THE FOUNDING revolutionaries of Russia believed they could build "New Soviet Man" by building a new social environment.

They rejected the idea that nature limits human beings with inherited traits, and embraced the belief that they ecould nurture the qualities they sought -- intelligence, morality, obedience -- and do away with social ills such as alcoholism, prostitution, corruption, crime and even laziness as "vestiges of capitalism" left over from the czarist regime.

This debate, pitting nature against nurture, and environment against heredity, is a familiar one in the West as well. But in Russia, where it is also called "the biological vs. the social," it became linked to the Marxist roots of the regime, and became a crucial issue of ideology there.

Now, things are changing, and it is difficult for a Westerner to understand just how high the stakes are for the Soviet rulers. What is being questioned is not just a scientific theory, and not just the definition of the essential nature of man, but the claim of the Communist Party that it can make man in its own image, a claim whose theological overtones are echoed in the fears and passions this debate arouses.

The debate is a mirror of changing ideology and politics in the U.S.S.R., and is a part of the ebbing of the optimism of a revolutionary society. It has already resulted in the modification of reigning educational and psychological theories, although the discussions are continuing to rage and so far no one faction has emerged as a clear winner.

Hundreds of articles and reviews have appeared on the topic, embracing publications as varied as official Communist Party journals, literary and educational publications, and underground political manuscripts of both the left and right wings of the Soviet dissident movement.

A major player in the discussions has been Elena Chernenko, daughter of the late leader of the Soviet Union. Konstantin Chernenko himself pronounced on the issue in one of his major speeches.

The essential question is one which has been raised around the world: Why do some people become brilliant scientists or artists, while others become criminals or malingerers? Are environmental factors such as schools and social background primarily responsible, or does heredity play a major role? If both environment and heredity are involved, what are their relative weights?

What makes the debate different in the Soviet Union is that any questioning of the nurturist doctrine was traditionally considered politically subversive. Marx had stated that the social environment of a person determines his "consciousness." This was interpreted as denying an important role to heredity as an explanation of human behavior.

Genetic interpretations of human behavior were actually banned in Soviet publications from the mid- '30s to the early '70s.

Soviet educational psychologists of the '40s and '50s even included an explanation of human intelligence in their nurturist theories. They regarded intelligence as a characteristic acquired during childhood, not present at birth. IQ tests were not used in the Soviet Union, although examinations in specific subjects such as mathematics or physics were.

Soviet psychologists believed that intellectual achievement, a social product, could be measured, but not native intelligence, which they considered a false concept. All Soviet theories of psychology and education under Stalin were based on this nurturist assumption. Trofim Lysenko, an agronomist who in the '40s and '50s won a monopoly position for his fallacious biological theories about plants and animals castigated anybody who even suggested that genetics might be used for the explanation of human behavior.

After Lysenko's fall from favor in 1965 his theories of agronomy (such as the conversion of winter into spring wheat) were abandoned, but the ban on the application of genetics to human behavior remained. As late as 1976 the minister of education of the U.S.S.R., M. A. Prokofiev, called the idea that genetics might influence human intellectual achievement a "pseudoscientific assertion" and a "weapon of bourgeois society." According to Prokofiev, intelligence itself can be elevated in humans by a nurturing social environment.

If one compares recent Soviet writings on the nature-nurture issue to Soviet sources of the '30s and '40s, one sees a dramatic loss of conviction in the efficacy of nurturist methods. The generations that followed the revolution have found that many social problems that were to vanish with the triumph of Marxism have remained intractable. New explanations were needed.

In the early '70s, a prominent Soviet human geneticist, V. P. Efroimson, began writing articles and giving talks in which he emphasized the influence of genes on human behavior.

He called for the creation of a science of "pedagogical genetics" which would study the heredity of gifted people. He was writing a "world history of genius" based on genetic presuppositions. He explained both positive and negative aspects of human behavior on the basis of biology, saying that both "altruism" and "aggression" are genetically influenced.

In the Soviet Union, he maintained, the "biological preconditions of crime are emerging ever more clearly." In the recent writings of Soviet educational psychologists, a school of thought emerges emphasizing, on genetic grounds, different types of mental processes and talents in different people. Mathematics and music are identified as areas where innate abilities are particularly important.

One biologist, A. A. Neifakh, has seized on these findings and called for Soviet authorities to breed superior individuals, even using genetic engineering to do this if necessary. Neifakh's colleagues have sharply criticized this eugenic suggestion, but many of them agree that Soviet psychology had in the past exaggerated the influence of the environment on human behavior, to the detriment of genetics.

In several visits to the Soviet Union in the last few years I have discussed these new developments with Soviet intellectuals. In these conversations, I was astonished to find that "liberal" intellectuals who carefully distinguish their views from those of the official Marxist establishment were often very sympathetic to genetic explanations of human behavior.

In the United States, the opposite is true: liberals who believe in the perfectibility of man have traditionally found doctrines that emphasize how environment can affect development the most appealing, while conservatives opposing social intervention to improve the basic character of man have often favored arguments that man's fate is genetically predetermined.

When the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson a decade ago published his controversial book "Sociobiology," in which he explained some aspects of human behavior on the basis of genetics, he was sharply attacked by left-wing writers in the United States who tend to explain human behavior by citing environmental causes: parental attitudes, schooling, slum architecture and so on.

What was going on in the Soviet Union that explained the emergence of privately expressed hereditarian doctrines that made even Wilson's viewpoints look mild? The answer to this question is severalfold:

The gap between the Soviet rhetoric about the disappearances of social disorders and the reality of continuing problems was so great that Soviet citizens were losing faith in the old ideology. As a frustrated Soviet policeman battling crime cried out in a Soviet novel:

"I would like to investigate in a theoretical way the thesis that was long ago formulated as 'The causes of crime, the bases of crime, have been liquidated.' But just what is going on here if this is the real state of affairs? Why do we have burglars? Hooligans? Rapists? What's the matter? Can we calculate on a computer the genetic codes of different criminals?"

Soviet intellectuals enjoyed flirting with genetic explanations of human behavior precisely because such viewpoints were banned under Stalin as anti-Marxist; against this background, some of them considered the naturists' genetic doctrines to be intellectually liberating.

I have had the strange experience in Moscow of having intellectuals confide to me that they know and appreciate not only works of Western literature and art that are banned in the Soviet Union, but also the similarly prohibited view of the American physicist William Shockley that the different races have different innate intelligences. I am then forced to explain to my somewhat disbelieving Soviet confidants that these are not intellectual ideas of the same rank, and that Shockley's ideas are widely considered incorrect and reprehensible by educational psychologists in the United States.

And, last, just in the West, some conservative and nationalistic groups in the Soviet Union are drawn toward hereditarian, even racist, doctrines. Soviet dissidents in the '80s include some groups that are even proto-fascist, and several of them picked up the new hereditarian doctrines.

Thus, the Soviet sympathizers with naturist viewpoints are heterogeneous, ranging from "liberal" intellectuals to right-wing nationalists. All, however, oppose the still-official nurturist doctrine of the regime, which the critics see as no longer tenable. Hereditarian doctrines in the Soviet Union thus have among intellectuals a certain anti-regime "chic" quality, both radical chic and reactionary chic.

If you are an anti-Stalinist intellectual striving for freedom of expression in the Soviet Union, you may be attracted to genetic explanations of human behavior merely because the regime wants to squelch the idea; if you are a right-wing Russian nationalist fearful of Muslims or Jews, you may also find these interpretations attractive, although for different reasons.

Even among Soviet officials there is a certain interest in the hereditarian doctrines because these authorities have come to realize that the old Marxist interpretation of human behavior has, paradoxically, become subversive to the Soviet order.

What if a Soviet citizen seriously examines the question, "Why are crime and alcoholism still prevalent, perhaps even growing?" (Statistics on these maladies are not published, but many Soviet citizens are convinced that the problems are increasing.)

An orthodox Marxist would remain loyal to nurturist assumptions and would cite economic inequality.

But Soviet leaders are not eager to hear this argument; according to them, the Soviet Union is a "mature socialist society" in which deprivation has disappeared. Thus, they have a reluctant, if tacit, interest in the naturist theory -- it explains failings that otherwise might be blamed on the regime.

Occasionally, the party authorities have stepped in with a reassertion of the old nurturist orthodoxy, such as the statements in the early '70s by N.P. Dubinin, a leading Soviet geneticist.

Dubinin began his life as an orphan hoodlum in the '20s and was rehabilitated in a nurturist reeducation camp established by the secret police. As an eminent full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Dubinin pointed to his own life as a brilliant success of nurturist doctrines. He accused the naturists of abandoning Marxist principles.

But by 1981, Dubinin had been dismissed as director of the Institute of General Genetics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences on the grounds that he refused to give adequate recognition to the role of genetics in human behavior.

The campaign against Dubinin was led by A. D. Aleksandrov, a mathematician who is one of the few full members of the Academy of Sciences of noble birth. His grandfather was captain of the czar's yacht Standart, and Aleksandrov is known as a leader of the remnants of the old St. Petersburg intelligentsia, many of whom harbor elitist and hereditarian ideas about human behavior.

Meanwhile, the Soviet police in the '70s sponsored a series of studies on the link between crime and genetics -- the studies were carried out in 10 different corrective labor camps. Thus, the police in 50 years came full circle; in the '20s they ran camps based on nurturism such as the one Dubinin attended.

In the late '70s there was a circulation of samizdat or underground documents extolling naturist doctrines. One of these was a three-volume analysis of the conflicts of ethnic groups throughout world history written by Lev Gumilev, son of two of the Soviet Union's most famous poets, Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova.

Gumilev condemned racial intermarriage and said that the most glorious moments of Russian history have been when the native Russians rose up to throw out ethnically alien invaders. Gumilev's doctrine appealed to the right-wing nationalistic underground in the Soviet Union, although he himself was not a member of the right wing.

The late '70s also saw a counter- attack by nurturists led by Elena Chernenko, who defended nurturism as the "uniquely correct Marxist solution" to the problem of human benavior. Other counterattacks appeared in Communist Party journals. And in 1983, Konstantin Chernenko made a speech criticizing the explanation of human behavior on the basis of genes.

Nevertheless, in 1984, M. A. Prokofiev, minister of education of the U.S.S.R. since 1966 and one of the most prominent nurturists, was replaced.

The ideological leaders of the Soviet Union now face three alternatives on the nature- nurture issue:

Take a middle road by abandoning the thesis that Marxism explains all human behavior and therefore allow the debate to proceed in a thoroughly free way. While this option appears the logical one for many Westerners, it runs counter to Soviet ideological tradition, which reserves for Marxism a unique role in explaining human beings and their societies. Not a single Soviet author has explicitly recommended this policy, and the chances of its being adopted are slight.

Give in to the naturists' genetic arguments, and allow Soviet geneticists to advance their explanations of human behavior. The implications of such a dramatic departure from Soviet orthodoxy are momentous. On a theoretical level it would be regarded as a defeat for Marxism. On a practical level, it would lead to even fiercer elitism in Soviet schools than currently exists, and it would probably exacerbate ethnic tensions. Conflicts between native Russians, Jews, Muslims and other nationalities would probably grow, especially in the struggle for educational advancement.

Remain loyal to the traditional Soviet Marxist commitment to nurturism, and restrict the ability of the growing number of naturists to find publication outlets for their views. This option, which is close to the current situation, is the most likely path for the future. The cost for the leadership is that the intensity of the underground debate will then continue to increase.

As "secret knowledge," naturist interpretations of human behavior will continue to have irresistible appeal both to "liberal" anti-Stalinist intellectuals and to right-wing racists, people who would in a more free atmosphere have little agreement with each other. Thus, by limiting the debate, the regime solidifies the ranks of its diverse critics.

All three choices are unpleasant ones for the regime's ideologists, and both sides of the debate threaten the hopes of Western democrats who delight in attacks on Soviet orthodoxy. In any case, the hope for the building of the New Man is unlikely to be as certain as it was when the revolution began a new age in Russia.