THE SOVIET state system is one of the world's greatest mysteries. Perhaps the greatest controversy of all surrounds the custom of dividing the Soviet leaders into hawks and doves.

Thousands of highly paid sovietologists peer into the faces of the Soviet leaders searching hints of a dovish or hawkish trend of thought. With joy and hope their eyes they light upon a coat tailored by Dior or they go into raptures when they observe that the Soviet leader's wife has paid for a necklace with an American Express card.

All this research is a total waste of time, because the distribution of forces in the top Soviet echelons can be determined at a glance if the correct methodology is used: Kremlin rulers are divided not into doves and hawks but into the bald and the hairy.

Some observant individual noticed that bald and hairy leaders alternate in the Kremlin with amazing regularity. Indeed, Lenin was bald, Stalin was hairy, Khrushchev was bald, Brezhenv was hairy, Andropov was bald, Chernenko was hairy, and as for Gorbachev, everybody has seen his portrait.

From this truly revolutionary and fundamental discovery a number of definite patterns can be drawn. All the bald leaders (Lenin, Khrushchev, Andropov and Gorbachev) have been revolutionaries or, at least, reformers. All the hairy ones have been reactionaries.

All the bald ones have had utopian goals and utlimately suffered defeat. Lenin wanted to build communism but failed. Khrushchev intended to overtake the United States. He failed. Andropov set out to strengthen discipline and raise labor productivity but did not succeed.

How Gorbachev's efforts will be rewarded remains to be seen, but the experiences of his predecessors inspire little confidence.

The hairy, on the other hand, have always achieved what they wanted. Stalin wanted to turn the Soviet Union into a superpower, which he did. Brezhnev wanted to be a marshal and a writer; he became both. When Chernenko came to power, he could only have had one wish -- to be buried on Red Square. He is.

When when I think about the prospects for Mikhail Gorbachev's success, I have to bear in mind that Gorbachev is not the one-man ruler of the Soviet Union; he has his colleagues and assistants. I consider what sort of men the leaders of the CPSU are and take a good look at their portraits.

My observations are these. Within the Politburo, the baldest after Gorbachev is that active restructurer and reformer Aleksandr Yakovlev. Careful examination reveals some encouraging gaps in Eduard Shevardnadze's curls; it is impossible to call him bald, but he is certainly thinning. Quite recently, Viktor Nokonov was elected a full member of the Politburo, and he too can, in a pinch, be placed in the same category. The remaining members of the Politburo -- Vorotnikov, Gromyko, Zaibov, Ligachev, Ryzhkov, Solomentsev, Chebrikov, and Shcherbitsky -- are all amply endowed with hair.

Bearing in mind that, the more hair they have, the more reactionary they are (take, for example, Shcherbitsky and Solomentsev), a balance can be drawn up: two bald, two thinning, and eight hairy. The position of the bald ones is even more shaky if the candidate members of the Politburo are taken into account: all but one of them have plenty of hair.

In short, although the influence of the bald has grown considerably, the hairy are in the overwhelming majority, and this means that it is necessary to be cautious.

It would seem that Egor Ligachev is the main spokesman for the hairy. His style of thinking is fully in accord with the density of his hair. At one moment he is calling on writers to create more vivid models of Communists, at another he is pouncing on the newspaper Moscow News for its obituary of the novelist Viktor Nekrasov, who died in the emigration. In general, he sighs nostalgically for the days of stagnation under Brezhnev. Speeches quite out of keeping with the age of restructuring and glasnost' are delivered by KGB Chairman Viktor Chebrikov. Despite a very high forehead, he, too, belongs to the hairies.

Though I am not bald yet either, I am on the side of the bald and hope that they ultimately become a majority. I do not, however, know how this is to be achieved. To select leading cadres on the basis of their degree of baldness is undemocratic and smacks of discrimination. Pulling out hair is painful. Shaving the head in the manner of certain rock stars is useless -- hair grows rather fast.

But I dare say that from now on my modest work on this matter will become an indispensable aid for all observers of the Soviet Union. I hope that those conducting negotiations with the USSR will be guided by my research, pay attention to the state of the Soviet leaders' hair styles, and only then make important decisions.

Novelist Vladimir Voinovich, the author of "The Ivankiad," is a Soviet emigre who lives in West Germany. He wrote this commentary for Radio Liberty.