Behind the facade of unshakable stability, the Soviet Union has entered a period of depressed expectations that can best be described as a crisis of spirit.
The prospect of a change in leadership, protracted economic troubles and growing discontent among its neighbors have long been sources of concern in the Soviet Union, but now a mood of hopelessness and resignation seems to have infected its own population.
Ironically, this sense of despair has taken hold at a time when the Soviet Union, which this weekend is celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Bolsheviks' October Revolution that led to the establishment of the Soviet state, is stronger militarily than at any time in its history. Indeed, its influence abroad has grown beyond the wildest dreams of its revolutionary founders.
The malaise also comes after two decades of a relative economic boom. People have more money and leisure time, and many own their apartments. Clothes look fashionable and brighter, and restaurants and luxury goods appear more abundant.
Nonetheless, Soviet citizens seem to feel that promises of a better future are beyond their grasp. A Communist Party member summed up this feeling when he said recently, "We may have reached a dead end."
The most popular rock group in the country, Time Machine, sings about the disappearance of the "bluebird of hope," which was the symbol of future happiness in Russian folk tales. "I do not believe in promises and will not do so in the future," goes the refrain. "There is no point in believing in promises."
A generation gap accounts, at least in part, for this era of depression in Soviet society.
Older Russians who lived through World War II and the postwar era of reconstruction share a sense of direction and accomplishment.
But those who were born after the war -- well over 50 percent of the Soviet population -- seem to comprise almost a different breed. They do not remember the Stalinist reign of terror. They take for granted social and economic achievements of the past 20 years and expect to reap more benefits.
The older generations still cling to power and the rhetoric of the past. But their jargon seems incongruous with reality and appears incapable of offering tenable solutions to a range of new civil, social and personal problems that agitate the young.
The daily emphasis -- in films, television and print -- on Soviet travails in a war that ended nearly 40 years ago suggests that the older generations may be acutely aware of their failure to impress their experiences on their offspring.
Young Soviets, judging by their letters to the editor of newspapers if nothing else, yearn for ordinary middle-class lives that include a pair of blue jeans, tiled bathrooms, a Japanese stereo system and a chance to see the world.
But the generational conflict is only one dimension of the crisis. The most overwhelming cause is a faltering economic system, riddled with corruption and inefficiency, that seems incapable of matching aspirations for a better life.
The newspaper Trud recently reported that a chemical plant in Sverdlovsk, newly equipped with Japanese technology at a cost of $9 million, was standing idle because of a lack of raw materials.
"Only 20 of the 120 workers on the shop floor are actually working, and the main headache of the foreman is to dream up some sort of work for the rest," the paper said.
Another account, under the headline "Unbelievable but True," described the plight of an average citizen who bought a Soviet-made washing machine. It broke down on the first day, and the woman was unable to get anyone to fix it.
The prescribed cures show little promise of succeeding. Trade unions are urged to do something about low morale on the shop floor, where absenteeism, alcoholism and shoddy work are making it harder for the Soviets to produce quality goods. Women, who comprise more than half of the work force, are now asked to return to the household to raise children and boost the birth rate.
Three consecutive disastrous harvests and declining industrial productivity have resulted in shortages and longer buying queues, as well as increased disaffection with the system.
Socialist fervor has been replaced by consumerism, cynicism and apathy -- what the authorities openly call an alarming decline in moral values. People now strive at all costs to acquire household appliances, electronic goods and especially a Volga car or small Zhiguli sedan, proving former U.S. undersecretary of state George Ball's axiom that an automobile is "an ideology on four wheels."
This trend has stimulated the underground economy, which has always thrived here but has now grown to unprecedented proportions.
In the construction industry, for example, semilegal private entrepreneurs are reported to account for a huge share of new construction. In one region, private building "brigades" last year performed roughly two-thirds of state construction.
Crime has soared dramatically. A flurry of press reports has described shoot-outs between bandits and police in the far east, raids by robber gangs on the trans-Siberian railroad and grisly operations by a murder syndicate in Central Russia that kills random visitors for a new suit or a winter coat.
Even the heavily guarded foreign ghettos in Moscow have been affected by a sharp increase in theft, something inconceivable a few years ago. Japanese businessmen in the international trade center have reported disappearances of office equipment. A Western journalist had his snow tires stolen in broad daylight, even though his car was parked inside the guarded compound.
Another old problem, alcoholism, has reached epidemic proportions. A leading Soviet economist reported recently after touring 50 enterprises that some firms have created "special brigades" to find drunken workers and prevent injuries.
In the area of food distribution, corrupt practices and the growth of the underground economy dominate a system long plagued by erratic supplies. People here say the current shortages are the worst seen in at least 10 years.
A new novel published this fall provides a biting portrait of the country's widespread apathy and disaffection. Its focus is a department store with ever-growing lines for diminishing supplies, and its characters range from ordinary people to speculators to those who steal daily from the state what amounts to the average monthly wage. "All have dissatisfied expressions on their faces," the author writes.
Describing the patience of people waiting for a table in a small restaurant, the author explains their passivity by saying that each of them is "hoping to be a part of that minimal quota of ordinary people who are usually allowed in for the sake of maintaining the democratic reputation of the establishment." The important and the rich do not have to stand in the line, he says.
That such themes could find their way into print suggests an awareness on the part of the authorities about populist despair and bitterness. Yet no indications have been given that any radical steps are being contemplated to deal with the problems. Instead, the government has ordered a shake-up of ideological programs and sought to rekindle enthusiasm.
Any radical change, as one Soviet historian put it, will have to come from the top.
"That is the nature of the country," he said. "Given the age of our leadership, it is hard to expect them to start anything new."