The new Soviet leadership has taken a significant step toward an eventual rehabilitation of Nikita Khrushchev by publicly acknowledging his prominent leadership role in the battle of Stalingrad, one of the turning points of World War II.

For the first time since Khrushchev was ousted from power in 1964, his name was mentioned approvingly in an article published in Kommunist, the most authoritative ideological publication of the Soviet party's Central Committee.

Kommunist, using Khrushchev's name three times, described him and Marshal Semyon Timoshenko as the principal leaders of the Soviet forces at Stalingrad. Khrushchev at the time held the rank of lieutenant general, below that of marshal, but as a member of Stalin's Politburo he was the senior figure on the Stalingrad front.

There has been speculation in Soviet circles that Yuri Andropov, the new Soviet party chief, would eventually seek to restore Khrushchev's role in Soviet history and at least provide a balanced assessment of his performance.

Andropov was Khrushchev's ambassador to Hungary at the time of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Khrushchev subsequently promoted Andropov within the Central Committee, making him one of its secretaries in 1962.

A flurry of articles in January about the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad made no mention of Khrushchev, although various Soviet and German figures were cited.

Two articles in the January issue of the journal History of the U.S.S.R. dealing with the Stalingrad battle made only one mention of Stalin. They include several quotes from Leonid Brezhnev, the former Soviet leader who was not present at Stalingrad in 1942-43. The articles were approved by Soviet censors in October, while Brezhnev was still alive.

An article about the Stalingrad battle in the journal Questions in History of the Soviet Communist Party, which also came out last month, did not mention the names of either Stalin or Khrushchev. It included quotes from Brezhnev and Andropov. The journal was given censors' approval in the begining of December, a few weeks after Andropov was chosen as party leader.

The January issue of the journal Questions of History, also approved by the censors in December, made no mention of either Stalin or Khrushchev in its account of the Stalingrad battle.

The authoritative Kommunist had its January issue approved by the censors Jan. 10. It includes the article "Victory on the Volga" in which Khrushchev, Stalin and others are mentioned in what seems to be the most balanced Soviet account of the Stalingrad battle thus far. It was written by a participant, Lt. Gen. L. Lelyushenko.

It is inconceivable that the authoritative journal would mention approvingly the former Soviet leader without authorization of the top Kremlin officials, presumably Andropov himself. The only mention of Khrushchev in any authoritative Soviet publication since his removal was the announcement of his death in 1971 in the party newspaper Pravda, which referred to him as N.S. Khrushchev, "a private pensioner."

The authoritative "Soviet Diplomatic Dictionary," a three-volume encyclopedia of foreign policy published by the Foreign Ministry, does not mention Khrushchev by name.

The Kommunist article also makes a first mention of Georgy Malenkov, who became premier following the death of Stalin, when Khrushchev became party leader. Khrushchev ousted Malenkov from the premiership in 1955 and made him a nonperson two years later in a Kremlin power struggle during which Khrushchev eliminated most of his political opponents.

Malenkov was sent to run a power plant and he disappeared from public life. He has since retired and is living in Moscow.