THE NEW Soviet press never ceases to astonish. For those of us who have endured several decades of excruciating boredom poring over it, some reward is at last coming our way. The spectacle of the Soviet people -- gradually, painfully, hesitantly -- coming to terms with problems so long denied and suppressed, is fascinating.

Gradual, painful, hesitant, yes -- and not without backward steps such as we saw in Gorbachev's recent speech on the 70th anniversary of the revolution and, perhaps, the firing last week of the abrasive Moscow party chief, Boris Yeltsin. But change cannot be held back indefinitely.

An Aug. 26 article in Moscow's prestigious Literary Gazette {printed below} offers just one of many examples of the "new thinking now current. The full-page piece by Leonid Pochivalov entitled "Our Own -- Abroad" frankly discusses age-old -- but still current -- attitudes of the Russian state and people towards the external world.

This critique of Russian behavior focuses on what seems to me the preeminent rationale behind Gorbachev's new programs: a craving to be recognized as a truly great power in all senses of the word. Moscow's ability to blow the world to smithereens accords the Soviet Union the title of "superpower." But Gorbachev is obviously willing to publicly recognize what most other people in the world have long understood -- namely that Russia has a long way to go before she is a superpower in any sense other than the military.

Gorbachev's trips abroad create important new images: a stylish wife, an ability to talk off the cuff at length with western leaders -- attributes that the Soviet public has rarely witnessed in its leaders. But the Soviets need to move beyond this to create a credible press, a credible economic system, basic rights and a daily life for its citizens that will win the respect of the world.

Is this new image-seeking good news for the West? Or does it simply take the historic challenge of the old Russian Empire and make it more formidable for us today?

If the Soviet Union is in fact able to open up a great deal more, to see itself and the world in a non-ideological light, then that is important progress. It would suggest the evolution of a state increasingly compelled to operate within the confines of a world system, a state, like our own, with a sensible recognition of its own weaknesses and self-limitations.

Indeed, an increased voice in the running of the state by ever larger elements of the Soviet public -- a goal Gorbachev sees as a requirement to release the intellectual and creative talents of the country -- could give rise to genuine pluralism and the internal constraints that it places on the state. Such a nation is much less likely to engage in the imperial experiments that have made the international scene so dangerous for the past several decades. If Soviets can continue to engage in the type of self-analysis demonstrated in the following excerpts from Pochivalov's article, then this is indeed good news for the West -- and for the Soviet Union as well.

Graham Fuller, vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, will soon join the Rand Corp. The author submitted this article to the CIA for clearance. The views expressed are his own.