MOSCOW -- By loosening the chains that hold his nation's intellectuals in thrall, Mikhail Gorbachev has gained vital support from Soviet writers, editors, scientists and even dissidents in rallying public opinion. This implicit bargain is the political essence of glasnost.
But it is far from being the whole story of glasnost, a story in which chains that are slightly loosened can too easily become more newsworthy than the chains the dictatorship keeps tightly in place.
To understand that more fully, sit down at the dining room table of Valery Soyfer, professor of molecular biology, refusenik and engaging host. On hand is a friend of Soyfer, also a brilliant scientist and also Jewish.
Soyfer proudly discloses that he received a phone call a few days ago for which he had waited nearly a decade. His once-taboo manuscript detailing the bastardization of Soviet science under Stalin's political henchman, T.D. Lysenko, is finally on its way to being published.
Under prodding from his friend, Soyfer acknowledges that this could not have happened without the spirit of national debate and criticism that Gorbachev has encouraged as the core of glasnost, which is usually if inadequately translated as openness. "It is true he has put normal people with normal mentality in some positions," Soyfer says grudgingly.
"When the journals ask me to do articles about what's wrong with our scientists," the friend reports, "they say now they want me to write stronger, to hit harder at officials than I have." The friend declines to do so for the same reason that he did not permit his name to be used in this column. He does not want to endanger his strong position on the academic fast track here.
"It means that self-censorship is replacing censorship," the friend, now prodded by Soyfer, concedes. "These are powerful people in science, and who knows if you will always be protected against them if you criticize them too much?"
Adding to the friend's reluctance to make waves is a conviction that glasnost includes a commitment by Gorbachev to oppose official anti-Semitism. "I know this, Valery, I see the promotions that are happening and are going to happen," he says to a profoundly disbelieving Soyfer.
Soyfer, who is 50, jumped off the science fast track nearly 10 years ago by applying to emigrate from the Soviet Union. He quickly lost his job and opportunities to publish his views here. The prospect that his Lysenko manuscript will be published is almost as dramatic a reversal as the release last January of Andrei Sakharov from internal exile.
For Soyfer, glasnost will remain a dangerous illusion until the refuseniks -- people who visibly challenge the official refusal of their application to emigrate to Israel or other countries -- are let go. Until then, he refuses to join his friend and Sakharov in viewing Gorbachev's changes as genuine.
"Perhaps I would begin to believe there was real change if they would just start telling the truth about refuseniks," Soyfer says. "They make up ridiculous stories that we came into contact with state secrets and that is why we can't leave, but they won't say how long we have to wait before these secrets are useless."
Soyfer gently criticizes foreign correspondents based in Moscow for not testing and identifying the limits of glasnost through their dispatches. The litmus test for him, obviously enough, is what they say, and don't say, about the refuseniks.
His point reflects one of the sharpest dilemmas that western correspondents face in Gorbachev's changing Soviet Union. In the 1970s, journalists here tended to exaggerate the importance of Soviet dissidents, in part because they were dramatic copy and they were accessible at a time when few other Soviets were.
Today, the daily drama is in the avalanche of changes that Gorbachev has rolled down onto domestic and foreign policies. Officials who understand the premium that their leader attaches to public opinion in the West are slowly opening up to reporters. In all of this, the continuing story of the refuseniks and the tight police control of the society tends to get lost in the shuffle.
Gorbachev's reforms are perhaps the most far-reaching changes that the West could hope for in the Soviet Union today. But it is likely that these are efforts to make the heavy chains Soviet citizens wear more comfortable, and less visible, rather than to lift them completely. Letting Valery Soyfer and the other refuseniks go would help prove that judgment wrong.