Now that we are snorting the pungent vapors of international good will, based on a possible new missile treaty and the expected visit of Mikhail Gorbachev, there is sure to be a flurry of improved feelings about many things Soviet. Skeptics will remind us that some previous interludes like this have preceded nasty incidents such as the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, but it's likely that thousands of earnest internationalists from America will soon be rushing to obtain visas for their first trip to the Soviet Union.

Therefore I feel some obligation to offer a few words of caution to potential travelers, especially because Americans are used to traveling by automobile. I've driven in the Soviet Union -- beyond the polished precincts of Moscow deemed suitable for visitation by Intourist and into the bleak countryside. It is a hard place to love. I recall it as a gloomy, 19th-century collection of bare-wood villages and scruffy cities spread across an acreage so vast and remote as to grind all but the most gallant souls into submission.

Several years ago I joined a group of western journalists who were test-driving a small fleet of Saab 900 Turbos into the Workers' Paradise. We crossed the border from Finland south and east of the small, scrubbed city of Lappeenranta. The Soviet frontier came in a stand of snow-dappled fir trees, and the stop was brief. But that was only the beginning of an arduous four-hour entry procedure. Three kilometers inside the actual border, we crossed a no man's land lined with electrical fences and watch towers that stretched from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea. A Red Army station stood on a low hill. There, our passports were taken, and our cars frisked. Long needles were stuck into the headliners, probing, we were told, for seditious literature. Mirrors were slid under the chassis, seeking more contraband.

Once set free from the grim-faced guards (all recruited from interior provinces to discourage defections), we headed along a network of vacant, potholed roads. Traffic was limited to an occasional timber truck or a rattletrap Volga sedan wobbling uncertainly through the wilderness. Several trucks were seen tricycling along on three wheels, their loads mounted to counterbalance the lack of the fourth wheel. Only the trucks and troop carriers belonging to the army appeared to be in top shape.

We stopped briefly at Vyborg, a drab city on the Gulf of Finland that the Soviets took in 1944 as a residual effect of the Russo-Finnish War. Some Finnish friends told us that it had once been a thriving port. Now it was a pile of bleak stone buildings, looking like the incarnation of a black-and-white World War II newsreel. The railroad station was packed with somber citizens and reeked with the aromas of urine, alcohol and onions. At one point on the way out of town, we made a wrong turn. A police car swept out from a side street and redirected us to the proper course. Halfway between Vyborg and Leningrad, we passed through an army checkpoint where our visas were examined and the trunks checked for stowaways. Easy, improvised motor journeys through the Soviet Union are unknown. But then, what better way for a highly centralized government to control a populace than to inhibit the possession and the use of private automobiles?

Leningrad, a centerpiece of the Russian revolution, had the traffic density of Baltimore on a Sunday afternoon. People movement was clearly the responsibility of the mass-transit authorities, and the few cars we encountered appeared to be in the hands of bureaucrats and party functionaries. Away from the tourist attractions along the banks of the Neva River such as the Winter Palace and the Hermitage (where priceless masterpieces were oafishly exposed to sunlight or crudely lighted by bare light bulbs), the city was a patchwork of semi-vacant streets fronted by blank-faced buildings. The scenes were reminiscent of American inner-city slums, but devoid of graffiti. When we parked at our hotel, we removed the windshield wipers as instructed, thereby relieving temptation for theft in this "crime-free" society.

Overall, I was left with the impression that the Soviets view the automobile as a purely utilitarian device -- an appliance without any potential for pleasure. To be fair, there are substantial numbers of environmentalists and consumerists in the United States who also embrace this sentiment. But to the average American, the automobile represents something emotional as well as functional: It is the embodiment of freedom, a device that allows someone to go where he wants, when he wants.

Perhaps the new movement toward glasnost will liberalize the use of automobiles in the Soviet Union. There is no question that Gorbachev's new regime is making moves to energize the economy and, presumably, to loosen the tethers on popular commodities. Perhaps the auto will be included, but more likely the road will be long and arduous. The Soviet Union is a closed society, and, based on the hundreds of invasions suffered and the millions of citizens lost to wars, internal revolutions and purges, the notion that there will suddenly be a change of course resulting in a giddy, open-door, free-enterprise society is naive.

The automobile might prove to be an especially disturbing problem for Soviet leaders. It is essentially an anarchistic device, offering options to its operators that can throw a tightly regulated economic and social system into disarray. Yet, based on the appetites the Soviet people have exhibited for such western curiosities as rock music, Levi's, Pepsi- Cola and punk fashions, and considering the news that two Pizza Huts are about to open in Moscow, one still has to wonder how far away these people might be from flashy hot rods with four-speaker stereos and turbo motors.

Anybody know how to say "power windows" in Russian? ::