KIEV -- Every day they come and stand on the broad plaza outside the Ukrainian parliament building. Afew carry political signs or the pale blue and yellow flags of Ukrainian independence. Most come just to share vicariously in the extraordinary experience of having a democratically chosen legislature of their own, with a vocal and independent opposition to the Communists.
They listen to the morning's proceedings on loudspeakers in the trees, and when the delegates to the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian Republic take their two-hour lunch break, the people buttonhole their representatives as assiduously as any Washington lobbyist.
These are not quiet discussions. The emotions rise quickly on these warm summer afternoons. They are fueled by the decades of frustration at having their opinions stifled or ignored. In the not-too-distant past, they could have been jailed for saying what they are saying now. So they speak their pieces in strong, clear tones. The sound of democracy in this and other parts of the Soviet Union is the sound of raucous, cascading public debate.
What strikes a visitor is the readiness of the 450 elected representatives to subject themselves to the harangues and questions and criticisms. Cops are at hand to clear a path to the hotel where many of the legislators lunch, but the members of parliament make a point of coming up to the barricades behind which the voters stand -- and listening.
''It is good,'' said Del. Valentin Lemisch, a second-echelon apparatchik in the Agriculture and Industry Department, one of many bureaucrats and factory managers the Communists put on their candidate lists. ''In this place, anyone is free to express any thought, display any symbol. It gives them a good feeling. If some want to find it evil, so be it. Most of us deputies understand it is normal.''
It is anything but normal for the Soviet Union, of course, but the fierce energy of the public debate that Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed five years ago has developed a momentum of its own. From the edges of the Soviet empire, the drive for self-determination has moved with express-train speed into the very heart of the nation -- into Russia and the Ukraine.
In the Ukraine, the second-largest republic, with 52 million people, a Solidarity-like umbrella independence movement called Rukh has grown from a whisper to a political whirlwind in less than a year. It rules Lvov, the center of the western Ukraine, is close to a majority on the Kiev city council and -- with its allies -- has grown to number one-third of the republic's legislature.
Its delegates often find themselves cheered and embraced as they emerge from the debates. Thanks to live radio broadcasts and evening telecasts of the day's sessions, previously little-known figures have become instant celebrities.
Some of them are, in fact, remarkable people, like their counterparts in Warsaw and Prague. Many are intellectuals who have put aside their work in an effort to save their country. Les Taniuk, 52, the secretary of the opposition caucus, is a theater director who has translated Shakespeare into Ukrainian and produced plays from Moscow to Cambridge, Mass., and Champaign, Ill.
During the Khrushchev thaw of the '60S, he created Kiev's first political theater group. It was suppressed by Brezhnev, who sent him into internal exile. He returned to his native city after Chernobyl left the local Communist leadership ''shaky enough so that I could found a youth theater.''
He chose to run for parliament in a heavily polluted industrial area of the city, which is also the site of the Bikiyinya Memorial to 120,000 victims of Stalin's purges, and won without a runoff -- the only non-Communist in a 10-person field.
Taniuk's campaign and others across the Ukraine were coordinated and managed by 23-year-old Sergei Odarich, a mathematician by training. Raised as a good Communist, in the Pioneer clubs and Komsomol youth organization, he rebelled at the stifling orthodoxy and last year organized a campus chapter of Rukh at Kiev State University. Odarich seems old beyond his years, with his formal dress and owlish glasses. Like some of the young American conservatives I met in the 1960s -- a David Keene or a Paul Weyrich -- he discovered that uninhibited young people ready to drop everything and race across the city to leaflet a neighborhood or turn out a crowd could easily out-organize the establishment.
''For me,'' Odarich said, ''independence for the Ukraine is not an end in itself, but simply a way to ensure that people are not treated like cattle, and are given the dignity and respect citizens of a nation deserve. It is an opportunity for self-realization.'' For himself and his new Moldavian bride, his most ardent wish is to get back to his own career ''as soon as possible. The fact that mathematicians and physicians and artists have to do politics shows we do not have a normal society.''
This is not yet a normal society, but it is one powerfully engaged in the process of seeking its own destiny.