MOSCOW -- Capitalism creeps into the Soviet Union on tiny quiet feet. While the political elephants lock tusks over the legalization and practice of private enterprise here, will-be Soviet entrepreneurs scurry softly beneath the battle, creating markets in the falling citadels of communism.
Communism is to the Soviet Union what banks were to Willie Sutton. That is where the money is. The Communist Party has monopolized the assets and much of the talent of this multinational empire for the past seven decades. The embryonic capitalist system taking form here will rise from the debris of the Communist crackup.
"Everyone I work with is figuring out whether to be a manager for a foreign company or to carve out a piece of ownership of something owned now by the state agency when the changeover comes," a middle-level official confidently tells me over lunch in a for-profit cooperative restaurant.
The sense of the real economic change that is occurring even as Gorbachev and his orthodox Communist opponents debate a political formula to permit that change has touched virtually everything I have done in a week's visit to Moscow. The conference that brought me here was to center on the media after the Cold War, but it quickly became a brainstorming session on the transition from communism to a market economy.
The site of the conference was another small sign of the change in priorities that is occurring. I type this report in the Hotel Oktyabrskaya, one of the party's holiest of holies. Modern and comfortable (two words that are alien to Moscow hotel life), it was once strictly reserved for Central Committee members and fellow high-ranking party dignitaries from abroad.
It still requires official pull to get into the Oktyabrskaya, which is generously staffed with private nurses ready to respond to an emergency call from the aged commissars who normally stay here. But the owner -- the Communist Party -- will rent a modest single that was once the preserve of visiting Cuban comrades for $180, while a general secretary-style suite goes for $500 a night.
Across town near Pushkin Square, another former Central Committee hotel now caters to guests who pay in foreign currency. State-owned dachas in the countryside can now be rented on an annual basis by foreign businessmen. A commercial radio station set up by a French network now broadcasts on transmitters formerly used for jamming Western stations.
The one functioning free market in the Soviet Union is in fact the media, thanks to the crusading magazines and newspapers that have become popular and profitable in the era of glasnost. The magazine Oganyok and The Moscow News newspaper have recently thrown off party ownership and registered as independently owned enterprises.
They have also become increasingly critical of Gorbachev as their readers have grown weary of food shortages and confusion about the Soviet leader's aims. Continuing to support Gorbachev without reservation would have undoubtedly meant the massive loss of readers still experimenting with new publications. The newly independent press appears to have chosen the market instead.
The model of managers converting state enterprises into private and profitable concerns will not work for many of the Soviet Union's outdated and undercapitalized businesses and industries. But an injection of the profit motive into others could salvage them and create a nucleus of entrepreneurs around which a new system could be built.
Gorbachev continues to be fuzzy about legalizing private property and making the profit motive the motor of the Soviet economy. He puts forward proposals leading in the direction of private ownership, and then retreats when orthodox opposition surfaces.
The result is disillusionment and confusion. No one can be sure whether national, state or local authorities own the land, buildings and machinery that will eventually be privatized. The few hardy American businessmen who try to operate in this atmosphere despair at times in their inability to get any definitions, much less clear ones, out of the system.
The Soviet entrepreneurs of tomorrow, however, are taking advantage of the confusion at the top to begin building at the bottom. They read Gorbachev's hesitations as tactical retreats that wind up moving the Soviet Union closer to a private property system. Gorbachev's agenda at this point may boil down to buying time for such bottom-up change to occur.
This is an inherently unstable process, as China's 1989 crackdown on its reformers demonstrated. The contrast a visitor finds here between the ideological rigidity of the orthodox forces and the spreading vision of a quick and sweeping conversion to free enterprise is reminiscent of the heady days of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing. If anything, the contrast is even more pronounced here.
But Gorbachev has the lesson of the Tiananmen explosion before him. He has shrewdly dismantled most of the political power bases that the orthodox forces once dominated. He may be able to channel the spreading anxiety and frustration to create pressures for a rapid opening to private enterprise. That would enable him to salvage one of the Communist system's most impressive assets for the future: himself.