For six weeks in August and September, Mikhail Gorbachev dropped from sight. He was reported to be vacationing, but some Soviet specialists suspected he was actually working hard on his speech for the Bolshevik Revolution's 70th anniversary. From leaks, rumors and his dashing leadership style, Gorbachev was expected to set history straight and denounce Josef Stalin as a mass murderer. Stalin was denounced, but his crimes were minimized. Even under Gorbachev, history remains what it has always been in the Soviet Union -- a search not for truth, but for legitimacy.

There was plenty in the speech that was exceptional. Officially proscribed areas of Soviet history were mentioned. Nikolai Bukharin, an early Bolshevik executed by Stalin, was exhumed from his historical grave. Nikita Khrushchev was praised for his secret 1956 speech detailing Stalin's crimes. And as for Stalin himself, Gorbachev pulled some punches, but he did land a haymaker. He called Stalin's crimes "enormous and unforgivable."

Ultimately, the speech was both daring and cautious. Those who think that Gorbachev is not something new under the Soviet sun are wrong. But those who think that he is a radical departure from what preceded him are equally wrong. Even out of the mouth of Gorbachev, history remains what the Communist Party says it is. It's purpose is to legitimize the regime in power.

The legitimacy Gorbachev seeks is mainly for his economic program. It includes decentralization and what he called "the principle of profitability and self-management." In other words, the Moscow-based central planning apparatus -- a model of inefficiency and bureaucratic lethargy -- must lose power and privilege. A dollop of capitalism has been introduced, and even government enterprises will have to make a profit.

In advancing this program, Gorbachev used Soviet history to show it's consistent with orthodox communism. He rehabilitated Bukharin, the Bolshevik theoretician who supported Lenin's New Economic Program. The NEP, adopted in the 1920s, permitted a degree of capitalism and moderated the movement toward collectivization and industrialization. Bukharin was executed by Stalin in 1938, and his ideas were discarded. Collectivization was ruthlessly resumed, and Stalin created the modern Russian state. That edifice, encrusted and outdated, is precisely what Gorbachev wants to reform.

But in other areas, Gorbachev found no use for historical truth. Leon Trotsky remains interned in the anonymous grave Stalin's assassin put him in. Others executed by Stalin, some of them the founding fathers of the Soviet Union, were not mentioned by Gorbachev at all, and the ordinary victims of Stalin, usually numbered in the millions, were reduced to thousands in Gorbachev's mouth. He then tossed the hot potato of Stalin's regime to the Soviet equivalent of a White House commission. The Communist Party's Central Committee will study that era. The party will continue to have the last word about historical truth.

For all its daring, Gorbachev's speech was not a break with the Soviet pattern, but a continuation of it. Stalin obliterated men and their historical references to justify his rule. Gorbachev criticized Stalin and rehabilitated his victims for the same purpose: to provide historical authority to his own regime. What's missing is a reverence for truth for its own sake -- authority based on law and not on who has the keys to the party's archives. Truth in the Soviet Union continues to be a perquisite of power. For the moment, it's Gorbachev's.

See what Gorbachev has done with Jewish refuseniks and political dissidents. The most prominent of them have been allowed to leave or, in the case of Andrei Sakharov, freed from internal exile. In this way, the road to the summit was cleared of its human obstacles. Yet dissent remains a privilege granted by the state and not, as it is here, a right guaranteed by law. No one has the right to emigrate. In due course a new class of refuseniks and dissidents will emerge; how they will be handled is anyone's guess. What the government grants, it can take away.

Americans, raised on both the reality and the myth of individualism, are intrigued with personalities and bored by political systems. We naively think that Jose Napoleon Duarte alone can make the difference in El Salvador or that Corazon Aquino alone can make the difference in the Philippines. The reaction to Gorbachev has been somewhat similar -- the man triumphing over the system. But Gorbachev's speech shows he is either constrained by the system or a product of it. The proof is the way he used truth: we believe the truth can make you free. From the way he rationed it, Gorbachev seems to agree.