It came as a complete surprise when the Soviet nominee, "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears," won the 1980 Academy Award for best foreign language film. The original Russian title is translated with more restraint on the print arriving today at the Key: "Moscow Distrusts Tears." Still, the gushy rendition seems an accurate reflection of the theme -- lovesick wish-fulfilment designed to vindicate the fashionable bourgeois career woman.

There was more condescending good will than esthetic discrimination behind the Oscar voted to "Moscow." Still, it would be difficult for Hollywood to ignore the implicit flattery of a Soviet feature so unexpectedly attuned to its own romantic cliche's and swoony misconceptions.

"Moscow" revives a genre Hollywood has failed to sustain, reliable as it would seem: the chronicle of provincial girls, usually a trio, in pursuit of careers and/or mates in the big city. "Stage Door" (1938) is perhaps the most durable example and "Valley of the Dolls" (1967) the most recent.

The Russian film introduces three country girls who become friends in 1958 while sharing quarters at a Moscow hotel for young women. Ostensibly, director Vladimir Menshov and screenwriter Valentin Chiornykh trace the romantic and social vicissitudes of these three over the course of 20 years. However, there's an enormous disparity in the amount of coverage and the degree of solicitude accorded each potential heroine.

The most confirmed homebody of the group, Raisa Ryazanova as the pleasant, lumpish Antonina, recedes quickly into a blandly virtuous background. She marries a compatible yeoman and they evidently settle down to a contented, thriving family life.

The early episodes are dominated by Irina Muravyova as the robust, humorously mercenary Liudmila, a shameless manhunter who considers Moscow a giant lottery and vows to hit one of the marital jackpots, such as they are. She apparently succeeds by snaring a socially insecure jock, a soccer star named Gurin (Alexander Fatiushin), but we're informed that the marriage hits the skids, due in part to the husband's weakness for the bottle.

During her manhunting youth Liudmila enlists the third roomate, Vera Alentova as the shy, studious, transparently "sensitive" Katerina, in her schemes. While apartment-sitting, Liudmila uses her spacious new surroundings to mislead eligible men, passing off herself and the reluctant Katerina as earnest university students in hopes of seducing the stray professor, bureaucrat, technician or celebrity.

The hoax seems to work for her, but it backfires on the naive Katerina, who is left pregnant and abandoned by a caddish TV cameraman named Nikolai (Boris Smorchov). Rejecting the abortion urged upon her ("This is women's business," the dishonorable Nikolai argues. "Go to your factory clinic -- we've got the best health-care system in the world!"), Katerina has her baby, a daughter she names Alexandra.

When the story resumes, the filmmakers jump ahead 20 years and elect to concentrate on Katerina, who has attained a remarkable professional status -- director of a chemical plant -- but remains unfulfilled romantically. Recognizing a deserving, high-class case when they invent one, Menshov and Chiornykh gallantly proceed to play matchmaker. Katerina is swept off her feet by a proletarian suitor of such ruggedly disarming manly virtue that he makes the Alan Bates character in "An Unmarried Woman" look like a dime-a-dozen catch.

It's at this point that Hollywood traditions appear to merge in the exotic, unlikely setting of contemporary Moscow. "Stage Door" collides with "An Unmarried Woman," so to speak. "Moscow" also exerts a considerable fascination by being the first contemporary Soviet feature to crack the foreign-language market in the United States in several years. The scarcity tends to make any glimpse of the way Russians live and daydream seem uniquely revealing.

Menshov and Chiornykh also reveal a fleeting aptitude for comic social observations and exaggerations that contradict the prevailing complacency and coziness of their vision.

There's one intriguing sequence that seems to cry out for feature-length treatment -- Katerina's encounter with the earnest, frustrated director of a Moscow social club for lonely singles. This young woman despairs of ever finding suitable escorts for all the educated, unattached women seeking aid and comfort at her establishment. The men, she laments, all seem to be watching TV or getting drunk somewhere else. The uncredited actress who plays the social director is wonderful -- a melancholy, abrasively witty girl who might be a great foil for Woody Allen if they spoke the same language.