The Russians are coming, all right - but not over the top with nukes or even tanks in the fashion dear to the military analysts back home. On the contrary, the Russians are making slow but steady progress in such matters as technology, economic development and coping with social problems.

These gains are attributes of power and have implications for Washington. But they are largely obscured by the enormous exaggeration of Soviet military strength by the American hawks.

To the periodic visitor, the most obvious sign of progress lies in consumer goods. Clothes are a little more stylish this year than last and brighter in color. There are many more cars on the streets of Moscow; in the nearby countryside, at least, there are more television sets and refrigerators.

Fruits, meats and vegetables are in short supply, and the Soviet countryside is a grim place. Still, agriculture - the traditional Achilles' heel of the Soviet system - has clearly improved. Over the past 10 years the Russians have poured billions of rubles into mechanization, irrigation and fertilizer production. Though the collective farm system is undoubtedly wasteful, the huge investments inevitably pay off.

Last year's crop was a record, and this year the outlook is good. While the rural population has been shrinking, Soviet farm output - according to American experts here - has doubled since 1950. Growth in annual agricultural produce has been steady, and present output is over four-fifths of U.S. production compared to half 25 years ago.

In social development, a good example is city management. Though there are some acute urban problems in the Soviet Union, the Russians have integrated growth and transit in a truly impressive way. In the past few years, hundreds of new apartment buildings - some of them not even bad in design - have sprung up around Moscow and other cities. In Moscow, at least, subways and buses move more than six million passengers daily to and from town without any serious crushes.

In technology, a Soviet venture of special interest to the United States comes in the field of electrical generation. In the United States, water is heated by coal, gas or oil to make steam, which turns the turbines that generate power. The maximum efficiency of that operation is only slightly above 40 per cent.

Russia has now built two power plants that employ a device known as magneto-hydrodynamics. As I understand it, a form of the steam is passed through a giant magnet that transforms it directly into electrical power. If that operation proves successful, it is expected ot be about 50 per cent more efficient thatn the traditional American method. Indeed, as part of the continuing exchange of technology, American scientists want to try to use their equipment in the experimental Soviet power plants.

Finally and most important there are the vast natural resources available to the Soviet Union, particularly in Siberia. Russia has billions of tons of coal lying close to the surface in veins said to be hundreds of miles thick. She has gold, timber, copper and other metals galore. Soviet officials scoff at the recent prediction by the Central Intelligence Agency that their country will soon be importing - not exporting, as now - oil and gas. They claim - and I think not wrongly - that Russia is the richest country in the world in natural resources.

Exploiting these resources requires hugh, multi-year projects costing hundreds of billions of dollars. Foreign equipment and capital are obviously advantageous, if not absolutely required. Equally important are project organizations for particular developments that cut across provincial authorities and central ministries back in Moscow. Developing Siberia, in other words, fosters - if it doesn't force - reform of the incredibly inefficient central planning system.

All this contradicts the basic American stereotype of Soviet Russia as a 19th-century country with a 20th-century military establishment - a second-rate nation worrisome only because it has nuclear weapons.

The fact is that Russia is a colossus without feet of clay. It has the weapons, the people, the resources, the technology and the capacity to grow. It cannot be ignored, nor bullied, nor mastered, nor run into the ground. The Soviet Union has to be lived with, and the essence of any American foreign policy is a strategy that encompasses coexistence as well as competition with the other superpower.