MOSCOW -- Ask Vitaly Goldansky, a legislator and physicist, whether the era of reform has died in the Soviet Union, and he will reply like a true child of relativity:

"It depends on your definition of time."

Even now, when few disaster scenarios can be dismissed and Mikhail Gorbachev takes his stand with the military and Communist Party against the people he now spitefully calls "the so-called democrats," Goldansky is not alone in his wry optimism. Many other leaders of democratic movements here share both his short-term dread and long-term confidence that the Soviet Union is ultimately doomed to something resembling a normal life.

"I belong to those who are convinced of a happy ending -- maybe not in the year 2000 but perhaps about 20 years from now," said Leonid Batkin, a historian of the Italian rennaissance and one of the leaders of Democratic Russia, the country's biggest opposition movement.

"I'm convinced that a market economy and a liberal, law-governed state of a more or less western type so far unknown {here} will gain a foothold. After an agonizing period of transition, the U.S.S.R. will fall apart by itself -- an end which is only promoted by the attempts to prevent such disintegration through threats and force. The question is: What will be the timing and the price in suffering?"

The chorus of apocalypse in the Soviet Union has good reason to sound its terrible dirge. Ordinarily cautious voices say they now sense the sort of danger and instability reminiscent of the days before the Bolshevik coup in 1917. "It is even more difficult now because so many more people are involved," said Leningrad's deputy mayor, Vyacheslav Shcherbakov. Today's referendum on the future of the union (boycotted by six republics) promises only to deepen political resentments and heighten the crisis.

Western estimates of the Soviet Union's immediate economic future range from the calamitous to the merely dreadful. Even Gosplan, the Kremlin bureaucracy responsible for mapping out the "shining socialist future," has passed along to the International Monetary Fund a secret, doom-ridden report that forsees a drop in GNP this year four times worse than in 1990.

"I see an abyss ahead, economically, politically and socially -- a return to the horrible times of the past," said Yakov Urinson, a member of the Gosplan team who wrote the study. "I have in mind 1937, and there was nothing more horrible than that. I mean the famine of the 1930s, the repressions of 1937." Such gloom is real enough, and so are the politics of the moment, such as Gorbachev's turn to the right, especially his unapologetic support of the Communist Party and the military in their attempts to overthrow the democratically elected parliaments in the Baltic states in January. These moves have lost him almost all of his original, most loyal supporters.

"I finally had to quit the party, something I never expected to do," said Yegor Yakovlev, the editor of Moscow News. "Something inside of me died when I saw how Gorbachev had changed. His inability to go further -- this is the tragedy of my, of our, generation." Other loyalists, such as sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya and economist Nikolai Shmelyov, have now joined Russian leader Boris Yeltsin's advisory team.

But more important than any shift in the political alignment, what ultimately stands in the way of a prolonged return to the "horrible times of the past" -- to anything resembling the militarized terror of the Stalin years or the ossification of the Brezhnev years -- is the intellectual and spiritual revolution that has taken hold among millions of people here since 1985.

Before leaving for Moscow three years ago, I asked the poet Joseph Brodsky what book he wished Soviet citizens would read if they could. He suggested John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty." Now the democratic values of Mill -- liberal values that had once been the banner of just a few imperiled dissidents -- have begun to penetrate every level of society. The self-consciousness of the country is in the process of a continuing transformation that cannot be easily reversed, sentenced or arrested.

The demand for political empowerment, for liberty, has grown tremendously despite the lack of any democratic traditions or history under the czars and general secretaries. Democratic Russia, for example, is extremely disorganized. Its leadership sessions often resemble a late night meeting of a strung-out faculty club. And yet this movement -- unlike the Communist Party, with all its resources of money and command -- is able to call huge street demonstrations at a moment's notice.

Leningrad's reformist mayor Anatoly Sobchak calls the new fearlessness among ordinary people, their willingness to protest and even strike, "our insurance policy" against a prolonged return to the dark days.

Leonid Parfyonov, a well-known broadcaster, says, "The army and the KGB look out their windows now at a crowd of a few hundred thousand people demonstrating and they realize that's how many people they would have to put in the camps if they really wanted to end it all. They can't do it." And Vyacheslav Starkov, editor of the popular weekly Argumenti i Fakti, says that even if the Kremlin tries to shut down the liberal press "the underground press and foreign radio stations will revive. People will not go uninformed."

"You see, no dictator possesses a narcotic strong enough to put us to sleep again," Batkin, the historian, said. "Dictatorship would be doomed at conception. What could it do? It could not prevent a catastrophic collapse in the economy. It would choke on the centrifugal forces in the republics and it would bring out massive civil resistance. It will, of course, cause fear, but the millions of people who have learned that the regime will not live a thousand years, that the monster is mortal, will overcome that fear."

Take the case of political columnist Len Karpinsky. He has traveled an internal road typical of many in his (and Gorbachev's) generation of believers in the Leninist faith. As a promising officer of the Young Communist League and the son of a Bolshevik revolutionary, Karpinsky was blessed as "one of the great hopes" of the party by none other than Brezhnev's ideology chief, Mikhail Suslov. In the era of the Prague Spring and after, Karpinsky lost his party card and ruined his political career by speaking out, in Aesopian language and then under false names, for democratic socialism.

Under Gorbachev, he lived through "four years or so of euphoria" and then watched with increasing despair as the old institutions of power took their stand. And yet Karpinsky's confidence is remarkable.

"Even the Khrushchev thaw left an extraordinary legacy, and that was a thaw of only two degrees centigrade," he said. "What has happened here since 1985 is a thaw of 25 degrees centigrade. The thaw under Khrushchev was so limited. Now the entire society has been politicized. The disgraces of history are revealed entirely. Ideology is a relic. We live in the world now, for better and worse. There is no going back." In 1985, Gorbachev set out to "reform socialism" of its Stalinist "deformations," to revive a regime and a country relying on the scant historic example of Lenin's neo-market reforms (the New Economic Policy) in the early 1920s. Gorbachev and his circle of Communist Party liberals recognized that without glasnost, without exposing the country to self-criticism, to a view of the world beyond, there could be no such reform.

But glasnost did far more than expose economists to market theories and scientists to computer technology. Glasnost shattered the last myths of the totalitarian state and the Leninist faith. It began what can best be described as an internal revolution, a revolution within individuals. People learned for the first time their own history and reacted in anger and shame. Nationalities, burdened for decades with the enforced myth of "Soviet Man," began to restore their ruined cultures and endangered languages. Simply by watching television and reading the press, ordinary workers saw that their oppressed counterparts in the West did not live in cardboard boxes, as Pravda used to tell them.

One of the most popular books in the Soviet Union these days is reading banned until very recently: Nikolai Berdayev's 1932 essay, "The Origin of Russian Communism," which asserts that the Bolshevik style of revolutionary faith and intolerance of heretics was the tragic combination of the maximalist style of the Russian intelligentsia, the Russian Orthodox Church's search for heaven on earth and the "most despotic aspects" of the czarist regime.

"Lenin could not realize his plan of revolution and seizure of power without a change in the soul of the people . . . . The Five Year plan was not merely economic, but the plan for the reconstruction of life and the soul," Berdayev wrote.

"But if man is considered simply a brick in the structure of society, if he is but an instrument of the economic process, then one must speak not so much of the appearance of the new man as the disappearance of man, that is to say, of the intensifying of the process of dehumanization. Man is deprived of the measurement of depth; he is turned into a flat, two-dimensional being."

The literature describing this totalitarian "two-dimensional being" predates 1917. It begins with Dostoevsky's scathing portrait of fanatic revolutionaries in "The Devils" and reaches its culmination in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago." Solzhenitsyn not only chronicles the crimes that began under Lenin and expanded under Stalin, he describes the extraordinary examples of individuals in the camps and in exile trying heroically to retain their human qualities of spirit. There is hardly an authentic work of literature during the Soviet period that is not somehow a description and criticism of the loneliness and distortion of human souls.

Joseph Brodsky, in his essay "Less Than One," describes the way an individual was forced to check himself, to create almost an internal replica of the repressive structures all around him: "A certain advantage of totalitarianism is that it suggests to an individual a kind of vertical hierarchy of its own, with consciousness on top. So we oversee what's going on inside ourselves; we almost report to our consciousness on our instincts. And then we punish ourselves. When we realize that this punishment is not commensurate with the swine we have discovered inside, we resort to alcohol and drink our wits out."

Brodsky's mentor, Nadezhda Mandelstam, writes in her memoirs that, "An existence like this leaves its mark. We all became slightly unbalanced mentally -- not exactly ill, but not normal either: suspicious, mendacious, confused and inhibited in our speech, at the same time putting on a show of adolescent optimism."

When Andrei Sakharov died in December 1989, most of the obituaries focused on his public battles, his leadership of the human rights movement under Brezhnev and then his return to Moscow under Gorbachev to lead the democratic opposition. But what Sakharov also provided was a model of thinking and sympathy that rejected the style of revolutionary maximalism so popular among the intellectual originators of Russian communism.

One of the revolutionary intellectuals of 1850s, M.V. Petrashevsky exemplified the tendency to dehumanize political life, to think in terms of social engineering. "Unable to find anything either in women or in men worthy of my adherence," he said at one point, "I have turned to devote myself to the service of humanity."

Such a mentality, obsessed with social engineering and dismissive of the individual, led to the totalitarian epoch. At the end of Solzhenitsyn's "First Circle," a journalist blinded by the enforced deceptions of the regime, sees a truck go by. The truck carries dozens of prisoners headed for Siberia, but it is marked "Meat." The journalist writes in his notebook, "Food supply to workers improving."

The Soviet Union no longer seems to have the will or even the means to create such an isolated and cruel world of deception again. In that, there is hope for the future. But when? It depends on your definition of time. David Remnick is a Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post.