In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous "secret" speech to the 20th Soviet Party Congress. The subject was Stalin. Khrushchev had no interest in balanced assessments. "Concerning Stalin's merits," Khrushchev said wryly, "an entirely sufficient number of books, pamphlets and studies had already been written in his lifetime." Khrushchev would concentrate on the demerits.

He then proceeded to call Stalin a man of "capricious and despotic character" whose "persecution mania reached unbelievable dimensions." He catalogued Stalin's "brutal violence" and "barbaric tortures," his "moral and physical annihilation" of those who opposed him. Stalin's crimes were so gigantic, said Khrushchev, that they included the "mass deportations from their native places of whole nations."

Khrushchev went so far as to deflate Stalin's war record. He pointed out how Stalin's prewar purges had destroyed the morale and efficiency of the army, how unprepared Stalin was for the Nazi invasion of 1941, and how panicked and paralyzed he was by initial reverses. To top it all, this criminal and blunderer was given to "the most dissolute flattery." Of the books and the films glorifying Stalin's role in the war, said Khrushchev, "They make us feel sick."

Now that is de-Stalinization.

This week, 31 years later, Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolu-tion. It was to deal, in part, with Khrushchev's subject, the Soviet past. According to advance billing, Gorbachev would unveil a new stage of glasnost by radically revising Soviet history. Expectations were high. There were leaks that Gorbachev would denounce Stalin, rehabilitate Bukharin and Khrushchev and maybe even have a civil word for Trotsky.

As it turned out, the speech was, if not a retreat, what Wall Street would call a correction. It was certainly a disappointment for Gorbachev's promoters. The "new thinking" turned out to be an exercise in split differences. Rehabilitate Bukharin and Trotsky? No. Instead, bring Bukharin back from the dead for playing "an important part in defeating Trotskyism" -- this is cynicism with finesse -- and then attack Bukharin for "dogmatic thinking and a nondialectical assessment of the concrete situation," which the all-seeing Lenin had foreseen all along.

Khrushchev, heretofore also an unperson, did get a favorable nod before Gorbachev repeated the official party judgment that Khrushchev had indeed been guilty of "voluntarism," another of the deadly sins of scientific socialism. Trotsky remained the great Satan. And Stalin got a mixed review. There were his "gross political errors," "abuses," "wholesale repressive measures" and "acts of lawlessness." But to learn that someone might have died as a result, you would have to go elsewhere -- say, to Khrushchev's 1956 speech.

On the other hand, urged Gorbachev, there was "Stalin's incontestable contribution to the struggle for socialism." After all, it was Stalin who saved Leninism from, yes, Trotskyism. And Gorbachev was careful to note "the tremendous political will, purposefulness and persistence, ability to organize and discipline people displayed in the war years by Josef Stalin." Khrushchev would have gagged.

Gorbachev was most revealing in discussing the collectivization of agriculture. There were, Gorbachev admitted, "excesses" and "losses," apparently referring to the millions murdered by Stalin in the process. Or to put it more scientifically, "there was a deficit of the Leninist considerate attitude to the interests of the working peasantry." The millions who died in Stalin's man-made Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 would agree. But, said Gorbachev, the policy itself, produced a "transformation of fundamental importance." It was "basically correct."

Gorbachev's resort to euphemism, a style suited to the language of Marxism-Leninism, was not a matter of delicacy. He was not just trying to conceal the full horror of the Stalinist past. He was trying to stake out a middle position on it. He would criticize, but not reject.

In a society as saturated with politics, as driven by ideology, as dominated by propaganda as the Soviet Union, what the government calls reality, what it allows as history and what it considers heresy are of extreme importance. What Gorbachev has to say about Stalin is as important a test of democratization as, say, how much autonomy he grants factory managers. And on this test, using a standard 30 years old, Gorbachev failed.

His speech certainly marks an advance over the stuporous Brezhnev and his comatose successors. But it is a retreat from Khrushchev. Admittedly, Khrushchev's 1956 speech was delivered in secret, but the speed with which it was made public -- within four months the State Department had released the text -- raises doubts about how secret he intended it to be. Indeed, at the 22nd Party Congress in 1961, Khrushchev publicly denounced Stalin's "criminal actions" and "vicious practices" in which "thousand of completely innocent people perished." He documented Stalin's use of torture, forced confession and murder, which included having his own brother-in-law shot. Two days after the speech, Pravda and Izvestia published it in full.

Is Gorbachev's caution simply a calculated maneuver by a true visionary whose ultimate goal is indeed to open up the prison that is the Soviet Union? Possibly, but today's evidence supports the view that he is a conventional reformer whose goal is to improve the efficiency of prison life by letting the inmates breathe a bit. And that is hardly grounds for following the urgings of Gorbachev's Western acolytes that we bend our foreign policy, extend credits and negotiate agreements in order to strengthen Gorbachev and his cause.

The cause, declared Gorbachev to his audience of despots, is "government of the people, exercised by the people themselves, and in the interests of the people." By, of, for. Rings a bell. Rings false.