RUSSIA, BRITISH HISTORIAN Thomas Carlyle wrote more than a century ago, is a "big, dumb monster." The Reagan administration obviously agrees with Carlyle. Acting on the assumption that the Soviets are desperate for American technology and know-how, this administration has sought to build new barriers to block Soviet access to American science and technology that they think the Russians cannot live without. The Soviet Union needs us, the Reagan administration contends, but we don't need the Soviet Union.

But if the U.S.S.R. is so backward, how has it managed to build titanium submarines capable of going 40 miles an hour underwater -- faster than any of ours? Why are companies such as Bristol Myers, Dupont and 3M buying new patented drugs and surgical devices from the U.S.S.R.? Why are Kaiser Aluminum and Olin Corp. acquiring sophisticated Soviet manufacturing know-how for casting non-ferrous metals?

I am in the business of trying to acquire Soviet and East European inventions and know-how that have commercial potential for American companies. I got into this field after doing a number of studies for the federal government on Soviet and East European technology. My experience has left me modestly impressed with Soviet technological strengths -- but powerfully impressed by American ignorance of them. When I tell new acquaintances what I do, they often are astonished that U.S. companies could find anything of technological value in the communist bloc.

This perception of the Soviet Union is perhaps understandable. Americans have been exposed to a stream of publicity about the Soviet theft of U.S. industrial and military secrets, and there is ample evidence that the KGB and other Soviet intelligence agencies have an active illegal technological acquisition program throughout the West. Like other countries, the Soviets also openly buy specialized western technology, from cigarette making machines to chemical processing technology and truck factories.

But we should not infer from this that the Soviet Union is hopelessly backward, or that we have little to learn from its scientists and engineers. The Soviet Union, to be sure, is a nation plagued with economic problems. Its consumer goods and its industrial products often don't measure up to Western standards. But we should not be misled by this.

A great deal of the country's innovative laboratory research, creative product design and excellent applied science never show up in final products because of bureaucratic inertia and bottlenecks.

Good ideas get degraded in production by inadequate manufacturing methods and poor quality control. These problems are not self- correcting in a system where a factory can sell virtually anything it produces due to chronic shortages and lack of competition.

In other words, there is a Soviet technology gap -- but it is mostly within the Soviet Union itself. It is a technically highly advanced society, but one that is constantly frustrated by problems rooted in its system of economic incentives and industrial organization.

It is true that shopkeepers in Moscow and Kiev still use the ancient abacus to tote up the bills of customers. But Soviet hydroelectric power stations operate with sophisticated Soviet-made computers. If Americans had an opportunity to see Soviet shipyards, visit a continuous steel casting plant in Novo Lipetsk, or inspect an electroslag melting line in Dneprospetstal, they would get a view of sophisticated industrial technology at work.

If we fail to grasp the true nature of the Soviet economy and Soviet technological capabilities, we will fall into facile miscalculations -- like the belief that the West could bring Russia to its knees through all-out economic warfare. In almost every case in which the West has denied specific technologies to the Soviets, they eventually have developed capabilities of their own. Examples range from synthetic industrial diamonds, (now a major Soviet export item) to vacuum remelting furnaces that make the high alloy steels for aerospace.

We tend to judge Soviet accomplishments by our standards rather than theirs. We stress appearance, while they frequently stress simplicity and functionalism. As a result Soviet equipment often looks crude and unfinished to American eyes. And that distracts Westerners from a more fundamental question: does it do the job?

Soviets understandably resent the fact that Westerners don't give them credit for their very real achievements. For example, Russians have drilled the world's deepest bore hole -- a geological experiment in the Komi Peninsula that goes nine miles into the earth. The Soviets have pioneered development of lasers, laid much of the groundwork for current high energy physics and accumulated more experience manufacturing industrial materials in space than the United States.

Yet the Reagan administration's technology policy toward the Soviet Union has been almost entirely defensive, and has ignored the potential for American gain from Soviet brains. It has focused public attention on the threat to national security posed by Soviet acquisition of American science and technology. It has tended to lump together the illegal espionage activities of the KGB and the ordinary activities of scientific communication and legitimate industrial information gathering of the kind that all countries engage in.

The Reagan administration has been excessively concerned about the "threat" posed by visiting Soviet scientists. Yet for American businessmen and scientists these visits can be opportunities to learn. For example, in 1981, engineers at the Varian Corp. in Palo Alto got the idea of using infrared light beams to anneal (remove stress from) computer chips from papers presented at Albany, N.Y., by Soviet scientists describing their work using lasers for this purpose. These papers motivated the U.S. engineers to do the same thing, though using a somewhat different technique.

Dr. Walter Gilbert, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on DNA research while at Harvard, has acknowledged that the research that led to his award benefited from ideas stimulated by the visit of Andrei Mirzabekov, a Soviet biophysicist.

People who think the Soviet-American scientific exchanges are always a one-way street are ignorant about what motivates scientists. Scientists are inherently interested in sharing their research results and getting comments and reactions from peers, regardless of nationality. Respect from peers is one of the main "incomes" that scientists have. It cannot be obtained without contributing to the pool of knowledge. I am not aware that real Soviet and East European scientists are any different from others in this respect.

When American or Japanese specialists go to the Soviet Union, it is not only their brains that are picked. The idea of putting infant pigs in wire cages that can be stacked on top of each other for more efficient use of space came from observing the practice in the Soviet Union, according to Roger Gerrits, a swine specialist at the U. S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. producers are now using this technique, and U.S. equipment manufacturers are providing the special cages.

The Japanese firm, Mitsui Mining, began using hydraulic techniques for mining coal after visiting mines in the Soviet Union where highly pressurized jets of water were used to cut coal from the seam and to transport it from the mine. Mitsui has since transferred some of this technology to Kaiser Resources Ltd. of Canada.

Julian Sturdevant, a biochemist at Yale, uses a differential scanning microcalorimeter based on a design developed by a scientist at the Institute for Biophysics in Puschino. This instrument measures heat transfer inside of cells. Sturdevant learned of the new design, which permits more sensitive measurements than before, while visiting colleagues in the Soviet Union.d c Soviet scientific literature is not the desert some think. While articles are often sketchy and their ideas not reproducible, some Soviet open technical literature is of high quality. Roderick Scott, the former chief scientist at Perkin Elmer, a U.S. high-technology firm, has reported that the Soviet Journal of Spectroscopy is a valuable source of ideas and was regularly read at his company.

According to an engineer at Kaiser Aluminum, roughly half of all articles on nonferrous metallurgy that the company abstracts come from Soviet literature.

In its 1981 annual report, Varian Corp. acknowledged the value of Soviet articles describing work on gyrotrons. Nuclear fusion research in Japan and the United States, based on the so-called Tokomak or "donut" magnetic containment design, originated directly from Soviet work and publications on the subject.

Yet, according to Eugene Rivin, a Soviet emigre engineer who is now a professor at Wayne State University, very little of the Soviet technical literature is being tapped. In an April, 1983, article in Mechanical Engineering, Rivin cites numerous examples of high-quality Soviet publications in fields such as super plastic forming, squeeze casting and titanium alloys. Rivin echoes an opinion of many knowledgeable U. S. scientists that the level of much Soviet research is very high -- considerably higher than is reflected in the level of their consumer products and commercial machinery.

In Rivin's specialty, manufacturing engineering, Russian books on the subject are of excellent quality and often are more detailed than American ones. Yet much of this valuable Soviet information is missed by American companies that tend at best to subscribe only to foreign technical journals, not books.

Part of the U.S. problem in exploiting foreign technology is, of course, self-imposed. Our ignorance of foreign languages amounts to unilateral linguistic disarmament. Few American scientists can read Russian, let alone Japanese. Translations of foreign technical journals typically are poorly done and expensive. Underpaid, technically unqualified translators don't, as a rule, produce good translations of material that they would barely understand if it were in their native language.

U.S. business is learning. But only relatively recently have politicans and journalists begun to realize what industry has long known: We aren't the best in a lot of things, and we can and must learn from others.

Ironically, the Soviet bloc is surprisingly liberal about the technologies it is willing to sell to the West. In some cases the technology that has been made available has obvious military and strategic applications. These are technologies which, if the shoe were on the other foot, the U.S. government would be unlikely to approve for export to the Soviet Union.

Universal Oil Products, for example, imported a Soviet cold rolling mill in the 1970s to expand capacity for making hydraulic tubing for the Air Force; East German photogrammetric cameras used for making extremely precise measurements are being used to attach wing sections to the F16 fighter at General Dynamics' Fort Worth plant; Soviet electroslag hollow ingot technology sold to Cabot Corp. can be used for making rocket engine casings and gun barrel tubes as well as for more benign products such as rings and couplings. The highly efficient Soviet flash butt welding technology sold to J. R. McDermott of New Orleans for welding large diameter pipe will greatly improve the efficiency of pipeline construction by reducing the time and manpower required to weld 56- inch pipe.

For the most part, American companies buy the Soviets' technology for the same reason they buy ours. If someone else has already solved the problem, why reinvent the wheel -- if the price is right?

The issue isn't brains, but economics and priorities. Advanced technology can only be assimilated by countries that are themselves technologically advanced. One of the reasons the Soviet Union is capable of benefiting from our technology is that it is advanced.

As long as we can run faster than our competitors, we shouldn't worry too much about what others are learning from us, and that includes the Soviet Union. Unless we can focus our attention on the real problems facing U.S. industry, our concerns about the leakage of U.S. technology will amount to an idle diversion. The real problem is the lack of competitiveness of some U.S. industry.

Unfortunately the attitude of the government (and parts of industry) toward Soviet technology is symptomatic of a more widespread U.S. arrogance and parochialism born largely from competing in a postwar world when our natural competitors were devastated and Europe's best brainpower flowed to the United States. America became psychologically accustomed to being number one in everything that counted. And that led us to overlook the opportunities provided by foreign countries -- including our leading adversary.

If we view the Soviet Union as technologically backward, struggling to catch up with the West by buying or stealing the West's know-how, that will lead to different policies than if we perceive a more accurate picture: a Soviet Union that possesses tremendous scientific capabilities, even if they are translated unevenly or inefficiently into everyday practice inside the U.S.S.R.