CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y., AUG. 27 -- One of the answers to the question "How has the Soviet Union changed under Gorbachev?" sat in a wicker chair in the Victorian splendor of the Atheneum hotel here today, apparently unfazed by her new-found celebrity status.

Just five years ago, Tatiana Zaslavskaya was a relatively obscure economist working for an economic research institute in Siberia. Her views on the need for major economic reform in the Soviet Union were considered so radical that they were kept secret from the Soviet population.

Today, judging from the high profile she has assumed at this week's conference on U.S.-Soviet relations, Zaslavskaya has become a respected member of the Soviet establishment. She has been spreading the Gorbachev gospel of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) to a sympathetic American audience at the Chautauqua Institute, a kind of intellectual holiday camp in upstate New York.

Her former boss at the Siberian branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Abel Aganbegyan, has become the top economic adviser to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The team of economists that he put together in the distant Siberian city of Novosibirsk has fanned out across the country to occupy key Communist Party positions.

"In the past, we were all regarded as heretics . . . Today, we occupy the commanding heights {of economic policymaking in the Soviet Union}," Zaslavskaya commented with a smile.

Zaslavskaya's name came to the attention of the West in 1983 after The Washington Post published a secret report in which she called for sweeping reforms of the Soviet Union's command economy.

The Soviet Union's most celebrated radical economist turns out to be a friendly 60-year-old woman who could pass for a fairly typical Russian babushka (grandmother). Her career since joining the Communist Party in 1954 is almost a parable for the hopes and frustrations of Soviet reformers.

A U.S. Soviet specialist said the Kremlin had apparently decided to include Zaslavskaya in its official Chautauqua delegation because she is an attractive spokeswoman for perestroika. The extensive round of interviews she has granted in the last few days mark her first exposure to the western public.

Zaslavskaya's message has been that economic reform is an urgent necessity if the Soviet Union wants to remain a world-class power. But she also noted what she describes as significant "latent opposition" to Gorbachev in the vast middle layer of the Soviet bureaucracy.

"Of course there is a possibility that it {perestroika} will fail, but, if it does, it will mean that our country is giving up the race and is headed toward becoming a second-class power," she said.

Zaslavskaya described Aganbegyan, five years younger than she, as an intellectual mentor who succeeded in putting together a team of progressive economists in Novosibirsk in the middle 1960s. She recalled how bitterly disappointed the group was after the failure of a half-hearted attempt at economic reform by then-Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin.

The official reason for suspension of the reform known as Libermanism -- after its architect, economist Yevsei Liberman -- was the uncontrolled rise in wages. But Zaslavskaya said that equally important was the realization that economic power would shift away from the bureaucratic class if the reforms succeeded.

By the early 1980s, the Soviet economy had deteriorated to the point where Zaslavskaya and her Novosibirsk colleagues felt sure that reforms were inevitable. Their response was to organize a seminar in 1983 attended by 100 like-minded economists and sociologists.

"We were quite convinced that the time for changes was very near -- if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow. We felt that the new political leadership {following Brezhnev} would ask us how we had got into this situation and what we should do about it," she said.

Zaslavskaya said she and other members of the institute experienced "some unpleasantness" when an account appeared in The Post four months later. But no attempt was made to remove her as head of the department of social problems at the Institute of Economics and Industrial Engineering in Novosibirsk.

Under Gorbachev, Zaslavskaya has become an important participant in the wide-ranging discussions on the introduction of market mechanisms into the command economy. She said there are frequently heated arguments between reform-minded economists and bureaucrats in the state planning agency Gosplan.

A major change in direction occurred when the Communist Party Central Committee decided in principle last month to grant autonomy to individual factories and reduce price subsidies. But Zaslavskaya cautioned that it was necessary to read the fine print of detailed "directives," which have yet to be published in full.

"There are many fine words {in the Central Committee resolution} about loosening control over enterprises -- but they could all be cancelled out by some little point {in the directives}," she said.

She said there is a tight link between attempts to reform the economy and the introduction of greater democracy and glasnost. She said the widespread apathy of Soviet workers can be overcome only if politicians provide them with an honest explanation of why the economy is in such a poor state.

Zaslavskaya said it will take 10 to 15 years to judge the success of the economic reforms.