MOSCOW -- Like any modern politician, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is addicted to polling. Part of his preparation for the 28th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party was a detailed survey of the 4,600 delegates' attitudes toward him and his rivals for leadership, the party's policies and the nation's problems.

Like many other shrewd leaders, Gorbachev also has learned the value of the carefully arranged "leak" of polling data.

And so it came to pass that on the second day of the party congress last week, I found myself sitting across a table from an official of the Central Committee I happened to know, Wjatscheslav Nikonov, furiously scribbling figures into my notebook as he read from the polling report lying on the table before him.

I had been through many similar scenes at headquarters of various Republican and Democratic candidates, but frankly, it was not exactly what I imagined on my first visit to the command post of world communism. A lecture on doctrine, maybe, but not this. But if the portrait of Lenin on the wall could watch this event without frowning, I figured, why shouldn't I be equally nonchalant?

Not only was the transaction a surprise, so were some of the numbers. While Nikonov would not give me the favorable-unfavorable ratings on Gorbachev himself, he readily conceded that this assemblage would "be very critical of the government's economic {reform} program." A quarter of them, he said, thought it was "the way to chaos," another 52 percent had some substantial criticism and only 11 percent thought it was just fine.

Underlining the potential for division in the congress, he told me that just over half the delegates (58 percent) expressed the hope that all factions would emerge united, while the others said their deepest wish was that the party would rid itself of their ideological foes, be they on the left or right.

"That," he said with a smile, "is why we wrote a platform that offers the maximum number of interpretations."

He went on rattling off numbers, at a rapid cadence, until he got to one question that made me ask if I could possibly have heard him correctly. It inquired:

"Suppose there were a conflict that pitted the interests of individual humans against those of the nation, the class or the party. Which should prevail?"

Eighty-one percent of the delegates, he said, had answered, "The interests of the individual."

Remembering that he had told me that three out of five of these delegates were full-time party operatives, and knowing that neither Russian history nor traditional communist doctrine gave legitimacy, let alone priority, to the concept of individual rights, I asked Nikonov if he believed the numbers he had just read me.

"That is the major change of perestroika," he said, "putting the individual to the forefront. People do not think of 'what they can do for their country,' They ask what their country can do for them. It is very dangerous for the government -- and for the nation -- because it means that people don't want to sacrifice. If you speak of economic reform theoretically, most people say yes. When you talk specifics that mean even short-term sacrifice {like the short-lived proposal to double the price of bread}, they say no."

That fact, if it is a fact, may explain what to many of us in the West has been the puzzling paradox of Gorbachevism. Political reform, in the direction of freedom of expression and democratic rule, has come with lightning speed, after decades of political stagnation. But the same leader who has been so bold in political restructuring has been forced, time after time, to delay desperately needed economic reforms.

The reason may well be that recognizing long-suppressed rights is an enhancement of individuality, and so it is politically attractive. But moving from an incredibly inefficient command economy to a market system inevitably means uncertainty, unemployment and higher prices, at least in the early stages. So Gorbachev, like many of our politicians, does what is attractive and delays what is dif-ficult -- storing up problems for himself and his country in the future. When the party congress's session ends each evening around 8 o'clock, most of the delegates stream out of the Kremlin and head downhill past St. Basil's candy-striped onion domes to the glass-walled Rossiya Hotel, where the out-of-town representatives are staying. There they find hometown newspapers, a restaurant with a four-piece band playing soft rock and, at a table near the restaurant entrance, a number of Moscow hookers sipping drinks and awaiting business.

On the wall of the lobby is a rather crude mosaic -- with knights in armor, unicorns and gold-domed cathedrals -- evoking the spirit of Old Russia.

From what they say, many of the delegates find the business of redesigning the latest Soviet version of a New Russia to be hard, dispiriting work. "Too much attention has been paid to the mistakes of the past," Oscar Akaeiz, a research scientist from the Central Asian Kirghiz Republic, told me at mid-week. "There is not a lot of constructive work being done. I would like to remind my colleagues of Gonzatov, the poet, who said, 'If you shoot the past with a handgun, the future will shoot you with a cannon.' But they do not want to listen." Like delegates at an American political convention, some of these Communists are so pumped up by the atmosphere, they can't stop talking. The small park between the hotel and St. Basil's becomes an open-air, after-dinner forum, where debates can be heard on any topic from physics to the decline in party membership.

At the center of one jostling circle of two dozen people stood a giant of a man, well over 6 feet tall and heavily muscled, who turned out to be a delegate from a collective farm in eastern Russia. He denounced all this talk of introducing the market system into the Soviet Union. "The stores will be full of goods," he declared, "but 80 percent of you will not be able to afford them."

The Muscovites, many of whom apparently had come down after dinner mainly for the sport of heckling the Communist delegates, were not buying it. "It's fine for you," one said. "You buy for yourself with the collective's rubles." Another commented to a friend, in a stage whisper loud enough to be heard in Vladivostok, "He's lying. He's a delegate."

But the delegate stood his ground, arguing that private property would inevitably lead to exploitation. "Pay me enough, and you can exploit me all you wish," one bystander told him. As the delegate pivoted slowly to his right, facing first one objector and then another, he looked like one of those chess grandmasters, playing 25 games at once against the playground challengers.

He also looked like a bear that has been cornered by hunters and is just awaiting the inevitable end. In a congress dominated by party apparatchiks, it should be no surprise that the most important issue, according to Gorbachev's poll of the delegates, is not food shortages or the housing crisis or the loss of the Eastern European satellites. Sixty-two percent of the delegates said their main worry was the state of affairs within the party itself.

Alexander Dubinsky is one of those appartchiks. Now 35, he has moved up in the party ranks from his days as a Komsomol youth activist to a succession of higher posts. Four months ago he became secretary of the party committee at the Hammer and Sickle Factory in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov, where 2,000 workers manufacture engines for tractors and trucks.

Dubinsky is younger than most of the delegates, with a sharply trimmed moustache, and a roguish look in his gray eyes that seemed to suggest that not everything he said was to be taken at face value. We spoke at dusk, as the setting sun streaked the clouds in hues almost as vivid as those of St. Basil's.

"What do you hope comes out of this congress," I asked.

"The main task is to preserve the party and not allow any break. At the same time, we must make it new. We realize very well that today the party has lagged behind the thought-process of the country."

Are you more or less hopeful now than when you arrived?

"I think the party will be preserved. The platform we have been shown, in my opinion, can be embraced and fulfill the aspirations of all who seek perestroika."

Ivanov, I thought, would be pleased at the compliment to his and his colleagues' skilfully ambiguous handiwork.

As the conversation continued, Dubinsky indicated that he was personally sympathetic to Gorbachev's plans, and less than bowled over by the criticisms he had heard from the president's opponents. But when I asked if he thought Gorbachev should be allowed to hold onto the post of the party's secretary general while serving as president of the Soviet Union, he said, "I am against that. Each person should concentrate on one job."

Then, he frowned -- and decided to hedge. "Maybe, only for a transition period, it would be all right. So far, the newly elected soviets {legislatures} are not strong enough and they need support from influential organizations like the Communist Party. For two years, it might be all right -- but no longer!"

How about your job? Is it a good one?

"I like my job, but it is very difficult now. There is so much criticism of the party and of party functionairies. And the restructuring creates so many problems."

I reminded him that Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic, had achieved great popularity by denouncing the special prerogatives party functionaries like Dubinsky took for themselves.

"He is mistaken. Maybe he had privileges, but the only privilege I have is working 12 hours a day."

I asked Dubinsky about his family, and he said he had a son and a daughter, both in elementary school. What will the Soviet Union be like when they are your age?

"I am an optimist. I believe in a better future, and I think my children will live in a real socialist country."

With a free market system?

"Absolutely," he replied. "There is no other way."

At that moment, it crossed my mind that the fairyland Russia on the hotel mosaic, with knights and unicorns, might not be the only fantasy filling the delegates' minds. The "cannons of the future" now have Alexander Dubinsky -- and Mikhail Gorbachev, too -- squarely in their sights.

David Broder covers national politics for The Washington Post.