While glasnost has done wonders for rock music in the Soviet Union, says Alexander Sitkovetskiy, that's not all that's brought the 32-year-old guitarist and his band Avtograf to the 9:30 club tonight as the first Soviet government-sponsored rockers to tour America.

Avtograf's eight-year climb to prominence in both East and West has been a long and steady one, he says.

"I can explain it to you in only a few words," he says in a thick but pleasing accent. "We began touring small cities and then small countries and did it step by step. The more concerts we did, the more interesting things developed."

Interesting things were developing, however, even before the band first left Russia. Avtograf's debut album sold more than 6 million copies in the Soviet Union, a nation not exactly known for the kind of marketing that produces platinum album sales. Until now the band's only exposure to an American audience came at the Live Aid concert in 1985, when the group was broadcast from a Moscow television studio.

Sitkovetskiy describes the group's music as "melodic, progressive hard rock." American record producer Bob Farr, who recently collaborated with the band, calls it a "strange mixture" of Bon Jovi, Cutting Crew and Rush.

Like the rest of his bandmates, Sitkovetskiy is a conservatory-trained musician. He got to know rock through his father, a classical violinist who routinely purchased his son records by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad while touring abroad. An "impulsive" kid, perhaps a bit rebellious, Sitkovetskiy simply gravitated toward the music, starting his first band in 1972. Seven years later he became a founding member of Avtograf.

"There was only one turning point," he says, offering a brief history of Russian rock. "There was no difference for rock musicians, whether it was Brezhnev, Chernenko or Andropov {in power}. Only with Mikhail Gorbachev."

For an established band like Avtograf, which toured the West under previous regimes, glasnost hasn't meant "striking changes," Sitkovetskiy maintains. "But five years ago," he points out, "it was impossible for a young band to become popular and travel abroad. Right now it's the ordinary thing in the Soviet Union."

Back in the U.S.S.R., things are noticeably different for aspiring rockers. Since Gorbachev came to power in 1985, some changes have been drastic, Sitkovetskiy says. There are more bands and clubs and concerts, including more performances by Western acts such as Billy Joel and UB40. Where the party line once denounced rock as another blatant example of Western decadence, a new tolerance is now evident.

Even the lines that once separated the underground bands from those given "official" status are disappearing, according to Sitkovetskiy. "Now we have professional and amateur bands, but all of them have the same right to perform. Now there's no difference," he asserts.

He points to the popularity of protest-oriented groups like Leningrad's Aquarium and Sverdlovsk's Nautilus Pompilius as examples of how different political views are allowed under glasnost, if not exactly encouraged.

"Nautilus is a very young band but very popular and very strong in their protests ... really an ideological band," he explains. "We can't say that Avtograf is the same kind of band. For us the main thing is music -- melody and so on. But we are trying to sing about ourselves, about our generation, about the problems connected with many things."

Sitkovetskiy is Jewish, as is Avtograf's bass player, Leonid Gutkin. Two of the three remaining members of the band are part Jewish, but he doesn't attach any significance to the band's religious background, despite the obvious questions it raises. Asked if rock songs promoting more freedom for Soviet Jews would now be tolerated under glasnost, he responds quickly:

"Right now I think so. For example, recently I went to {an} Aquarium concert in Moscow where they sang a very, how to say, angry song about Afghanistan and all the problems there. And it was allowed -- no problems. And it was very well accepted by youth."

Still, Sitkovetskiy understands that many Westerners view such liberalizations as simple Soviet self-interest, aimed at luring more young people to the Communist Party and showing a more youthful face to the West. Such explanations, he says, are "reasonable ... but that's not the only thing.

"It was impossible to forbid the music," he says. "I know from our own experience, from the history of our band, that it's the same history of bands in the West. Only now we are beginning in Russia to understand the music market -- what show biz is about, what we should do to become popular in our country and other countries ... The only difference now is I can go to the minister of culture and talk ... Before it was impossible to ask such questions."

Sitkovetskiy, who lives in Moscow with his wife Olga and their 4-year-old son, has performed in the West often enough to discern some differences between audiences at home and abroad.

In the West, "audiences are very experienced," he explains. "They know where they are going and what they will listen to. But in the Soviet Union we will play at arenas for 5,000 or 6,000 people and everyone will come, from 4-year-olds to grandmothers. For them, it's something new."

Now it's America that's new to Avtograf. Tonight's performance will be followed by one-night stands at the Drums nightclub in New York and the Channel in Boston. It will also include a lot of material sung in English, thanks to American singer Meri D., who's been tailoring the band's songs for this tour. Meri D. is also scheduled to open in Boston and Calgary, Alberta, where Avtograf will perform at the Olympic Arts Festival.

"We face a very hard task," Sitkovetskiy says, noting that glasnost has not only increased competition among Soviet bands, but also has generated enormous interest in the West. "Young musicians come up to us and ask how it is to tour the West and now America -- the biggest and best market for music," he says. "So we have to perform not only as Avtograf, but the first Soviet band to play in America, and then pass our opinions to the other bands."