade against such writers as Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoschenko. and it was in its pages that Stalin launched the campaign against "ruthless cosmopolitans" (read Jews).

After Stalin's death Pravda stopped being an instrument of terror. In the framework of Nikita S. Khrushchev's de-stalinzation drive even Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn for a while enjoyed favorable reviews by its literary critics. Still, "Pravda 'opened up' only to the extent decreed buy the top Party leadership." And it "closed down" again to a considerable degree after Khrushchev's ouster from office in October 1964 -- the ouster that Pravda, incidentally, only reported three days after it happened.

The next major opening up di not occur for another 20 years. AD 1-PRAVDA,COPY,SY,ACT,COPY,,,until the advent, under Gorbachev, of a new period of glasnost, reviving the term originally used by Aleksandr Herzen and other Russian democrats campaigning for liberal reforms during the 1860s. In the 1960s Soviet dissidents adopted glasnost as a slogan in their struggle for civil rights. There is little chance that Gorbachev was unaware of the symbolic message the very reference to glasnost as the new official Soviet policy in the '80s would send to his countrymen.

The Soviet media, including Pravda, has taken glasnost seriously, broadening the scope of its coverage considerably. In pre-Gorbachev times Soviet journalists were "judged primarily by the assiduousness of their efforts to follow up Party initiatives, not by their success in actually persuading people." Today, what Pravda says, especially in its domestic reporting, appears much more believable and, accordingly, much more effective as propaganda. Furthermore topics which were strictly off limits before, such as high-level corruption and abuses of power, drug problems and social injustice, are now daily matters of discussion.

Still, not everything is open to criticism. Do not look for questioning of Gorbachev's conduct, to say nothing of the Party's right to maintain its monopoly of power. Nor are Soviet journalists in a position to scrutinize Moscow's foreign policy record. Whatever mistakes may be admitted to at home, the Kremlin's actions abroad are uniformly portrayed as peaceful and just.

Worse, outright disinformation continues to be perpetrated on a large scale. During recent months the Soviet media has accused the United States of: intentionally spreading AIDS in Africa; developing a so-called "ethnic" weapon that kills only non-white; using CIA hit squads to massacre members of the People's Temple; masterminding the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Olaf Palme and the attempted assassination of the Pope; training international terrorist in special U.S. government-run schools; and keeping in jail "thousands of political prisoners" and routinely confining "fighters for civil rights" in mental hospitals.

So has the way Pravda is run really changed? It certainly still has the same editor -- Victor Afanasyev -- who was appointed back in 1976. Its chief political commentators is the same Yuri Zhukov who, during the early '50s, won notoriety for his anti-semitism. Pravda correspondents, as in the period before Gorbachev, are not just journalists. They have an official status as representatives of the Central Committee chief organ and are expected to be treated as the Kremlin's emissaries.

In Roxburgh's view "Glasnost was never intended to mean freedom of information for information sake." Rather, Gorbachev -- desperate to see the Soviet Union moving again -- is skilfully manipulating the media to overcome powerful forces of conservatism and immobility. He himself has cautioned observers not to read too much into glasnost. In a May 1987 interview with the Italian Communist paper L'Unita, he rejected the notion that "the Soviet Union has finally taken it into its head to come closer to a Western style democracy. The case," he observed, "is quite the contrary." Certainly it is better that the Soviet leadership rely on the press rather than the secret policy for co-operation in reshaping the country. And many of the political and economic objectives that Gorbachev pursues with the media's help are more appealing than the inept and corrupt policies of the Brezhnev era. Yet Pravda: Inside the Soviet News Machine suggests that up to now glasnost has been an attempt to render tyranny more enlightened and efficient -- not to eliminate it altogether.

Dimitri K. Simes is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a syndicated columnist.