Catherine the Great, Russia's reformer two centuries ago, was given to imagining grand new cities. She once enlisted a distinguished visitor, Austrian Emperor Joseph II, to participate in laying two foundation stones of an envisioned metropolis. He commented drolly, ''She has laid the first stone of a city, and I have laid the last.'' He was correct. Today, even the proposed site of this ''city'' is unknown.

This is a Russian tradition: grandiose designs and disappointing execution. The tradition survived intact when other traditions were ruptured by the 1917 revolution. Viewed against the tapestry of Russian history, Gorbachev's tentative and incoherent reforms seem to be (in Primo Levi's delicious phrase) ''stale innovations.''

The political reforms constitute a recrudescence of czarism, even unto a new law making it a crime to ''insult'' the president, into whose hands power is increasingly concentrated. Gorbachev's economic reforms have so far consisted of a strange salad of criticism of communism and adherence to ''socialist'' central planning.

Now Gorbachev proposes a five-year transition to a ''regulated market economy.'' Soviet history is so strewn with mendacity and folly that the vocabulary of politics crumbles at the touch. The word ''transition'' echoes old incarnations about ''the glorious transition'' to true socialism. And one can imagine derisive muttering across all 11 of the Soviet Union's time zones: ''Wonderful. Another Five Year Plan.''

This raises an old question concerning the nature and continuity of Russian national character. To read the story of Russia's greatest reformer, the determined Westernizer, Peter the Great, is to sag beneath the weight of national inertia. For example (from Robert Massie's biography):

''Bribery and embezzlement were traditional in Russian public life. ... Russian officials were paid little or no salary; it was taken for granted that they would make their living by accepting bribes. ... Whatever Peter did -- urge, persuade, cajole, threaten, punish -- seemed to make little difference. ... Once, Peter elevated an honest lawyer to a judgeship. In this new position, where his decisions could become an object of bribery, the new judge became corrupt. When Peter found out, he not only absolved the judge, but doubled his salary to prevent further temptation ... {but} promised that if the judge ever again betrayed his trust, he would surely hang. The judge fervently promised that Peter's faith was justified -- and soon afterward accepted another bribe. Peter hanged him.''

In an interview in Encounter magazine, Adam Ulam, head of Harvard's Russian Research Center, is asked how deeply the Soviet system reflects Russian tradition. Ulam rejects the notion that the system is as much a product of Russian history as of Communist doctrine. He is pressed about whether traditions of egalitarianism made the Soviet people receptive to Stalinist collectivization and today account for public anger about people making profits from cooperatives and the reluctance of peasants to accept land under Gorbachev's leasehold arrangements.

Ulam answers that far from being receptive, the people resisted collectivization until broken by repression, and ever since have practiced passive resistance so doggedly that they have forced reexamination of the entire practice of collectivization. Furthermore, ''that the Russian farmer is now hesitating to accept land is not due to his innate reluctance to take charge of his destiny but to the haunting memory of what happened to his father and grandfather under Stalin's terror -- and how the NEP-men were treated when Stalin decreed that the New Economic Program {the first Soviet flirtation with economic liberalization} had come to an end.''

How tentative is Gorbachev's flirtation? After five years of talk about perestroika, bread is still so absurdly subsidized that it is cheaper for a farmer to feed bread to his pigs than to feed them grain. Gorbachev still does not understand the Law of Holes (when you are in a hole, stop digging). He is planning to raise prices, but in a dilatory Five Year Plan, and many prices will still be set by the government. And there will be indexation: wages and pensions will be adjusted to spare most people much pain.

It looks like a recipe for familiar irrationality at a higher price level. That is not surprising considering that in his recent denunciation of the populist Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev accused him of attempting ''to excommunicate Russia from socialism'' and said that ''the socialist choice'' involves ''our fundamental values, our benchmark.''

De-Stalinization -- ending random terror, establishing rudimentary rule of law -- was the easy part. De-Leninization -- abandonment of government by commands from the center -- has not seriously begun. But wait: because Leninism involved much more than that, including incipient Stalinism, let us speak instead of de-czarization.

And of the persistence of Russian character and culture. Perhaps what a Russian intellectual said in 1940 has at last come true. He said: ''In 1917 we believed that communism had swallowed up Russia; today we see that Russia has swallowed up communism.''