STAVROPOL, U.S.S.R. -- Vasily Ryndin is certain that in a few years the Soviet Union will grow all the grain it needs and break its 15-year-old habit of buying abroad. He bases his prediction on changes he sees happening on his collective farm, 52,000 acres of flat, semi-arid land in the northern Caucasus.

"We will stop importing grain in two or three years. I am sure of it because here on this farm, people are working now," the 64-year-old chairman said.

Sitting in his office on a warm summer day, brushing back the gray hair that falls across his sunburned face, Ryndin speaks as a man who has been liberated. As he tells it, reforms from Moscow, adopted during the past two years under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, have "untied our hands."

Those reforms have come to be known in Russian as perestroika, or "restructuring." But "it is not a restructuring," said Ryndin, who has run this collective farm for 20 years. Rather, he said, it is "an upheaval."

Perestroika is the slogan of the Gorbachev era, and here in the region where Gorbachev was born and rose to political prominence, people take a special pride in following its precepts.

In Moscow, the capital and showcase of the Soviet Union, the official stamp of approval for restructuring is most apparent. But for Mikhail Gorbachev, how perestroika plays in the provinces ultimately is every bit as crucial as how something plays in Peoria is to an American politician.

For more than two years now, Soviet citizens have been listening to calls for "restructuring," a word whose meaning has evolved as Gorbachev unfolds his program of social and economic change. First only a hint at the need for reorganization, the term has now come to encompass a whole range of social and economic reforms -- from greater "democratization" and "openness," or glasnost, to "self-financing" for local enterprises that must now meet costs and pay their own way with a minimum of help or interference from above.

In this agricultural heartland, Ryndin already sees heightened interest among the brigades, or small groups of farm workers, who now work under contract to grow crops on land allotted to them. As a result, they are reducing the size of their crews and cutting back on costs themselves, driven by the incentive to increase "profits" for the collective and, therefore, their own wages.

Perestroika has begun, in one way or another, to touch the lives of millions of Soviet citizens. For some, like Ryndin, it has meant raised hopes and expectations, the promise of a more rational, gratifying future where individual effort is rewarded.

But for many -- if not most -- people in this vast country, perestroika runs into the contradictions of reality. Life still has not improved much, and if it has at all, it seems more in the realm of ideas than actual conditions.

The problem for many has been to understand what the word means for them. Ordinary people have been left wondering how they fit into the process, what they should do and what they will get in return. "How am I supposed to 'restructure' myself?" asked an employe at a cattle feedlot in Stavropol. "I have always worked hard at my job."

This mixture of hope and skepticism in the provinces, which is the subject of this four-part series, was apparent from conversations and interviews during a two-week trip across the vast Russian Republic -- from Stavropol in the northern Caucasian plains to the steel city of Magnitogorsk in the Ural Mountains, to Lake Baikal in Siberia and to the tracks of a new railroad in the Soviet Far East.

As Stavropol inhabitants point out, the people here in the northern Caucasus differ from the population of central Russia. Historically a frontier area where serfdom never took root, the region attracted bolder types: Cossacks, runaway peasants, followers of religious sects, young Army officers looking for adventure and romance in the frontier wars. In local minds, history explains a greater willingness to take the initiative here, an impatience with set molds of behavior, a more open, less suspicious nature than among central Russians.

This background may explain Gorbachev's political style. He grew up in the northwestern part of this territory, in the village of Privolnoye, where his mother still lives. Another Stavropol native was Yuri Andropov, the former leader who helped Gorbachev's rise up the Kremlin hierarchy.'It Was So Overplanned'

Like Gorbachev, who also made his career in agriculture, Ryndin has witnessed the ups and downs of Soviet farm policy, a roller coaster that has lurched through crash programs, miracle crops, disasters, monumental irrigation schemes, growing subsidies and tight control from the center.

"We were only nominally the masters of the land" in the past, said Ryndin. "You have to imagine the mistakes, the stagnation that we had . . . . It was so overplanned that local leaders could not act or think for themselves. That was what was most frightening.

"To some extent, I myself was frustrated. I couldn't see what lay ahead. Now, day and night, I think about how to earn more money, because now the government has made me responsible."

He paused and added, "That is perestroika, when all the people are thinking, everyone is involved. Then we will manage this business -- we ourselves, here on the local level. When you think for yourself, and you are sure of what you think, that is real joy."

He cited examples of the results reaped on his kolkhoz or collective: 500 tons more milk than last year; savings of 500,000 rubles ($775,000 at the official exchange rate) for the first five months this year through economizing measures; 2.1 million rubles' profit in 1986 against an annual average of 1.2 million during the previous five-year plan.

Working harder and more intensively is one view of restructuring. Another is the expectation of better quality in goods and services, which are still at a woeful level across the country. In the minds of economists back in Moscow, the two are irrevocably linked, but on the local level, the stick is still more apparent than the carrot.

From Gorbachev on down, there is a new recognition of people's "self-interest" -- in higher wages, in better goods, in more autonomy. But many people still find it uncomfortable to take the initiative. In the Ukraine, for instance, the press this spring reported cases of farmers awaiting orders from above as the critical planting season slipped away.

No snapshot view of perestroika's progress can be reliable; the process is too complex. Because of the Soviet penchant for running isolated experiments, different parts of the country, different industries, even different districts and farms are operating at different stages: Some introduced a system of "self-financing" two years ago; others won't start until Jan. 1, 1988, when a new law goes into effect mandating the system nationwide.

Two years after perestroika began, large areas are still bedeviled by basic shortages, astonishing at this point in the country's history. In Magnitogorsk, for instance, meat and butter are rationed (2.2 pounds of meat, 14 ounces of butter a month per person.)

As Gorbachev himself noted impatiently, people all over the country are complaining that despite all the talk, even the simplest problems are not getting solved. In Sochi, the queen of Soviet resorts, a restaurant had no tomatoes, while a vendor outside was hawking them for about $1.50 a pound.

The reasons for this kind of stalemate are hard to pinpoint. But it is clear that for many people, it is easier to repeat Gorbachev's words than to put them into practice.

Getting people motivated is a constant topic everywhere: in the press, in meetings, in factories and on farms.

The first step has been to break up vestiges of "wage leveling," a practice that allowed lazy workers to get the same pay as diligent ones. Next year, a new law goes into effect giving workers' councils the right to elect the directors of enterprises and a bigger voice in deciding how to divide up earnings.

The brigade system, which ties earnings to productivity and allows small groups of workers to distribute salaries among themselves, has become more widespread. In agriculture, the trend has gone further toward the development of family brigades, a step away from family farms.

This appeal to self-interest -- a concept only recently acknowledged in Soviet ideology -- is matched by a push for greater discipline, a crackdown on drinking and strict new controls on quality, carried out by a new national commission empowered to reject products that fail to meet state standards.

Publicly, everyone supports "restructuring," which is not surprising since at the least it holds the promise of eliminating the most absurd and rigid aspects of the overcentralized Soviet system. A second reason for support is that, by tradition dating back to Czarist times, few Russians dare to challenge the line emanating from the Kremlin.

But when the simplest things are still unchanged, people wonder when this latest in a long history of Soviet reform efforts dating back to the 1917 revolution will bear fruit.

"When you think about it, we have been living on economic experiments for 70 solid years," said one young woman in Tynda, a city in the Soviet Far East.

As Soviet sociological surveys have shown, the "new way of thinking" is best understood by intellectuals, who have benefited most from the outpouring of once-banned literature and films, and by managers, who now have a freer hand to test new possibilities, to express ideas long held back.

Ryndin's enthusiasm was echoed elsewhere. For a newspaper editor in Magnitogorsk, it is relief at being able to question publicly the lack of amenities in the city's new regions. For a taxi driver in the Caucasus, it is a chance to tell his boss out loud what he thinks. For builders in the Soviet Far East, it is the same liberation from central control that had untied Ryndin's hands: in their case, the chance to buy spare materials or lease idle machinery at a construction site next door instead of waiting for their orders to be negotiated between ministries in Moscow, 5,000 miles away.

With their new independence and new responsibilities, managers -- from the director of one of Stavropol's farmers markets to the economist at the world's largest steel factory in Magnitogorsk -- are focusing on ways to increase revenues. For this, they say they need to learn how to count money -- something they had forgotten how to do in the days when all that mattered was meeting production goals laid out in a five-year plan sent to them from Moscow.

"Every day I sit and count not just rubles but kopeks, because if I don't show a profit, then people will wonder what I am doing," said Anatoly Zbitsky, director of one of Stavropol's two markets.

Profit in Soviet terms still differs from the American concept, since here all farms and factories, land and resources are owned by the state. But under the terms of the "self-financing" system now going into place across the country, profit is vital. For workers, it can mean higher salaries; for managers, it means they can expect to stay in their jobs; for the state, it means the production of goods keyed to consumer demands.

Private profit is also now appearing in the Soviet Union under the guise of cooperatives, expanded this year as part of Gorbachev's reforms. So far, its impact is marginal -- restricted to a few cafes and services, like apartment repairs and private taxis. Although cooperatives have made headway in non-Russian areas, here regulators and entrepreneurs alike are still getting over a built-in timidity to try something that was once frowned on as antithetical to socialism. "We never had to deal with this question until now," said Mikhail Lysenko, mayor of Magnitogorsk. "People are still feeling their way."

The tradition of "rule or obey" is not easy to break. In factories, managers now have to submit decisions to the "democratization" process urged by Gorbachev, and not everyone likes it. "Nobody wants to get rid of the rights they have," said Yuri Levin, chief economist at the Magnitogorsk steel mill. "Not everyone is ready. We have people here who are used to banging their fists and saying, 'Do as I say!' "

"Self-financing" also spells bad news for huge sections of the Soviet economy, now propped up by massive government subsidies. For the 14 percent of Soviet farms now operating at a loss, the reforms could mean trouble and, in the long run, possibly even foreclosure.

In Moscow, economists talk about 16 million workers being dislocated over the next 15 years as industry and agriculture trim back their work forces under the demands of "self-financing." Basic food prices, now heavily subsidized, are likely to go up, albeit slowly and after lengthy public discussion. Yet these long-term consequences of Gorbachev's economic plan seem dimly understood outside Moscow.

The giant steel mill in Magnitogorsk, which is already "self-financing," is trying to pay for a massive modernization program. The fact that automation is expected to reduce the plant's work force by 25 percent by the year 2000 is a problem still a long way off.

Gorbachev has said repeatedly that the next two to three years will be most difficult for the country as it makes the transition from a centralized economy to one approximating market socialism. Dislocations have already occurred: Wages have been held up at factories where products have been turned back because of poor quality, and growth rates in industry began to slow in the first half of this year.

Even as Gorbachev continues his campaign to break up the power of Moscow's central ministries, these giant bureaucracies continue to make their will felt in the country.

In agricultural areas like Stavropol, farmers still complain about Agroprom, the amalgamated agricultural ministry that was formed two years ago from six separate agencies, putting about 3,000 bureaucrats out of work. Old habits of interference are dying hard, the farmers say, particularly on critical questions of ordering and obtaining supplies.

"We are still hoping," said Mikhail Shikhunov, chairman of the "Chapaev" collective farm in Stavropol. "It is still too early to evaluate. We can't say all the problems have been solved. But once the Central Committee decides something has to be done, it will be." A Former Gateway

Stavropol territory is an area of 10.6 million acres that runs through five climatic zones -- from rich farmland to steppe to near-desert -- across the top of the Caucasian Mountains on the southern edge of Russia. Once the city of Stavropol was considered the gateway to the Caucasus. Then, in the late 19th century, a railroad was built through Rostov-on-Don, and Stavropol got left behind.

The city still has a kind of faded provincial charm. Roses are in bloom everywhere, even along sidewalks, and a park at the city's highest point, on the site of the old fortress built in Catherine the Great's time, drops down a set of stone steps to Prospekt Marx, a main shopping street with an eclectic mix of 19th-century Russian architectural styles.

Gorbachev was 18 when he and his father, working together on a combine, were awarded medals for their work in bringing in a good harvest. The following year, in 1950, he went off to study law at Moscow University.

He came back to Stavropol in 1955, making his mark first in the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) and then as a regional agricultural official. In 1970 he became the party's first secretary, serving in the region's top job until 1978. His successor was Vsevolod Murakhovsky, who is now head of Agroprom.

In the city of Stavropol (population 300,000), Gorbachev won new popularity last year when, on a visit home, he toured a grandiose new "House of Political Education" designated for Communist Party gatherings and offices.

Gorbachev looked over the 3 million ruble structure and declared that the best "political education" would be to turn it over to the city's children. This February, the building, funded from party coffers, was opened as a "House of Pioneers," used daily by 3,000 schoolchildren, complete with aquariums, computers and a puppet theatre. According to local residents, the only people in Stavropol who were not delighted by the decision were party bureaucrats.

As Gorbachev says repeatedly in his speeches, perestroika has only begun. "Actually we are now only riding the first wave of the restructuring," he said at the June meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee.

Here in Stavropol, where agriculture is the dominant industry, the first wave seems to have moved more briskly than elsewhere. For one thing, changes in agriculture nationally were among the first to take hold, and among the first to produce results: Last year the Soviet Union harvested 210 million tons of grain, an eight-year record, and overall showed a 5.1 percent increase in farm production.

Soviet and western experts attribute this to greater use of "intensive technology" -- the more effective use of chemicals and equipment, and higher labor productivity on collective and state farms. Last year, for instance, the country's overall use of fertilizer rose 20 percent over 1985.

Other changes have been put into place: Procurement prices have gone up for certain crops, and also are now more focused on quality -- for instance, on sugar yields from sugar beets. Farms are allowed to sell 30 percent of their planned production of fruits and vegetables on the open market. Farm production beyond the planned targets can be sold to the state at a 50 percent premium price.

The loosening of Moscow's grip already is evident in stores and markets here. The local farmers' markets offer four outlets for produce: the traditional "private" stands where people sell what they grow on their own plots; a stand run by Agroprom; a store run by a local cooperative, and stands run by collective farms or kolkhozes.

"The kolkhozes are getting profits from it, so now they are interested in growing vegetables, too," said a market director, who noted that the competition has brought "private" prices down by as much as 50 percent. An Economic Laboratory

Perhaps because of Gorbachev's influence, Stavropol has been at the forefront of economic experiments: the territory's entire agroindustrial complex adopted "self-financing" in January 1986. Under a new program begun here -- and pointedly praised by Gorbachev during his visit home last summer -- the salaries of kolkhoz and state farm directors are now directly linked to increased production.

At the National Research Institute for Sheep and Goat Breeding, based in Stavropol because of the region's fame for its fine-haired merino sheep, the directors pushed ahead with reforms in 1985, reorganizing its structure, cutting back its staff, stressing closer links between science and production.

"Formerly our genetic experiments lay on the shelf a long time before going into production," said the institute's director, Evgeni Shugai. Now, through direct contracts with the kolkhozes, the scientists' salaries are linked to higher wool yields on the farms.

In two of Stavropol's districts, direct trade at the local level is already allowed, anticipating national reforms due by 1991. Instead of following the cumbersome bureaucratic trail through Moscow, farms can order goods directly from local industries whenever they need them, and in the quantities they need.

A poultry processing plant here has been pressing Moscow for the right to sell some of its products abroad, so it can earn hard currency and buy the foreign equipment it needs. This summer, it finally was given the right to sell chicken products to West Germany and duck feathers to Denmark, although final authorization from Moscow has been slow in coming.

The plant also has started another experiment with a direct impact on consumers. At its two company stores selling packaged chicken parts, salespeople are warned that the first written complaint about their manners will cost them their jobs.

Another probe of the new freedoms is taking place at a restaurant in the Donskoi region, on the main road out of Stavropol. The Rus restaurant, with a traditional Russian watchtower, belongs to the Donskoi regional consumer cooperative, an old organization that is taking on new life.

The cooperative's director, Gennadi Poskhin, plans to turn the building into a multiservice center. He wants to lease the basement to a mushroom grower; the former barroom, a casualty of Gorbachev's antialcohol campaign, has been turned into an American-style fast auto service garage where people can have their cars checked while they eat. The two mechanics get to keep 30 percent of the profits, which came to 1,000 rubles last month.

In pursuing these plans, Poskhin says he has the backing of the party's district committee, but has had problems convincing the higher echelons of his own organization. "They ask me why I am getting into all this. They say it is not our area, not our business," said Poskhin. "I say whatever can bring us more money is our business." NEXT: Glasnost comes to a steelmaking city