Like a sports statistics junkie clutching the new spring issue of "The Bill James Baseball Abstract," Murray Feshbach during glasnost is a middle-aged man in data heaven.

An expert on economics and social issues in the Soviet Union, Feshbach is overwhelmed with material he has been waiting "forever" to get. His shelves at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute for Ethics are suddenly crammed with the bounty of Moscow's new policy of openness -- "quality" reports on everything from alcoholism to economic performance to the rate of measles.

"What am I supposed to do with it all?" he asks. "Store it in the ceiling?" But he is smiling, not complaining. "It's a different world."

For Feshbach, the contrast to the Stalin and Brezhnev years is dramatic. In the mid-1970s, for instance, the Soviet statistics office abruptly stopped publishing figures on the rate of infant mortality, a barometer of the overall state of health.

Feshbach worked for years "massaging the figures," looking for clues, and in 1980 he wrote that the infant-mortality rate in the Soviet Union had increased nearly 50 percent between 1971 and 1978, an ominous sign for an industrialized nation.

Officially, the Soviets branded Feshbach a "bourgeois demographer."

Now the Soviets are releasing figures again, and to Feshbach the numbers ring true.

Says historian Robert Conquest, "The Soviets used to rail at Murray for 'Cold War statistics.' Now they know he was right."

In old days of Sovietology -- that is, the period from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 until the ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 -- western scholars often were reduced to the footprint-and-bloodhound techniques of Sherlock Holmes.

Kremlinologists looking for opposition in the Politburo studied the order of pallbearers at state funerals. Historians researching the life of Stalin's rival Leon Trotsky found him erased from official Soviet photographs and records. Sociologists and journalists set out to describe problems such as AIDS and drug abuse while the Soviet press insisted those problems did not exist.

Glasnost has gone a long way to change all that. Western scholars, intelligence analysts and students of the Soviet Union are now able to draw a clearer, more complete picture of policy debates and the society in general simply by reading Soviet newspapers and journals -- publications that in years past had been nearly useless.

Although Feshbach and many of his colleagues are quick to caution that the Soviet Union still withholds a tremendous amount of information in nearly every sphere of life and still has not been forthcoming on a myriad of historical, defense and foreign policy questions, Sovietology as a field has been transformed by the Gorbachev revolution.

The volume of new material, says Princeton University Prof. Stephen Cohen, is "astonishing. Now Sovietologists have to work for a living."

The Soviet press, which was once nearly monolithic, now features publications both liberal -- Moscow News, Izvestia and Ogonyok, to name a few -- and more conservative -- Our Contemporary, Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya. Glasnost also has revealed a trend of support for right-wing nationalist groups such as Pamyat (or Memory) which are getting a public hearing, too.

The journals and newspapers are printing genuine debates -- a public discussion of issues that has allowed western scholars to get a clearer sense of public opinion among academics, working people and even Politburo members.

For years, economist Ed Hewitt of the Brookings Institution found his Soviet colleagues unwilling to discuss openly basic questions of pricing, inflation and unemployment. "Now it's turned around," Hewitt says. "They argue nearly everything in the open and their own economic figures are more pessimistic at times than anything that ever came out of the CIA."

The dramatic denunciations and firing of Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin, which most analysts interpret as a signal that Gorbachev has had to accommodate conservative sentiment in the leadership, was described across two full pages of Pravda.

"We always knew there were quarrels at the top, but since 1927 there had been a facade of unanimity," says Harvard University historian Richard Pipes. "Now we have the unusual spectacle of hearing individual views."

"It's still not a bad idea to check out who is standing next to whom on top of the Lenin Mausoleum," says Stephen Sestanovich, director of Soviet studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But it's even more important to analyze the speeches and debates between Politburo and Central Committee people. We're not the detectives we once had to be."

Criticism in the press occasionally also opens a window on foreign policy.

This summer the Literary Gazette printed the comments of an academic who thought the economy and state of technology would improve if mandatory military service were eliminated. A television show a few months ago featured several retired generals debating defense policy.

Izvestia recently published an article describing corruption and black-marketeering among Afghan officials and Soviet soldiers in Kabul. "My eyes got big at that one," Sestanovich says. "Here you have the sort of disenchantment with a presumed ally that's reminiscent of the way Americans began to get disgusted with the South Vietnamese. The Soviets never used to criticize a socialist ally so openly."

But the Soviets have less to gain and more to risk by being open about foreign policy affairs and history. Arnold Horelick, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and now director of the Rand-UCLA Center for the Study of Soviet International Behavior, says he has read articles in which the Soviets criticize Afghanistan, Cuba and Nicaragua for misusing aid, but "there is very little of the sort of debate and self-criticism that you see on the domestic side.

"Gorbachev has said they will publish their military budget in two or three years, but who knows what that means. In the meantime, without enough data, we have a tendency to make worst-case estimates. It's hard for Americans to know how to influence an adversary's foreign policy if all the decisions are made in a black box."

Still, glasnost has been a revelation, even to western human rights specialists.

Peter Reddaway, of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute for Advanced Studies, who has written extensively on the abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union, says he has been able to "multiply" his knowledge of the subject by reading the official and semiofficial Soviet press.

Reddaway noticed that while the new minister of health, Yevgeny Chazov, has been leading a crusade to describe publicly the disastrous state of the Soviet medical system, he has not yet said anything about the situation of psychiatry. Western experts long ago found that psychiatrists have collaborated in the practice of declaring dissidents insane and "treating" them in hospitals.

"So the question I had to ask was, why?" Reddaway says. "Why wouldn't Chazov {the co-founder of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985} touch psychiatric abuse? Well, I concluded he had been involved up to his eyeballs."

Reddaway discovered that Chazov has been closely allied with Marat Vartanyan, head of Soviet psychiatry for the past 16 years, and Giorgi Morozov, president for 15 years of the Soviet Society of Psychiatry and the signer of numerous certificates declaring dissidents insane. According to Reddaway, attention on the abuses of psychiatry could implicate Chazov himself and "land him on the next train to Tashkent."

"Now what's happening is that Chazov's potential opponents are encircling him in the press," he says. Izvestia has admitted that the Soviet Union has thrown "complainers" into hospitals, and recently Komsomolskaya Pravda said doctors have given patients medicine "that can make a healthy person sick."

The new health minister of the Russian republic, Alexander Potopov, himself a psychiatrist, has also spoken out publicly on the issue. "It's heading toward a conflict between Chazov and Potopov and you can figure it all out from official sources of information," says Reddaway.

Another rich vein for Sovietologists has been the proliferation of semiofficial clubs that meet to discuss various cultural and political issues. Although the proceedings are not published in the official press, western correspondents and scholars frequently attend and write about the meetings.

Recently a young employe of the Supreme Court, Dimitri G. Yurasov, spoke up at a club meeting, saying that he had read in the court archives how that court alone had sentenced 50,000 people during the Stalin purges. Yurasov subsequently wrote in the new journal Glasnost that officials were burning archives containing information on people falsely accused of crimes during the Stalin era at a rate of 5,000 case files a month.

Not all Sovietologists expected the rise of a leader such as Gorbachev, and even fewer expected him to push so hard for radical change.

"The rise of Gorbachev's reform government posed a test for Sovietology and, by and large, Sovietology failed," says Cohen, author of "Rethinking the Soviet Experience." "We have to ask if Sovietology anticipated, conceptually, a radical reform regime. And if you go back to the writings, with only a few exceptions, it did not."

Cohen says that "even those who thought a nonconservative government was possible, thought it would be just technocratic change, a slight jiggering of the system."

Cohen and "revisionist" colleagues have argued that in Soviet history there were opportunities for change. Stalin, they insist, was not a necessary extension of Lenin. Cohen in particular has contended that figures such as Nikolai Bukharin in the 1920s presented opportunities for reform, and he sees the rise of Gorbachev in the 1980s as "an unparalleled historic opportunity for change."

Many of Cohen's colleagues find him too optimistic about Gorbachev's prospects. "Steve goes way overboard," Pipes says.

Some moderates felt from the start that Gorbachev could achieve some economic change, but other, more conservative, scholars, including Pipes, wrote that systemic change was unlikely and that to think otherwise was naive.

Now conservatives such as Pipes say that Gorbachev is indeed serious about perestroika, his economic reform program, even if his chances of real success are in doubt.

"Among even the old hard-liners you're beginning to hear a change of tone," says Georgetown University historian Harley Balzer. "There's a lot of perestroika happening in Sovietology."