MOSCOW -- IT IS not difficult to find the next generation of Soviet leaders. But it can be dangerous. While the 28th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party was meeting here earlier this month, I spent most of my days and evenings, not at the Kremlin, but meeting those 20 to 30 years younger than Mikhail Gorbachev and his contemporaries in the contentious party leadership.

To these young people -- dissident communists, independents, intellectuals and activists in new parties and movements -- the Party Congress was what one called "a dead man's society." Another described it as "the last illusion of the Russian people, who always wait for the great event that will resolve everything and find, to their astonishment, that it has resolved nothing."

These young people are outspoken in their opinions and eager to talk to an American journalist. But getting to them has its hazards.

"Do you have insurance?" my interpreter, Luba, asked as we climbed four flights of broken stairs in a building propped up by wooden beams. At the top we found offices equipped with personal computers and telexes -- the modern communications equipment which some scholars of Soviet society say have done even more than Gorbachev's policies to end the Brezhnev-era suppression of independent thought.

But these "unofficial" organizations have terrible trouble finding space in crowded Moscow, so they wind up in back rooms of buildings that appear from the street to be long-abandoned or closed for urgent repairs.

It was in such a building, within sight of the Kremlin, that I met the woman I think of as the Soviet Norma Rae. Her name is Elena Malzeva. She is in her late thirties, a childless divorcee, with a clear, strong voice that belies the fatigue that shows in her face. She has been fired three times from her job on the assembly line at the Lenin auto factory for union organizing and is now in court, seeking to have the most recent firing -- six months ago -- reversed.

Meanwhile, she is working full time at the Information Center for the Workers' Movement, a recently created clearing house for materials on labor organizing techniques. Free trade unions are even rarer in the "workers' state" than free enterprise, and the center is trying to collect and distribute what it can on labor laws in other nations, on worker-ownership of businesses and on union procedures. As an indication of the center's hunger for help, a visitor is shown one of the treasures in its "library of militant unionism" -- a bound volume of policy resolutions submitted at the United Auto Workers' 1970 convention in Atlantic City.

Despite their meager resources, Malzeva and her colleagues talk of starting a newspaper in a few weeks and opening a "workers' university" in the fall.

Malzeva describes the workers in her old factory as little better than slaves, hired from distant places and forced to promise that they will not join a union. They live in dormitories at the plant and must have a "clean" 10-year employment record before they can get permission to become Moscow residents -- and start the search for an apartment of their own. They work for meager pay in a factory where the absence of ventilation lets toxic fumes accumulate and sear the lungs.

Malzeva was fired for distributing leaflets and agitating for change. "I spoke against the factory administration and the Ministry of Auto Manufacturing," Malzeva said. "I have my {Moscow} residency permit. Being alone, I don't need an apartment. So I was vocal . . ."

The first time she was fired, Malzeva said, "I continued to come to work every day in my uniform, but I spent all my time organizing and talking to people." After six months, the factory bosses decided she was less of a nuisance working on her job.

But after a month back on the job, she organized a meeting to discuss a strike -- and was fired again. The third hire lasted even more briefly, and ended when she wrote to West German newspapers protesting that a contract from a West German firm with the Lenin works was subsidizing violations of human rights.

"I want people to have a chance to control their own lives," Malzeva said. "I am very inexperienced, but here I have learned about what unions have done in Spain, what Solidarity has done in Poland, what your unions have done . . . But we have almost no mass-membership unions, so all we can do now is try to learn the techniques and share what we are learning with the workers."

I had heard about Malzeva and the Labor Center while visiting Alexander Morozov, the 31-year-old editor of Samizdat. His office was at the top of the perilous four-story climb, a few miles from the Labor Center, and, were it not for the computers all around them, he and his contemporaries would look for all the world like a bunch of 1960s hippies.

In fact, they are in the information business. When they began, their activity was illegal, and they published on clandestine photocopying machines in secret locations -- the samizdat method. Now their news service covers developments in Moscow and the capitals of the other Soviet republics for client newspapers inside and outside the Soviet Union. They are compiling a directory of the emerging alternative parties, their officers and their platforms. They have done in-depth profiles on some of the neo-fascist, anti-Semitic organizations that also have emerged in the era of relaxed controls. And they maintain an archive for people to use as a reference library on the "new politics" of the Soviet Union.

Morozov told me that in his opinion, the future dynamic of Soviet politics will be controlled "by those interested in developing small businesses and those seeking radical, democratic political change." His goal, he said, is to provide the information those entrepreneurs and political innovators need "to help make that change possible soon."

Filling the "information gap" created by three generations of a closed society is a preoccupation of almost all the younger leaders I met. There are thousands of informal newsletters and some highly professional news services and publications that challenge Tass and Izvestia and Pravda. Among them are Postfactum, Panorama, the Moscow News and, probably the most prestigious, the magazine Ogonyok.

Professor Anatoly Soudoplatov, a demographer at Moscow University, has made a specialty of analyzing generational change in Soviet society. He told me, "Age groups within the intelligentsia are very different in the way they treat social and economic realities -- and in their priorities. Those who put forward ideas for radical change are the types who in the past have been attached to officials of an older generation . . . Their ideas were very restricted in their range."

Their younger counterparts, he added, are not linked to Gorbachev and the Kremlin bureaucrats, so they are bolder in their thinking. "They have different priorities -- to modernize the economy and to restrict or eliminate the leading role of the Communist Party."

I learned on my visits to these shabby, hideaway offices that the young firebrands have their own financial angels, mainly contemporaries who are entrepreneurs with a social conscience.

At the Labor Information Center, I met Gregory Pelman, 39, who has developed both telecommunications and tourism businesses with partners in Estonia and West Berlin. "The only way to maintain a civil society while we make fundamental changes is to teach the workers new ways of dealing with each other and how to escape from this terrible {economic} catastrophe without resorting to violence," Pelman said. "The easy answers come from Pamyat {"Memory," a neo-fascist, anti-Semitic movement}. They want to find a new scapegoat and shed more blood. I hope this Center and other groups can show another way."

At Samizdat, the computer publishing equipment was purchased with a 250,000-ruble gift from Boris Isajko, a 31-year-old Kishinev software designer and entrepreneur. The father of four young girls, including 5-year-old twins, Isajko told me he is convinced "no one can impose change" on the Soviet Union, as Gorbachev is trying to do. "It has to come from within, by gradual but irreversible changes taking place within individuals.

"We grew up in a different time entirely," he said of his contemporaries, "and few of us can tell you how we became what we are now. But my generation is as different from Gorbachev's as his generation is from Stalin's."

Of all the young reformers in Moscow, none seems more liberated from "old thinking" than Nina Belyaeva, a 32-year-old lawyer and writer for Moscow News. She heads the Interlegal Research Center; its main function has been to create a network of legal services to help emerging independent organizations avoid harassment and gain recognition from the state.

I had met Belyaeva at the National Endowment for Democracy offices in Washington, and had been captivated by her lively personality and outspoken view of the Soviet world. To see her in Moscow, I had to dodge between bulldozers and search out the one entrance that was not blocked by rubble in an office complex undergoing desperately needed repairs. Inside, she presided happily over an equally chaotic scene, with jangling telephones, assistants (mostly teenage students) rushing in for brief consultations, and an endless stream of visitors.

Belyaeva thinks the Western world has an upside-down view of what is happening in the Soviet Union. Americans, she found, regard Gorbachev as a hero. She sees him, instead, as a tragic figure, who mobilized the public's growing impulse for reform, but now is too frightened to carry through the changes that are needed. "If Gorbachev wants to lead the process, he has to be at the head of the parade, not dragged along," she said.

Her hopes rest not on him but on the network of emerging independent movements -- 30,000 to 50,000 clubs and organizations -- with their own causes, constituencies and communications channels, which make up the fabric of the "post-Communist" civic society. They work mostly on their own, but occasionally join forces for a mass demonstration against the government. The May Day demonstration that chased Gorbachev from the reviewing stand, she said, was the product of "very sophisticated, sustained organizing. The only people who saw it as a sign of chaos are the people who are oblivious to the emerging leadership in the Soviet Union."

Some of those emerging leaders already have titles before their names and occupy offices in buildings far more solid than those of Belyaeva and her friends. The reformers have gained major footholds with Boris Yeltsin in the presidency of the Russian Federation, with Gavril Popov and Sergei Stankevich running Moscow's city government and with Anatoly Sobchak heading a radical regime in Leningrad. All four quit the Communist Party after the party congress.

Perhaps the real working model for their vision of the future is the October District of Moscow, a community of 230,000 people in the heart of the city. The reform-controlled district legislature elected last spring hired, as the chairman of its executive committee, a 33-year-old PhD in economic geography named Georgi Vasilyev. He has helped make the October district -- home of the Academy of Sciences and residence for many Moscow University professors -- a Berkeley or Cambridge of Soviet politics. All informal organizations and non-Communist parties can register there and gain official status. So can cooperatives -- private businesses.

For all the hopes others attach to the "October District experiment," Vasilyev's life is one frustration after another: State stores monopolize food distribution and chronic shortages result; two state-owned enterprises are supposed to clean the streets and remove garbage; they don't, but no one else is allowed to take over the job.

"Housing is so short we cannot find buildings to locate new enterprises," he said. "We thought we could use the wartime bomb shelters for small industry, but the entrances are so small we cannot bring in equipment.

"We have received many proposals from new companies, but they have a terrible time just finding out what land and buildings are available; the state has no inventory. But we are making plans, nonetheless, for a small business center; nothing very ambitious, just an appliance repair shop, a few garages; some nontraditional medical practices." Then Vasilyev touched on a political sore point: "One-quarter of our population is pensioners; 55,000 people. And they have strong prejudices against cooperatives. For 70 years, the system taught equality for all, and they are more interested in equality than in a flourishing economy. We have a system that encourages everyone to look in his neighbor's pocket."

Ten days later, I heard a more optimistic view of that problem from Elena Zelinskaya, the spokeswoman for the Leningrad city government, and her husband, Anatoly Zelinskiy, an economic adviser to the Leningrad oblast (regional) government.

Since the reformers took over control of the city government in elections last March, plans have sprouted for making Leningrad a free-trade zone and capitalizing on its geography and history to build economic links to the West.

"What takes place in Moscow is no longer very important to us," said Elena, a third-generation Leningrader who, like many others, prefers to call the city by its pre-revolutionary name, St. Petersburg. Anatoli argued that change will come even faster in the small towns than in Leningrad itself. "For example," he said, "three days after Yeltsin declared the independence of the Russian Federation, the mayor of a small village here -- Sievolosk -- declared that all the land and buildings in his village belonged to its people. In the next two weeks, many neighboring villages did the same thing . . .

"The authorities in Moscow could never divide property from the top. But it will be very easy for the villages to divide that property among individuals."

When I expressed skepticism and quoted Vasilyev's warnings about the politics of envy, Elena said, "It's true that the people dislike cooperatives and private property very much, but that is the result of years of hearing the party bosses saying capitalism causes poverty. But in their private lives, people are already bargaining with each other, just to survive. They don't know it's a market system."

"The resistance to privatization is only temporary," her husband added. "When we have an independent press, people will understand better what we mean."

For all their confidence, these young people share a nightmare. It is not the return of a Stalinist police state that worries them; they think the party bureaucracy is composed of dinosaurs in varying states of rigor mortis. Some worry about the military or the KGB, but most argue that the younger officers share their contempt for the old ways.

What does frighten them, however, is the possibility of civil war. The scary scenario takes various forms. Volodya Pastukhov, a political scientist friend of Nina Belyaeva, warned of an "especially great risk in the Russian Federation," in part because he sees Yeltsin as a figure who governs by charisma and is likely to become more autocratic the longer he remains in power.

Beyond personalities, he said, "In Russia, unlike the other republics, the democratic movement is at odds with the nationalist movement." Russia has an imperial past, and right-wing, nationalist groups, many of them characterized by virulent anti-Semitism, already have emerged on the political scene. While they are small, fringe manifestations now, Pastukhov said, "they could become more important as people become more frustrated."

Underlying all these fears is something more basic -- the Russian intellectual's traditional nervousness about the workers and peasants. Time after time, I heard echoes of Gregory Pelman's comment that "we have an underdeveloped, 19th-century political culture," in which workers know no other way to end their frustration but to find scapegoats and shed blood -- or resign themselves to apathy.

Vitaly Korotich, the editor of Ogonyok, said, "One-third of our people are happy being 'welfare bums,' as Ronald Reagan would put it. They don't understand the market economy, and they would live happily as medieval serfs. Chauvinism -- whether religious or nationalistic -- historically has been their solace. In all the other republics, Russians are the convenient scapegoats; here in Russia, Jews play that part."

Boris Isajko, the financial angel for Samizdat, and Pelman both raised the possibility that if economic reforms demand too much sacrifice and reward too few, the mass of the workers may rebel. That point was reinforced by Arkadiy Murashev, 32, the secretary of the Inter-Regional Group in the Supreme Soviet and a favorite of U.S. conservatives. Even in this day and age, it is a bit startling to walk into the office of a member of the Soviet parliament and find a "George Bush for President" poster on the wall, and a campaign brochure for Ben Bagert, the Republican senatorial candidate in Louisiana, on the desk.

But Murashev, a passionate advocate of rapid, "shock therapy" conversion to a market economy and co-founder of the Democratic Party of Russia, modeled on the Republicans and the British Conservatives, loves to flaunt such banners of western conservatism.

He is less worried about civil war than some of the others I met, because he believes the Soviet Union can finance much of the transition cost by cutting its military-industrial complex. But, referring to "the very low political culture," he warned that "populism could lead to civil war. There are people who will try to redistribute everything equally. I call them the neo-Bolsheviks . . ."

Murashev and the other young men and women who are engaged in the struggle to create a new Soviet Union -- which may be neither Soviet nor a Union of 15 Socialist Republics -- are impressive testaments to the fact that the thirst for freedom and democracy did not die in the Brezhnev '70s, when they were youngsters. Many of them told me that the ideas they express openly now were shared with their classmates in college and their small circles of friends.

But the very fact that they are now involved every day in the effort for reform creates a distance between them and their contemporaries who are outside the political system. For the latter, the experience of daily life is, as one young scholar put it, "truly intolerable."

Now and then, I encountered moments of almost Dostoevskian intensity. The scene that lingers most vividly in my mind occurred one evening I spent just outside the Kremlin walls, interviewing delegates to the party congress. A number of Muscovites had come down to the park in front of the delegates' quarters in the Rossiya Hotel to express their own views. One was a woman named Ludmilla, a dentist, who appeared to be in her forties. She was haranguing one of the delegates, telling him he and his colleagues should have been ashamed for applauding Yegor Ligachev, the old-guard leader, as they had done earlier that day.

When she calmed down a bit, we began to talk. "Look at me," she said. "I am a healthy, attractive woman, but every day I think of suicide. If it were not for my son, I would have ended it long ago, because my soul is trampled every day.

"You cannot survive in this country without breaking the law. The system makes criminals of all of us. Communism has been a disaster from the beginning, and after 70 years of it, we are without food, without homes, without anything that makes life decent. But these people" -- she indicated the delegates, relaxing after dinner and enjoying the long twilight -- "behave the same as they always have. The Communist Party will never give up its position voluntarily, and they will make life impossible for the rest of us. This is a disaster. It is agony. And it is leading to civil war. Even the big shots are afraid now, because they know that if they lose their position, they will lose everything. We will strip them bare, as they have done to us. We will prosecute them -- even if they are dead!"

By this point, she was inflamed enough by her own words that she began to shout again at the delegates. "You are a national disaster!" she cried. "We will have a special commission to deal with you -- to kill all you communists. You are a very dangerous, contagious disease. You are killing Russia and we are going to kill you."

David Broder is a Washington Post reporter and columnist.