Soviet specialists across the country were sharply divided today over the impact of President Reagan's decision not to attend the Kremlin funeral of Konstantin Chernenko this week.
Some Kremlinologists, such as Oberlin College President S. Fredrick Starr, say Reagan may have missed a historic opportunity to make an early, positive gesture toward the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who presumably will be in power for many years.
Starr said Kremlin funerals have a unique importance in Soviet life. "In an old-fashioned society with very few sacraments, a civic death like this takes on heavy significance," he said. "For Reagan to attend would have been a gesture of grandness and decency, not an acknowledgment of weakness."
Others, including historian Robert Conquest, say the president's decision to stay home will have little or no consequences for Soviet-American relations, which may be headed for a period of relatively reduced tension after several years of chilly rhetoric.
They suggest that such central bilateral issues as Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), better trade relations and resumption of cultural and scientific exchanges await complex negotiations that will take months, perhaps years, to run their course. These talks, and not presidential attendance at Chernenko's funeral, will determine the relationship, these specialists said.
The division of opinion emerged during telephone interviews with university scholars, historians and former diplomats, all members of the nation's small cadre of Soviet specialists. Several knowledgeable State Department analysts offered their assessments, not for attribution
Such diversity of opinion among these specialists underscores the westerners' difficulty in divining the inner dynamics of the Kremlin and its secretive leaders.
"We know so little about those new elites, we just must wait and see how they develop," said University of Illinois economics professor James R. Millar, who heads a team interviewing thousands of recent emigres from the Soviet Union. "If Reagan went, and they didn't get on, it could be very bad for relations."
But Conquest and several others observed that "since Reagan didn't go to the first two funerals [of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 and Yuri Andropov in 1984], "there's no point in going to third funeral."
Mark Garrison, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and now head of a foreign policy research center at Brown University, said, however, that Reagan had missed "an opportunity to explore a fresh start with a fresh face." Nevertheless, he added, "we're sending the vice president, and that's appropriate."
Garrison recalled that President Kennedy's funeral, which attracted one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in recent times, was not attended by Nikita Khrushchev, then in power in Moscow.
Wellesley Prof. Marshall I. Goldman, associate director of Harvard's Russian Research Center, said West Europeans who have met Kremlin newcomers such as Gorbachev have remarked on their "arrogance. The new leaders view the U.S.S.R. as a great power. They don't understand how close the country came to losing World War II."
"I frankly think it would be a mistake for him [Reagan] to go," said Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security affairs adviser to President Gerald R. Ford and headed Reagan's commission of strategic-weapons experts.
"While there are some obvious political advantages" for Reagan in attending the Chernenko funeral and meeting with Gorbachev, Scowcroft said, "it would be premature" to expect them to have a substantive talk. That would be more productive later, Scowcroft said, and "I think this is a time to be reserved and correct."
Scowcroft said he does not believe that the Soviet Union will "be resentful" of Reagan's absence since he sent deputies to the funerals of Brezhnev and Andropov.
Dmitri K. Simes, Soviet-born specialist of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he also believes that the Soviets "will be satisfied" with the American delegation led by Bush and Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
"You have to be very realistic," Simes said. "When the president travels it is a major event. And it would be a sensational event for him to go to Moscow." The tumult and the "technical obstacles" of such a visit, Simes said, would be out of proportion to what it could accomplish . . . so on balance I think it was the right decision."
Raymond L. Garthoff, longtime specialist on Soviet political and military affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, said Reagan is missing an opportunity.
"It might have provided some psychological boost" to U.S.-Soviet relations at a delicate stage, said Garthoff, now a senior adviser to the Brookings Institution.
But he said the president's decision was unlikely to surprise the Soviets, and "it is not anything that they should take as an affront."