Beyond the passing of party leadership in the U.S.S.R. from Leonid Brezhnev to Yuri Andropov lies the broader, impending change of an entire leadership generation. At such a time in such a system--where political power is never legitimized by consent and where military power has never been more awesome--it may be important to ask anew the basic questions: What in reality is the U.S.S.R.? What realistically might it become?

To ask these questions seriously requires putting aside many fashionable attitudes: the voyeurist preoccupation with who is doing what to whom inside the Kremlin; the parochial assumption that analogies from our very different system can be used to explain theirs; and the tendency of many politicized experts to build a predetermined prescription into their diagnosis.

Outwardly, the U.S.S.R. is the last and largest of the great multinational empires that has survived from the pre-modern world. During the adult life of Leonid Brezhnev, it became the second most powerful nation on earth at incalculable human cost. Materially, the Brezhnev generation rose to power in the wake of the bloodiest internal purge that any political elite has inflicted on itself in peacetime in this violent century. But he and his comrades legitimized themselves by leading the fight against Hitler, and went on successfully to probe the inner atom and outer space. Spiritually, they extended police power into the human psyche and attempted to destroy the important world centers of all three of the great prophetic monotheisms--Judaism, Chistianity and Islam-- which had flourished within the Russian Empire when Brezhnev was a boy. The rival, secular ideology of Leninism that came into power during his adolescence was used to justify everything that followed and ossified into the intellectual labor-saving device of a corrupt dacha despotism.

By Brezhnev's later years, a once modestly growing economy had turned stagnant. Little seemed to work well except massive missiles, on the one hand, and tiny private plots, on the other. A geriatric Politburo seemed unable clearly to choose either of two possible spurs to fresh effort: a full return to Stalinist command and terror or a serious effort at reform based on decentralization and market incentives.

Thus, the U.S.S.R. that Brezhnev left behind is rather like a heavily armored ship with powerful new weapons and increased cruising range -- but with a basic power system running out of steam. The question is not just which way the captain will initially turn the rudder or how the leadership will line up on the bridge, but how the entire crew will get the ship moving again. How will the officers Brezhnev left behind deal with two problems they must immediately confront: a dragging anchor and a flapping sail?

The dragging anchor is, of course, the centralized bureaucracy rooted in a repressive police establishment that has survived and grown through every revolution and purge of recent Russian history. Many tough Stalinists -- ranging from authentic executioners like the late Mikhail Suslov and Arvid Pelshe to impassive apparatchiks like Andrei Gromyko and Boris Ponomarev -- substantially increased their authority under Brezhnev. The hard-core cadres indebted to such figures seem to have acquired a kind of veto power over reforms, which in any event were discredited in advance as risking repetition of Nikita Khrushchev's "hare- brained schemes." Unwilling to countenance re- Stalinization, Brezhnev effectively stopped de- Stalinization. Many who survive him will want to stay that course.

The flapping sail comes from the fresh winds that are blowing in the broader society. These represent a major potential source of fresh energy, if anyone could find a way of tying the sail to the deck.

There are two key desires in Soviet society: efficiency and identity. The search for efficiency results from spreading education and rising consumer expectations during the 37 years of uninterrupted peace and relative prosperity since the war. From ordinary workers to sophisticated scientists, there is a quiet but powerful determination to extend the criterion of practical efficiency into areas previously reserved for ideological authority. The result is a kind of "creeping pragmatism" within the system, which has weakened the authority of distant political leaders calling for present sacrifices in the name of remote future goals.

Even more important politically is the search for identity. Paradoxically, the rise in birth rates and in ethnic consciousness of the many other nationalities within the U.S.S.R. has given new psychological urgency to the need of the dominant Russian nationality to resolve the classical question of its own identity. As communism has steadily lost internal credibility, nationalism has increasingly become the emotional glue that holds the Soviet Union together. But the Brezhnev era conspicuously failed to define a post-Stalinist Russian identity for the post-Stalinist generation. The search for it had a political origin in the "Secret Speech" in February 1956 of Brezhnev's predecessor. Khrushchev denounced Stalin's intra-party crimes and destroyed the key Stalinist myth of Kremlin infallibility.

By the late Khrushchev era, however, it became clear that no serious explanation or full inventory was to be provided of Stalin's crimes, no restitution made to most of the victims, and no structural guarantees provided by law against a recurrence. Many thinking people concluded (and a few publicly proclaimed) that the Soviet system was probably neither self-corrective nor capable of defining a worthy identity for a post-Stalinist Russia. The cutting edge of this important task thus moved out of official channels into the "second literature" of samizdat and the "second academies" in which a wider range of topics could be discussed in homes in evenings than was possible during the day in government offices. (At the same time, a widening range of economic functions began to be assumed by the unofficial "second economy.")

Within the new, better educated generation, the old Russian tradition of a truth-seeking intelligentsia quietly revived and acquired new importance by taking over the important spiritual problem of defining a post-Stalinist identity for the Russian people, of continuing the process of de-Stalinization that Brezhnev had artificially arrested. Unable to play a political role in the present, they sought to recover the past in order to prepare for the future; and in the course of the 1960s, they systematically restored living links with three roots of Russian culture that had been all but destroyed during the Stalin era: literature, religion and rural life.

Older writers who had returned from the camps (Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov) or from forced exile (Pasternak, Nadezhda Mandelstam) provided models for the young and exposure to a literary tradition of authentic moral passion. The discovery by many young people of their half-obliterated thousand-year legacy of Orthodox Christianity (often through unorthodox sects or through antiquarian curiosity) reminded many Russians that they had an indigenous alternative to socialist realism in the arts and party expediency in morality. And the rediscovery of rural Russia by students and writers was a kind of act of restitution to the forgotten peasantry on whose backs Stalinist collectivization and industrialization had been so brutally accomplished.

By seeking links with the countryside, urban intellectuals moved beyond narcissistic preoccupations to broader social concerns -- often through organizations for the preservation of the environment or historical antiquities. In the late '60s and early '70s, there was a perceptible move toward greater social relevance, though not toward politics. The center of literary gravity moved from histrionic poetry readings to the more cutting and contemporary medium of satirical plays. An oral counterculture developed in which protest songs on the guitar replaced sentimentality on the balalaika, while cheap tape recorders kept alive alternative versions of history and folklore through magnitizdat. Finally came a kind of civil rights movement--seeking evolutionary reform rather than foredoomed revolutionary protest, trying to overcome isolation by signing their own names and forming small gropus, building on the Helsinki agreement of 1975, and infusing the cause of human rights with a moral passion and idealistic purity that is perhaps only possible among those who know what it is like to have lost them.

"Cursed be the land that must live without heroes," Galileo's young follower cried out to young audiences after his idol had recanted before the Inquisition in the great production of Brecht's "Galileo" that played in the Taganka theater through much of the Brezhnev era. Galileo, played by the great dissident folksinger Vysotsky, slowly replied in a moment of electric silence: "Cursed be the land that always has need of heroes." For a while, a small group of heroes seemed to be exorcising that curse -- and moving beyond the fear that had been so all- pervasive in the Stalinist past.

In the last lines of "Filming a Movie," another popular play of the period performed in the theater of the Lenin Komsomol, just off Red Square, an old historian reflected on the humiliation of constantly changing his writings to suit the authorities and concluded: "The most awful thing is not that evil people are so powerful, but that others are so afraid of them." There seemed almost the outline of a new ideal in the change from 1963 to 1973 of the professions most admired by the graduating class of a high school in Novosibirsk: from soldiers, astronauts and physicists to doctors, writers and historians.

But in the late years of the Brezhnev era, the plays were shut, the dissidents destroyed and most of the leading figures in the quest for identity either died or were driven into emigration, exile or silence. The dissidents were only the tip of an iceberg of indeterminate size within the official ruling class itself. But those who sympathized with the effort to continue de-Stalinization were made to realize that the rest of the iceberg was to remain frozen in place, invisible and below the surface. The effort was made to co-opt the search for efficiency by promoting the concept of a "scientific-technical revolution" as a sublime new stage of socialist development; and to co-opt the search for identity by promoting chauvinistic xenophobia at home and projecting military power abroad.

In terms of hard political realities, one should never underestimate the power or resourcefulness of Soviet leaders in crushing dissent, skillfully adopting its slogans, and even setting one current against the other by taking advantage of the inherent conflict between a forward-looking, "Westernizing" concern for efficiency and the tradition-oriented "Slavophile" preoccupation with identity.

Yet a hard political question remains--and will be answered only at that point in the future when the post-Stalinist generation of leaders finally supplants the present aged Politburo. Will that new leadership generation, once in power, identify solely with the semi-Stalinist political system through which it will have to rise? Or may it identify at least in part with the higher moral aspirations and de-Stalinizing quest that has been so important to its own generation?

One reason that many observers give for assuming that there will be no enduring significance to the ferment of the Brezhnev era is the undoubted cynicism of most of the Soviet population. Most people are simply spectators at an argument that involves a small number of distant rulers on one side and an even smaller number of distant intellectuals on the other. But there may be the ghost of a once and future morality behind the cynicism of the new generation. The original cynics were, after all, the most moral of men.

Another reason for assuming no enduring significance to the ferment is the rapid rise to the party leadership of the man most responsible for its massive repression in the late Brezhnev era, Yuri Andropov. Yet the paradox of Soviet politics may well be that his very background as former head of the secret police puts him in a better position to undertake innovation and even reform than others might be who would have to be preoccupied with personal security in a time of intense political insecurity. Andropov may be the perfect leader for attempting to modernize without liberalizing totalitarianism.

But Andropov, lacking either practical experience in managing the economy or broad contacts with the peer group of provincial political leaders, may not be able to do it all himself. At 68, he perhaps is a transitional figure. He will almost certainly, however, soon undertake reforms to increase the efficiency of the economy -- possibly adopting elements of the Hungarian model he knows so well.

In the short run, the face of the new leadership is likely to be a stern one. The very strength of the suppressed forces of ferment will be perceived as a threat to survival. There is a tendency in a system where new authority is not legitimized by popular elections to rally round the tomb when a leader dies; and the possibility of an increasingly militarized and chauvinistic regime cannot be ruled out. This autarkic answer to the search for identity would be encouraged by either of two Western behavior patterns: premature efforts to make gratuitous concessions from a divided West because of some perceived political "window of opportunity," or a rigid decision not to send any signals of future flexibility until we fully close what we perceive as a strategic "window of vulnerability."

The short-run dangers are considerable from a system that has not changed and may merely become more sophisticated and cynical in using its military power. But we may take a measure of reassurance--and of optimism for the longer term -- not just from the problems faced by the U.S.S.R. at home and on its borders but, more important, from deeper forces at work within the Russian people themselves.

Simply to sustain the economic base of its military power, the Soviet leadership must before long cope with its own peculiar form of energy crisis: a human energy crisis--the product not of fossil fuels but of fossilized minds. Any rulers will have to find new ways to motivate an increasingly frustrated and better informed populace. Militarism and nationalism are unlikely to suffice for long in the absence of any clear new threat to the Soviet Union itself. The people of the U.S.S.R. have seen some 40 million of their brothers and sisters killed by unnatural means (wars, purges, forced repopulation, etc.) in the Soviet era. They have a deep psychological need for a fuller accounting of their sufferings than has yet been offered by any of their leaders -- and for some measure of restitution.

This pent-up Russian desire to find an identity beyond Stalinism is unlikely to lead to movements or institutions that will exactly follow Western models. The Russians seek -- as some put it -- "neither Peking nor Detroit," and the outside world can do relatively little to affect the process. But in this important and uncertain transition period to a new post-Stalinist generation of leaders, there is clearly a need for more channels of communication and direct human contact than the United States has tended to have with the U.S.S.R. in recent years.