The leatherbound photo album of smiling visitors to the Institute of United States Studies in Moscow, the Kremlin think tank of experts in American affairs, reads like a who's who in the top ranks of Jimmy Carter's foreign policy team.

Here is Vice President-elect Walter Mondale holding forth during a week spent as the institute's guest in November 1974. Mondale's foreign affairs adviser David Aaron, soon to be Zbigniew Brzezinski's deputy at the National Security Council, is just visible in the background. There is Defense Secretary-designate Harold Brown and Treasury Secretary-designate Michael Blumenthal.

Even Brzezinski, despite his reputed unpopularity in the Kremlin, was cordially received at the institute. Secretary of State-designate Cyrus Vance has been there on several occasions. Indeed, of the key figures in the incoming administration, the one Soviet specialists feel they know least is Carter himself. The President-elect has never been to Moscow.

Nonetheless, for all the concern expressed here some months ago about the difficulties of coping with an unfamiliar Amercian leadership, which Carter appeared to represent, the Soviets now seem reassured and even hopeful that his new administration will turn out to be easier to deal with than was the Ford-Kissinger team.

"On the whole", said Pravda, assessing the Carter line-up, "leading representatives of the new administration are capable, if they wish, if showing a well-pondered and realistic approach in considering international problems."

There is no doubt either that first hand experience with so many of the senior Carter people, in some cases over a period of years, is regarded as a decided plus by the Soviets, who were worried about a prolonged groping period before hard bargaining could really begin. With some sort of strategic arms accord highest on Moscow's agenda - the present SALT agreement expires next fall - the felling now is that much of the initial sparring can be avoided.

After the severe strains to U.S. Soviet detente of the past 18 months or so, the Kremlin plainly believes that headway on arms control is essential to maintain stable superpower relations in other areas. "SALT is the first bridge," one thoughtful Soviet source remarked this week. "When we cross it we will come to the other bridges".

Moscow's satisfaction with the prospects for progress, however, is only partial. It has been offset by substantial alarm over what the Soviets portray as a determined campaign of the outgoing administration (President Ford is no longer spared direct criticism) and various long-standing "opponents of the relaxation of tension" to limit Carter's options by giving new impetus to the "myth" of a Soviet menace.

Perhaps the most disturbing development from the Kremlin standpoint was the leak recently of intelligence estimates suggesting that the Soviets have shifted their aims from military parity with the United States to superiority. An outpouring of press commentaries on this and related subjects - probably the most numerous on American matters in some time - attests to the extent of Soviet unease.

"The forces of the military industrial complex" Pravda declared, "seem intent on preventing the new administration from living up to Carter's announced plan of giving priority attention to the (SALT) talks and looking for ways to settle pressing problems of Soviet-American relations.

The Ford is so closely identified now in Soviet parlance with the enemies of detente reflects the extent to which relations have soured since Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974. Looking back now on those halcyon early days, when any hint that the American President might be remiss, was banned from the Soviet press and when Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhev welcomed Ford with genuine warmth to Vladivostok, the decline seems remarkable.

Vladivostok, where the outlines of a SALT II accord were reached, was in retrospect, probably the high point of U.S. Soviet ties in the Nixon-Ford years, Within weeks though, it was clear that the general principles would only be slowly transformed into a strategic arms pact. Moscow soon also renounced the terms of the pending trade agreement with the United States because of irritation over restrictions place by Congress on credits and Soviet emigration policies .

In the spring of 1975, the collapse of American policy in Indochina seemed to stir incipient American skepticism of the Soviets - reservations that the joint Soviet-American space mission that summer did not allay and the little understood, much-maligned Helsinki agreement on European security plainly encouraged.

In January 1976, Kissinger came to Moscow for what proved to be his last concerted effort to reach a SALT agreement and he might have succeeded had not Soviet support for Cuban forces in Angola dropped the bottom out of detente. From February on, the relationship was in what both Soviets and Americans have now publicly termed "stagnation" and "retrogression".

Since Carter's election, the Kremlin has conveyed publicly and through emissaries and interest in seeing that stalemate broken. Both the President-elect and Brezhnev have said they are prepared for a summit session and the Soviets have privately promised not to provoke any distracting confrontation in the months ahead, although, as Western diplomats point out, some low-level testing continues, such as the Kremlin refusal to pay its share of the costs of the U.N. forces in the Middle East.

A willingness, even an eagerness, does exist here, Soviet sources say, to build a new structure of detente on the shambles of the old one.