FOR CENTURIES, RUSSIANS have remarked on the slow pace of change in their country. A former resident of Moscow returning after a 10-year absence is quickly and forcefully reminded why. This lumbering clumsy giant of a country resists change the way oil resists vinegar.
Peter the Great, Alexander II, who freed the serfs, Lenin, Stalin and even Leonid Brezhnev all demonstrated that Russia can be changed, but the country's underlying momentum almost always resists it. Except for a few unmistakable physical improvements, the last 10 years in Moscow could have passed in 10 months, so much does the city look and feel as it did in 1974.
This is a source of strength for the Soviet system. Stability and predictability are highly valued by Russians -- more highly than most Westerners can appreciate. Russians are comforted by the fact that the famous Moscow Metro still costs five kopeks, that exactly the same kinds of bread are sold today as 20 years ago, that the newspapers look the same and the radio sounds the same.
But there are surprises, like the Sunday night traffic jam on the Minsk highway. This road leads to many of the suburban areas where Muscovites have weekend dachas -- mostly modest little wood houses or cabins. A decade ago one could zip in and out of town on the Minsk highway at 50 or 60 miles an hour with no difficulty.
But now, especially on Friday and Sunday evenings, the road is jammed with cars.
The Fiat auto factory the Soviets bought in the 1960s to bring this country into the automotive age has now produced 10 million cars. It costs the average worker five years' salary to buy one, which means most average workers still don't have cars, but the price is no disincentive for many others. Waiting lists to buy a car are still long. Muscovites who 10 years ago only dreamed of a car now confess to an inability to live without one.
"Yes, I drive to work," one official said recently, a little sheepishly. "I love the feeling of independence it gives you to drive your own car."
The masses of people who constantly tramp the streets of Moscow are intimidated by the cars. The concept of "pedestrian right of way" does not exist here; the driver is czar. People are stunned when a driver actually stops to let them cross the street.
Another surprise is not visible on the street, but can be found, people say, in a growing number of apartments inhabited by members of the large Soviet elite: videotape recorders. "Veedeyo" is the rage, and understandably. Those who have a recorder have access to Western movies that are never shown here -- provided they know the right people who have tapes of these films. The Soviets are now beginning to make their own videotape recorders, but in Moscow it's a German or Japanese one that people seek. Two friends with recorders can duplicate a tape quite simply, provided they have a blank cassette -- a rare and cherished item now.
Athletes and ballet dancers, it is said, are the best source of new tapes. They bring them home from trips abroad. The Soviet boycott of this year's Olympics may have significantly stunted the video revolution here, but it seems destined to develop anyhow.
A Soviet journalist recently told a European friend about his elderly uncle who came to his apartment one evening and saw a movie on videotape for the first time. The old man was flabbergasted. "What a blow to the Bolsheviks!" he said. And so it might be. The electronic revolution offers numerous threats to a system that has been based on a government monopoly of information and unrestrained censorship.
There's yet another surprise in the local movies -- nudity. It suddenly became permissible several years ago. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the one-time poet whose talent and reputation have declined in recent years, has made a new movie called "Kindergarten" that includes a long scene showing a totally nude woman rolling about in the snow. (It's a terrible movie.)
At the same time, a new order has gone out to movie directors banning any scenes in new films depicting drinking or smoking. The authorities are on one of their periodic binges of temperance propaganda.
Moscow looks better than it did in 1974. After too many years of tearing down the old city to make room for horrendous monuments to the modernity of the Soviet revolution, the authorities here have reversed course. Many old apartment houses are being gutted and remodeled instead of destroyed. Ornate 18th-and 19th-century buildings have been given pleasing facelifts. Vacant lots that used to be magnets for litter have been converted into little parks in many corners of the city.
Muscovites look better, too. There's been a noticeable improvement in clothing, and the women seem much prettier than they did a decade ago. Perhaps the most striking evidence of this is the experience of an American woman who 10 years ago was quickly recognized -- by her clothes -- as a foreigner. Last month the same woman was repeatedly stopped on the streets of Moscow by Russians from the provinces who asked her for directions. They had taken her for a fashionable Muscovite.
Blue jeans are now common, though Russians seem to feel that they should not be washed. Many jeans look as though they would walk away by themselves if their owners took them off. The papers report that consumers remain unhappy with the selection and quality of clothing available. One recent article bemoaned the lack of T-shirts with slogans printed on them.
Life in the capital is easier than it was a few years ago -- when food supplies were really inadequate -- but housewives believe the situation was better 10 or 20 years ago than it is today. (Outside of Moscow and a few other big cities, the food situation is much worse. Rationing of bread and meat is now commonplace in many parts of the country.)
Housing has also improved somewhat. There's been a slight decline in the number of Muscovites living in communal apartments, sharing bath and kitchen with other families (20 percent of the population still lives that way). On the other hand, much of the new housing that was put up hurriedly in the Khrushchev era (1955-64) was so shoddily built that it is now falling into the category of slums. The newest housing construction appears to be of markedly higher quality.
From afar, it is easy to forget about the Russia that rarely if ever gets into the news, but which is more important to most Russians than the name of their leader or the state of Soviet-American relations. This is the human Russia, the life of ordinary people who are making their lives here, going about the business of raising families, pursuing (or not pursuing, as the case often is) ambition, growing old.
Around the corner from The Washington Post's bureau here, Moscow women are still learning the art of flower arranging in a storefront on Kutuzovsky Prospekt. Every Sunday, thousands of Muscovites flock to the pet market where puppies and kittens, rabbits and ducks, birds of a hundred varieties and tropical fish are sold and traded.
At this time of year the farmers markets are full of tempting fruits and vegetables, especially melons, which hospitable Russians urge on guests as though they are going out of season -- which they soon will. It's also the mushroom season, a source of great excitement to millions of Russians who know the edible wild mushrooms from the dangerous ones.
Another aspect of Soviet life that is easy to forget from a distance is the eager willingness of many citizens to do their government's bidding and to adopt their government's views. The other day school teachers jammed the poster store on Arbat Street to buy propaganda posters to put on their classroom walls for the new school year, which began Sept. 1. One teacher in the long line bought a dozen of them -- at about 40 kopeks each -- including several that lambasted the United States and Western imperialists, and others urging children to study harder or work harder at athletics.
"Throw in one of those Politburos," the teacher said as he completed his selection of posters. He was referring to a poster of the official portraits of the Soviet leaders, whose faces are ubiquitous in Soviet offices and enterprises.
A Moscow intellectual listened to this account of the goings on in the poster store and shook his head dejectedly. "You know the slogan, 'People and Party United'?" he asked. "The truth is, they really are united. We may not like it, but they are."
Not that skepticism has disappeared. There's a new joke about the mortality of Soviet leaders, most of whom are well into their 70s, and two of whom have died in the last two years. The present leader, Konstantin Chernenko, is reportedly ill.
The joke exploits the difference between two kinds of tickets sold here for theaters, concerts and the like. One is an ordinary single ticket to one performance. The other is a series subscription to a number of performances. Russians call the series ticket an abonement.
The story goes that a Russian was walking toward Red Square for the funeral of Yuri Andropov last February. (Red Square was also the scene of Brezhnev's funeral 15 months earlier.) This citizen was stopped by one of the thousands of policemen providing security for the funeral. "Comrade," the policeman said, "show me your ticket."
"I don't have a ticket," the citizen replied. "I have an abonement."