THE SOVIET UNION is a place where most people like their jobs, housing and medical care, but it is far from an egalitarian or classless society. A wide gap separates rich and poor, and blue-collar workers are not viewed as the heroes presented by Soviet propaganda.

It is also a society that is in danger of losing the support of its best and brightest.

These are among the findings of a new series of studies of Soviet society based on interviews with nearly 2,800 former Soviet citizens now living in the United States. Perhaps the most surprising finding of the study, known as the Soviet Interview Project (SIP), is that those who were reaping the material benefits of Soviet socialist society in the late l970s -- those with the best housing, jobs, incomes and education -- were in general the least satisfied members of that society.

In the early 1970s, tens of thousands of Soviet citizens, predominantly Jewish, were allowed to leave the USSR for the West. By 1980 more than 125,000 had been admitted into the United States. They were a marvelously diverse group, including both blue- and white-collar workers, as well as doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers. The idea of interviewing this "living archive" on Soviet society was quick to surface among scholars -- and fortunately the opportunity has been seized.

The study was funded by the National Council for Soviet and East European Research under contract with the U.S. State Deparment, which backed the project along with the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Although the emigres interviewed obviously differed from Soviet citizens -- they "voted with their feet" and left -- the sample was constructed to reflect the adult, European population of the Soviet Union's large and medium size cities -- in short the modern sector of the Soviet system. Our primary interest in the respondents was in the differences that could be found among the various groups in these urban areas according to age, income, education and gender. Results have been tested to identify and eliminate ethnic and other biases. We have taken extraordinary measures to try to obtain an accurate picture of the most important aspects of life, work and politics of Soviet urban society.

Among our findings:

*Soviet society is far from egalitarian and the discrepancies may be growing.

*Younger members of Soviet society were the most alienated from certain fundamental tenets of the Soviet system and more critical of the system's performance than their elders. Their attitudes were strikingly different from young members of Soviet society in earlier generations.

*The more education an individual had, the less likely it was that that person supported certain aspects of the Soviet system.

*Yet in its drive to push forward in science, technology and the production of consumer goods, the Soviet Union must rely increasingly on an educated populace. To do so, the evidence in the survey suggests, is to court increasing disaffection.

*In general, support for state control of major sectors of the economy declines as educational attainment advances. A similar pattern occurs in responses to the questions that juxtaposed individual rights and the power of the state: As education advances, support for state power declines and support increases for such ideas as the right to strike or the rights of the accused.

Given that many observers believe that educational advancement and material rewards are key factors in building and maintaining support for the Soviet regime, the study's findings of disaffection among the young, the educated and the well-paid in Soviet society suggest that the drive to modernize the Soviet economy may be carrying with it some unsettling side effects for those who must manage Soviet society.

Evidence from a variety of sources, including the Soviets themselves, indicate that the pace of economic growth has slowed in recent years. What may be equally significant is that the way in which the Soviet pie is divided appears to have remained much the same -- and not that much different from patterns found in many Western "capitalist" economies.

One of the project's studies concluded that in 1979 the 10 percent of households with the highest average income per household member received 33.4 percent of the total household income. The share received by the lowest 10 percent was 3 percent. The highest 20 percent received 46.4 percent of the total income; the lowest 20 percent received only 7.4 percent.

Soviet society is, therefore, far from egalitarian. Indeed, the gap between those who are relatively well-off and relatively poor is wide -- perhaps wider in 1979 than it was a decade earlier.

Additional evidence of a growing critical stance toward certain aspects of the Soviet system comes from the finding that reading samizdat (underground publications) and listening to foreign radio broadcasts were common among the middle elite. Among those surveyed, readership of underground publications was most common among high-level professionals (45 percent) and political leaders (41 percent) and less likely among managers (27 percent) and blue-collar workers (14 percent). However, 77 percent of the blue collar workers listened to foreign broadcasts and 96 percent of the middle elite did so.

Indeed, the structure of support for the Soviet regime appears to have changed profoundly since the last time American scholars conducted a survey of Soviet emigres, in the late 1940s. Following World War II, a small group of Harvard professors sought to gain insights into life under Stalin by interviewing Soviet emigres in camps for displaced persons in Europe.

Whereas the Harvard interviewers found the young and well-educated to be the most supportive of key elements of the Soviet system -- and found older, less educated emigrants more critical -- the SIP survey found the opposite to be the case.

However, SIP researchers found, as had the Harvard scholars before them, that former Soviet citizens do not unanimously reject all aspects of the Soviet socialist economy. On issues of state control of heavy industry and state provision of free medical care, the SIP respondents tended to support the approach taken in the USSR. That is, 52 percent gave the strongest possible concurrence to state provision of medical care; less than 7 percent favored completely private medicine.

Even those who were strongly hostile to the Soviet system (judging from their responses to other question on the survey) did not reject everything about that system. Those who believed, for example, that the "U.S. can learn nothing from the USSR" still strongly favored state-provided medical care (48 percent) and nearly three out of 10 reported they favored state ownership of heavy industry.

Clearly, the respondents were not hostile to all aspects of the Soviet system; and their willingness to endorse strongly some key features of the Soviet regime while sharply criticizing others further enhances confidence in the validity of the survey's findings, including those that were not expected.

For example, given that those interviewed had abandoned the Soviet Union, SIP researchers were surprised to find that nearly 60 percent reported being "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with their standard of living during their "last normal period" in the USSR -- the five years preceding the decision to emigrate or the incident that led to that decision.

In general, the items tha the respondents were the most satisfied with were their jobs, housing and medical care.

We found that 63 percent were "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with their jobs -- with young people having the highest levels of satisfaction. Nearly 60 percent were positive about their access to medical care. And only one-third were dissatisfied with their housing.

However, they demonstrated a real impatience with having to queue up for goods and services that are taken for granted in the West, such as fresh vegetables, good cuts of meat and quality merchandise of all kinds. No less than 75 percent reported being "very" or "somewhat dissatisfied" with the availability of goods.

In terms of quality of life, the survey also found that:

*Housing was strongly linked to overall satisfaction, and a particular concern of the young, who were often required to share apartments or live in dormitories.

*Marrieds were more satisfied with the quality of their lives than singles.

*Residents of smaller cities were more satisfied with their lives than those in larger ones.

*Women, particularly older women, were more satisfied than men, even though they had lower income and occupational status, and even though they agreed -- as did men -- that men had it better in the USSR.

Other SIP findings are that:

*Those who abandoned the Soviet Union did so for a variety of reasons -- often for family rather than strictly for political reasons.

*The Marxist ideological goal of a classless society notwithstanding, blue-collar workers are seen as having relatively low status in the Soviet Union, while highly paid, well-educated professionals are held in the highest esteem.

*Low productivity in the workplace is common, but workers blame the lack of incentives and the failure to reward efficiency, rather than the factors commonly cited by Western scholars -- alcoholism, Soviet central planning or bad management.

Although the number of households living in poverty has declined -- thanks in large measure to a recent extension of the Soviet minimum wage -- it remains extensive; and, as in the United States, a "feminization of poverty" appears to be taking place, with single women and households headed by women with children accounting for an increasing share of the poor.

*Abortions were common among the 1,562 women surveyed -- 69 percent reported at least one abortion, and nearly 70 percent of those born between 1926 and 1945 reported two or more abortions, even though abortions were technically illegal in the Soviet Union from the mid-1930s until the mid-1950s.

*Most of those interviewed hold generally favorable views about the competence of Soviet scientists, but they are pessimistic about the ability of Soviet science to solve economic problems, especially those in agriculture.

It will certainly be asked whether the SIP survey is reliable. Weren't the vast majority of the emigrants questioned in the survey Jewish? Doesn't that fact raise serious questions about the validity of SIP's findings?

The answer to the first question is "Yes."

But the answer to the second question is "Not necessarily."

SIP respondents were most certainly not a typical cross-section of Soviet society. They were more educated, more urban and more than 80 percent were Jewish -- and they left the Soviet Union for the United States. They left, however, for a variety of reasons.

When asked why they emigrated, the reasons most often cited were "religious" or ethnic (mentioned by 46 percent of the respondents), family or friends (48 percent), political (43 percent) and economic (27 percent).

The answers varied with the role the person had in making the decision to leave the Soviet Union. Politics and religion were more important for those who made the decision, family more important for those who had no significant role in the decision to leave.

The picture that emerges, therefore, is complex, but the significant point is that the respondents are not a like-minded group of political dissidents, each of whom was clamoring to leave the Soviet Union for the West, but instead a much more diverse group in terms of their attitudes, interests and aspirations.

Nonetheless, the question of bias remains a keen concern of the scholars involved in the project, and it has been addressed in ways that yield increased confidence in the results.

Although SIP scholars have found that ethnic bias exists among those in the survey, the evidence suggests that it is a selective bias that comes into play on issues related to ethnicity, and not on more general political questions.

Therefore although the perspectives revealed by the SIP survey are not a perfect reflection of Soviet society, they still provide a unique and valuable window on that society.

The clear pattern that emerges from the survey is that the young, much more so than those who are older, judge the regime on the basis of its current performance. They are generally more critical and much less inclined to accept present conditions just because they are improvements over the past.

Specifically, the young are looking for material and measureable progress, and if it does not materialize or does so only slowly and haltingly, that, too, could create problems for the Soviet leadership.

Although SIP findings show that there is a significant base of support for many aspects of the Soviet regime -- especially among older, less well educated and blue-collar members of that society -- it is also clear that the young and those who might be called "the best and the brightest" are restless and discontented with much that goes on around them.

It's an insight into Soviet life that may not be all that surprising to Americans -- but it may well be giving Mikhail Gorbachev some concern.