SOVIET AGRICULTURE By Zhores A. Medvedev Norton. 464 pp. $27.50

THE WEST is fascinated by Mikhail Gorbachev's calls for perestroika, the restructuring of the Soviet economy. The media tell us about his attempts to resolve conflicts between Soviet consumer and defense needs, to change industrial management and work methods. We seldom hear much about agriculture.

Yet agriculture will probably do more to determine the success or failure of perestroika than any other part of the economy. And Soviet agriculture is such a disaster that it would be foolish to predict success. Zhores Medvedev cites many problems from Soviet sources. Farming takes 35 percent of the Soviet investment budget, incredible in a developed economy, depriving industry and consumers of funds, goods and services they need. The system doesn't produce enough tractors to plow or combines to harvest all the land that's sown, and the machines it does make are so heavy they seriously damage the soil. It produces vast amounts of chemical fertilizer -- in the wrong combination of elements for phosphorus-poor soils. The country can't feed itself and has become the world's largest grain importer. It wastes 70 billion rubles a year subsidizing retail food prices, which are lower than the prices the state pays state and collective farms, which are usually lower than actual production costs. Every effort at reform complicates or simplifies bureaucracy without doing much for farming; as Medvedev says of the current plan, launched in 1982, "All parts of the 'Food Program' are moving, except for the production of food."

Soviet agriculture has been in crisis ever since Stalin collectivized farming by methods that "deported" 5 million people in 1929-1930 and killed 7 million in a famine caused by the forced confiscation of all available grain in 1932-1933. The revolution that has just celebrated its 70th anniversary is inextricably identified with that nightmare. Soviet historians have begun to examine this chapter but just barely. Gorbachev's caution about opening up history in his November 2 speech makes collectivization unlikely to be the next field for a triumph of glasnost, the public airing of ideas that he has made a keynote of his reform.

Medvedev has produced a book that is essential to an understanding of both the current and the historical mess. It's unusual, perhaps unique, in combining a look at Russian agriculture from before the revolution to the fall of Khrushchev with an analysis of the situation as it has evolved over the past 20 years. Medvedev is also unusual in his qualifications. He's a Soviet geneticist who trained and worked for years in agriculture. He was successively fired from his job, confined in a mental hospital and deprived of his citizenship for being what might be called a premature believer in glasnost. He wrote two books that were published in the West while he was still in the Soviet Union; one was about Trofim Lysenko, the charlatan of genetics who set Soviet biology and agriculture back an entire generation, the other about the restraints on liberty that make Soviet science lag behind the world's in all but a few specialties. Medvedev was more of a loyal oppositionist than a dissident and still sounds that way writing in exile in England: he wants to make the Soviet system work, not to destroy it.

UNFORTUNATELY, this essential book is not easy reading. Medvedev tries to maintain the tone and stance of a scientist. He claims he started the book without preconceptions and was surprised to discover how bad things were. So he states no hypotheses, but marshals his evidence in each chapter in calm, almost monotonous prose, and then draws some conclusions. But he often seems reluctant to generalize. He includes hardly any examples of human drama among either peasants or agricultural scientists that would bring his points to life. He avoids political or sociological analysis that might cast more light on things -- the cultural differences that help explain why Latvian and Estonian farmers still outproduce those in the other Soviet republics, for instance. ("In the old days, the peasants here knew how to read and write. In Russia, they didn't," an Estonian motor pool supervisor told me in 1971. He was offering his view of the reason Estonian cows produce twice as much milk per year as the U.S.S.R. average, a disparity Medvedev says still exists.)

If you're a non-specialist, you may want to scan the chapter conclusions, marked in the table of contents, before you decide whether you want to go through all of a chapter's evidence. But then you may miss some gems, like Medvedev's mention of bezkhozyaistvennost. This word translates literally as "the state of being uneconomic." Medvedev renders it first as "general mismanagement" but adds that it "defies translation, since it includes poor and shoddy work as well as poor coordination between different branches of the economy." He mentions it only at the end of a section on "the technical and organizational problems of livestock and milk production," but if you read carefully, he is saying that it's the prime characteristic of Soviet agriculture. ::

Anthony Astrachan is a former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post.