THE SOVIET UNION is a young state without analogues in history or the modern world. Over the past seven decades our country has traveled a path equal to centuries. One of the mightiest powers in the world rose up to replace the backward semi-colonial and semi-feudal Russian Empire. Huge productive forces, a powerful intellectual potential, a highly advanced culture, a unique community of over one hundred nations and nationalities, and firm social protection for 280 million people on a territory forming one-sixth of the earth -- such are our great and indisputable achievements and Soviet people are justly proud of them.

{But} at some stage -- this became particularly clear in the latter half of the '70s -- something happened that was at first sight inexplicable. The country began to lose momentum. A country that was once quickly closing on the world's advanced nations began to lose one position after another. Moreover, the gap in the efficiency of production, quality of products, scientific and technological development, the production of advanced technology and the use of advanced techniques began to widen, and not to our advantage.

An absurd situation was developing. The Soviet Union, the world's biggest producer of steel, raw materials, fuel and energy has shortfalls in them due to wasteful or inefficient use. One of the biggest producers of grain for food, it nevertheless has to buy millions of tons of grain a year for fodder. We have the largest number of doctors and hospital beds per thousand of population and, at the same time, there are glaring shortcomings in our health services. Our rockets can find Halley's comet and fly to Venus with amazing accuracy, but side by side with these scientific and technological triumphs is an obvious lack of efficiency in using scientific achievements for economic needs, and many Soviet household appliances are of poor quality.

This, unfortunately, is not all. A gradual erosion of the ideological and moral values of our people began. Propaganda of success -- real or imagined -- was gaining the upper hand. Eulogizing and servility were encouraged; the needs and opinions of ordinary working people, of the public at large, were ignored.

The presentation of a "problem free" reality backfired: a breach had formed between word and deed, which bred public passivity and disbelief in the slogans being proclaimed. It was only natural that this situation resulted in a credibility gap: Everything that was proclaimed from the rostrums and printed in newspapers and textbooks was put in question. Decay began in public morals. Alcoholism, drug addiction and crime were growing.At some administrative levels there emerged a disrepect for the law and encouragement of eyewashand bribery, servility and glorification. Working people were justly indignant at the behavior of people who, enjoying trust and responsibility, abused power, suppressed criticism, made fortunes and, in some cases, even became accomplices in -- if not organizers of -- criminal acts.

Not that that period should be painted solely in dark colors. The overwhelming majority of Soviet people worked honestly. Science, the economy and culture continued to develop. All the more inadmissible and painful, then, were the negative phenomena.

An unbiased and honest approach led us to the only logical conclusion that the country was verging on crisis. This conclusion was announced at the April 1985 Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee, which inaugurated the new strategy of perestroika and formulated its basic principles.

Perestroika somehow affects everybody; it jolts many out of their customary state of calm and satisfaction at the existing way of life. Here, I think it is appropriate to draw your attention to one specific feature of socialism. I have in mind the high degree of social protection in our society. On the one hand, it is doubtless a benefit and a major achievement of ours. On the other, it makes some people spongers.

There is virtually no unemployment. Even a person dismissed for laziness or a breach of labor discipline must be given another job. Also, wage leveling has become a regular feature of our everyday life: Even if a person is a bad worker, he gets enough to live fairly comfortably. The children of an outright parasite will not be left to the mercy of fate. We have enormous sums of money concentrated in the social funds from which people receive financial assistance. The same funds provide subsidies for the upkeep of kindergartens, orphanages, Young Pioneer houses and other institutions related to children's creativity and sport. Health care is free, and so is education. People are protected from the vicissitudes of life and we are proud of this.

But we also see that dishonest people try to exploit these advantages of socialism; they know only their rights, but they do not want to know their duties; they work poorly, shirk and drink hard.

The policy of restructuring puts everything in its place. We are fully restoring the principle of socialism: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his work," and we seek to affirm social justice for all, equal rights for all, one law for all, one kind of discipline for all, and high responsibilities for each. Perestroika raises the level of social responsibility and expectation. The only people to resent the changes are those who believe they already have what they need, so why should they readjust?

We need wholesome, full-blooded functioning by all public organizations, all production teams and creative unions, new forms of activity by citizens and the revival of those which have been forgotten. In short, we need broad democratization of all aspects of society. That democratization is also the main guarantee that the current processes are irreversible. We know today that we would have been able to avoid many of these difficulties if the democratic process had developed normally in our country.

Does perestroika mean that we are giving up socialism or at least some of its foundations? Some ask this question with hope, others with misgivings.

To put an end to all the rumors and speculation that abound in the West about this, I would like to point out once again that we are conducting all our reforms in accordance with the socialist choice. We are looking within socialism, rather than outside it, for the answers to all questions that arise.Every part of our program of perestroika is fully based on the principle of more socialism and more democracy.

Perestroika is a word with many meanings. But if we are to choose from the many possible synonyms the key word that expresses its essence most accurately, then we can say thus: Perestroika is a revolution. Revolution requires the demolition of all that is obsolete, stagnant and hinders fast progress. Without demolition you cannot clear the site for new construction.

When asked if we are not pushing too hard, we reply: No, we are not. There is no reasonable alternative to a dynamic, revolutionary perestroika. Its alternative is continued stagnation.

Direct communication and letters have become the major "feedback" linking the Soviet leadership with the masses. There is one thing common to all the letters -- unreserved and passionate support for perestroika. Even pointed and scathing judgments are imbued with a desire to help it forward.

But at first there were some "compassionate" people who cautioned against the danger of Gorbachev getting "oxygen poisoning" during one of his outdoor chats with people, the danger of him being told something unwelcome, something the men in the Kremlin should not know. There have been some comments to the effect that direct informal meetings are nothing short of wooing the people. I have a different, in fact, opposite view on this subject. There are no hints, recommendations and warnings more valuable than those you get straight from the people.

The new atmosphere is, perhaps, most vividly manifest in glasnost. We want more openness about public affairs in every sphere of life. People should know what is good, and what is bad too, in order to multiply the good and to combat the bad.

Some critics of our reforms say that painful phenomena in the course of perestroika are inevitable. They predict inflation, unemployment, enhanced social stratification -- i.e., the things which the West is so "rich" in. Or they suggest that the Central Committee is strongly opposed among Party and government officials. Or they say our army is against restructuring and the KGB has not had its say yet.

But I must tell our opponents a few disheartening things: Today members of the Politburo and the Central Committee are unanimous as they have never been before, and there is nothing that can make this unanimity waver.

Occasionally I get the impression that some American politicians, while praising the capitalist system and their democracy, are nevertheless not very sure about either, fearing competition with the U.S.S.R. in conditions of peace. That compels them to insist on having the war machine, whipping up tensions, etc. I feel that some observers will write, upon reading these lines, that, regrettably, Gorbachev has a poor knowledge of Western democracy. Alas, I do know a thing or two, enough anyway to hold a firm trust in socialist democracy and socialist humanism.

Neither the Soviet Union nor its perestroika pose any threat to anyone, except, perhaps, by setting an example -- if someone finds it acceptable. Yet again and again we are accused of wanting to implant communism all over the world. What nonsense!

The success of perestroika will be the final argument in the historical dispute as to which system is more consistent with the interests of the people. Rid of the features that appeared in extreme conditions, the image of the Soviet Union will gain a new attractiveness and will become the living embodiment of the advantages that are inherent in the socialist system.

I know that American propaganda -- yes, propaganda -- presents America as a "shining city atop a hill." America has a great history. Who will question the importance of the American Revolution in mankind's social progress, or the scientific-technological genius of America and its achievements in literature, architecture and art? All this America has. But America today also has acute social and other problems, to which not only has American society not yet found an answer, but, even worse, it is looking for answers in places and in such a way that may lead to others having to pay.

I admit frankly that what we know does not support the idea of the United States of America as a "shining city atop a hill." With equal definiteness I can say that neither do we consider the U.S. an "evil empire." Like all countries, America in reality casts both light and shadows. We see the U.S. as it actually is -- diverse in its opinions both in and about American society.

For all the contradictory nature of our relationships it is obvious that we can do nothing in terms of securing peace without the U.S., and without us the U.S. also will accomplish nothing. There is no getting away from each other. Contacts and a dialogue are needed; we must look for ways to improve our relationship.

Pondering the question of what stands in the way of good Soviet-American relations, one arrives at the conclusion that, for the most part, it is the arms race. I am not going to describe its history. Let me just note once again that at almost all its stages the Soviet Union has been the party catching up. By the beginning of the '70s we had reached approximate military-strategic parity, but on a level that is really frightening. Both the Soviet Union and the United States now have the capacity to destroy each other many times over.

I shall not disclose any secret if I tell you that the Soviet Union is doing all that is necessary to maintain up-to-date and reliable defenses. This is our duty to our own people and our allies. At the same time, I wish to say quite definitely that this is not our choice. It has been imposed upon us.

Moreover, a truly paradoxical situation has now developed. Even if one country engages in a steady arms buildup while the other does nothing, the side that arms itself will all the same gain nothing. The weak side may simply explode all its nuclear charges, even on its own territory, and that would mean suicide for it and a slow death for the enemy. This is why any striving for military superiority means chasing one's own tail. It can't be used in real politics.

As far as United States foreign policy is concerned, it is based on at least two delusions. The first is the belief that the economic system of the Soviet Union is about to crumble and that the USSR will not succeed in restructuring. The second is calculated on Western superiority in equipment and technology and, eventually, in the military field. These illusions nourish a policy geared to exhausting socialism through the arms race, so as to dictate terms later. Such is the scheme; it is naive.

It is very important that both the Soviet Union and the United States should proceed from the conviction that we must come to terms, that we are duty-bound to learn to live in peace. Great work of historic importance lies in store for both nations.

I mean the issue of concern of our days -- staving off the threat of humanity's destruction in a nuclear war. If this work is performed successfully there are grounds to foresee a bloom in Soviet-American relations, a "golden age" that would benefit the USSR and the U.S. and the whole world community. Moving from suspicion and hostility to confidence, from a "balance of fear" to a balance of reason and good will, from narrow nationalist egoism to cooperation -- this is what we are urging.

We want freedom to reign supreme in the coming century everywhere in the world. We want peaceful competition between different social systems to develop unimpeded, to encourage mutually advantageous cooperation rather than confrontation and an arms race. We want people of every country to enjoy prosperity, welfare and happiness.

The writer is general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. This article is excerpted from his book, "Perestroika."