THE NEW RUSSIANS

By Hedrick Smith

Random House. 621 pp. $24.95

HEDRICK SMITH left Moscow in 1974 thinking the Soviet Union would never really change. Three years of reporting for the New York Times had convinced him that the people of that country were politically passive, devoid of initiative and rightly fearful of the powers that be. That's what he wrote in The Russians, an international bestseller, which did more than perhaps any other book to shape Western perceptions of Soviet Man.

Fourteen years later, amidst the euphoria of Reagan's visit to Moscow, Hedrick Smith returned to a Soviet Union in the midst of revolutionary changes. It was to be the first of several trips to film "Inside Gorbachev's U.S.S.R.," which made a splash on American public television earlier this year. How far he found the country and its people altered is the subject of The New Russians, a huge panorama of the Soviet political landscape today that deserves to sell as many copies as its predecessor.

Throughout its 600 pages, The New Russians never ceases to inform and entertain. It is one of the best -- and certainly one of the most readable -- introductions to the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. It is also, by a long chalk, the most up-to-date book of its kind, which no doubt owes something to Smith's huge back-up team of researchers, translators and secretaries -- enough in the United Kingdom alone to staff a small university.

The book is a well-balanced blend of political narrative, analysis, anecdotes and accounts of conversations with key public figures, as well as the "people in the street" whose lives are affected by perestroika. Smith leads us into a jungle of Soviet offices, clubs, parliaments, factories and farms to meet the many diverse political animals belonging to that curious species, the "Russian."

There are dynamic media personalities, pushing back the frontiers of freedom; liberal academics, emerging from years of obscurity; pioneering entrepreneurs; struggling factory managers; cautious farmers; die-hard Communists from the Stalinist era; and belligerent nationalists, be they Russians or not.

What exactly makes these Russians "new," as the book's title suggests, is more open to question. Is it the Russians who have changed since Gorbachev came to power, or merely their political environment? Reading The New Russians, one is in fact struck by the overwhelming forces of inertia not just in the Soviet system, but in the people -- especially the Russians -- themselves. Why are the Russians so resistant to change?

No one has written better about the Russian character than the philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev, in his book The Origin of Russian Communism (1937). The historically rooted attitudes which Berdiaev believed distinguished the Russians from other Europeans are still to be found among those Russians encountered by Smith.

There is, first of all, what Smith refers to as "the culture of envy," which has its roots in the egalitarian customs of the pre-revolutionary commune. The commune functioned to share the burdens of poverty equally between its peasant household members, and it left a powerful trace on the mind-set of the Russians long after its destruction at the end of the 1920s.

There is nothing the Russian likes less than a more successful neighbor -- a "one of us" who gets rich, and becomes "one of them." If the greatest sin for an American is to be a loser, then, for a Russian, it is the opposite. For the Russians assume that only by cheating and graft is it possible to rise above crowd. In a country riddled with corruption, where for 70 years the only way to make a profit was through illegal activities, such attitudes are not without justification. But they do serve as a powerful brake on Gorbachev's efforts to transform the Soviet Union into a dynamic and Western-styled society.

These attitudes are reflected, for example, in the widespread animosity towards cooperative and private enterprises, whose high market prices during the current shortages are widely regarded as "speculative," a term with criminal connotations in the Soviet Union.

They are also reflected in common Russian fears of the market. Whereas the Poles and Hungarians seem generally willing to accept higher prices as the necessary costs of transition to a market economy and fuller shelves in the shops, opinion polls in the Soviet Union show just the opposite. The Russians accept rationing coupons and standing in line as the fairest solution to shortages, but reject price increases because they are seen to favor the rich. There stands the reason why Gorbachev has so far not dared to release price controls on basic consumer goods: He would face protests from millions of angry shoppers.

The "culture of dependency" is another inheritance from history to be found among Hedrick Smith's "Russians." Seventy years of socialist subsidies and state provisions have deprived many people of the initiative to look after themselves. Cheap housing, health care, education, transport and food are taken for granted by all, so there is little hope of introducing market principles here, unless private producers can add to the existing stock of services.

Take housing, for example, where the inadequacies of state provision are particularly acute. Many Soviets continue to live with their parents into their late twenties and even their thirties, because of the difficulties of finding a state apartment. This often has a dampening effect on their economic activities. If a private building sector was developed, then the prospects of buying a flat would encourage greater initiatives from the young to get out and find a well-paid job.

The greatest dearth of initiative is found among workers in Soviet factories and farms, where decades of stagnation and the socialist command economy have taught people to live by the maxim: "We pretend to work, and you pretend to pay us." Inspiring new initiatives here is Gorbachev's hardest task, for the Soviet worker has lost the pride in his work, the sense of responsibility and the time-work discipline which are all needed to raise productivity. As for the family farmer, hungry for land, he no longer exists.

It was really only in the fields of democratic and nationalist politics that Hedrick Smith found his "new Russians" no longer held back by the old forces of inertia. This spells disaster for Gorbachev's reforms, as many have been saying for some time, since the rising political aspirations of the Russians and their neighbors in the republics will continue to undermine the central state and its Communist-dominated apparatus for at least as long as there is no real improvement in the economy. The latter can not happen until a perestroika happens in the Russian mind.

Orlando Figes, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge University, is the author of "Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution, 1917-1921."