MIKHAIL SUSLOV, the veteran Soviet politician who died (peacefully) on Monday at age 79, had, we suspect, a "dirty little secret." He was known as the Kremlin's chief ideologist, but this was a mask. He believed in power--the power of a self-appointed Communist Party elite. And why not? The party took him off the farm, educated him in its fashion, gave him work--he was hip-deep in the purges of the 1930s--gave him high office (the Central Committee from 194l, the Politburo from 1952) and then dignified as ideology the crude strictures he laid down to a succession of challengers of Kremlin orthodoxy: the Yugoslavs, the Chinese, Soviet dissidents, most recently the Poles.

Tall for a Russian, gaunt in visage, a familiar gray eminence hovering at the elbow of his better known peers for more than three decades, Mr. Suslov certainly looked the part of chief ideologist. But he was really something else: a diligent hatchet man, always ready to belabor the victim of the moment. He had to be something else for, by nearly universal account, ideology is a hollow force in his country, an object of neglect and contempt. No one could have sustained a high-flying career like his if he were held responsible for popular belief.

What, then, did Mikhail Suslov believe? What beliefs do stir or at least bind the tiny handful of people who rule the Soviet Union in the name of Communist ideology? The permutations of faith in power are, of course, considerable. But perhaps the shrewd and durable Suslov had an extra edge.

In the multi-ethnic Soviet Union, he was one of the few Politburo members entirely of the politically dominant Great Russian strain. It began to be noticed a while back that he was invariably the first person on the reviewing stand to rise for the national anthem. For some years observers have seen the Kremlin shading in theme and symbol from a reliance on revolutionary ideology to a reliance on a traditional, muscular, illiberal, ethnocentric Russian nationalism. So much for the Kremlin's chief ideologist.