To watch dusk descend on Moscow is to watch a city vanish. It is as though it sinks into the sandy soil that limits high-rise construction in this horizontal capital. To see Moscow at night is to be struck by what you do not see, and to long for neon -- the electronic exuberance that is freedom's signature in the form of capitalism's crackling energy.

A wit, seeing Times Square for the first time, said: It must be beautiful if you can't read. That is somewhat true of Moscow bedecked with red banners proclaiming slogans that are punctuated by the obligatory exclamation mark. It is a city without what we call "commercial clutter." It is a city where mass appetites are not expressed and satisfied in the populist democracy of the marketplace.

An American in Moscow can suffer an ailment diagnosable as "PSD" -- Pointer Sisters Deprivation. The absence of popular expression of the sensual side of life is a telling facet of the Soviet system. In the West, the social atmosphere may be overdosed with aphrodisiacs. However, a sojourn in an anti-sensualist society such as this underscores a theme of Orwell's "1984": Eroticism is feared by a regime that feels threatened by any realm of privacy or flicker of spontaneity.

The sensory deprivation here is highlighted by exceptions to it, such as a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet in the ornate theater that, like almost all things pleasing to the eye, was built before 1917. A sumptuous performance of "Sleeping Beauty" is attended by 2,500 of le tout Moscow and a few visitors. The performance seems all the more ethereal and remote because it is such a stylized, tantalizing glimpse of life lived beyond the gray walls of ideological categories.

"Sleeping Beauty," an echo of an earlier age, was performed the evening of the day the Communist Party Congress echoed with Mikhail Gorbachev's thoughts on matters cultural. He denounced literature, art and scholarship in which, "under the guise of national originality, attempts are made to depict in idyllic tones reactionary nationalist and religious survivals contrary to our ideology, the socialist way of life, and our scientific world outlook." He said "the people" need "only a literature that is ideologically motivated," and not "showy verbosity on paper, petty dirty-linen-washing, time-serving and utilitarianism." This is Gorbachev, voice of the "bold new generation," expressing Stalinist values with Khrushchevian crudity.

The Soviet Union is a Third World country with first-class missiles at the disposal of a regime with a mind that never even rises to the second-rate. The morning of the day Gorbachev spent declaiming about the glittering high-tech future of the "qualitatively new" Soviet experience, a visitor sought a bit of breakfast in a lobby refreshment area in a hotel so grand, by Soviet standards, that only a few privileged Soviet citizens are allowed in.

Visitor: I'd like some buttered toast.

Waiter: There is no toast today.

Visitor: What do you have?

Waiter: Cheese or ham sandwiches.

Visitor: I'll take a cheese sandwich.

Waiter: The cheese is not fresh.

Vladimir Bukovsky, the exiled dissident, says that Soviet public-health problems -- high infant mortality, low birthrates (below replacement rates among some nationalities, including Russians), increasing birth defects -- indicate that the Soviet crisis has gone beyond mere disillusionment and apathy to "biological exhaustion, a fatigue of human material."

Certainly the sullenness and rudeness that Westerners living here find so wearing reflects the grinding-down experience of going around with an empty bag, jostling with others in the search for the necessities of life, potatoes here, perhaps some meat over there. And the nonessentials? There are hundreds of people outside a store because it has received a shipment of wallpaper, and who knows when there will be more? The communist aristocracy is, of course, exempt from these rigors. That aristocracy is another tradition. A commander of a Soviet ship in a 1937 naval review was addressed as "Arch-Comrade."

The vigor of a society can, in the short run, be stimulated by revolutionary ardor or wartime discipline. But over the long haul, social vigor is a function of fun, in this sense: People will be more energetic, creative, pro fecund when they are enjoying themselves. A capacity for enjoyment is grounded in self-esteem. That is difficult to develop in a society in which the individual is considered a mere manifestation of this or that collective category ("worker," "peasant," "vanguard"). Individual attributes and achievements are made to seem trivial in comparison with ideological goals -- such as "new Soviet man" -- by which the collectivist society is lashed into discipline.

The Soviet regime, too, lacks self-esteem. It aches for "respect" from the world. But it sends five KGB agents to confiscate the books of an 85-year-old woman. Perhaps three agents could have done the job, but the regime is proud of running a full-employment society.