MOSCOW, SEPT. 9 -- A key legislative leader said today that this country may drop the word "socialist" from its official name, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics -- a shift that would underscore profound political and economic changes in recent months.

Rafik Nishanov -- one of the leaders of the Supreme Soviet, or standing legislature, and a representative of the Kremlin in negotiations with republics demanding independence -- told Radio Moscow that the U.S.S.R. may instead become the Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics.

Such a change would be a historic admission both of the actual sovereignty of the 15 constituent republics and of the failure of the term socialism to describe adequately the sort of free-market measures that have won wide support across the country and in the Kremlin.

Nishanov said another variation might be the Union of Socialist Sovereign Republics. He said that in any case the name of the country would change as part of a new Treaty of the Union, a document that would redefine economic and political relations among the republics and Moscow.

The Armenian legislature, in a declaration of independence passed last month, dropped both "soviet" -- meaning governing council -- and "socialist" from its official title and said it is to be known simply as the Republic of Armenia.

Russian republic President Boris Yeltsin, who quit the Communist Party in July, has said the republic also would drop "socialist" from its title. A draft of the republic's new constitution does not mention socialism in any form.

Yeltsin, however, has expressed doubts that there will be a new Treaty of the Union any time soon. He said there are 13 drafts under discussion, many of which differ radically. Some drafts call for separate banking systems or armies. Most, however, see Moscow's future role as the seat of power for foreign policy, defense and some key economic functions, such as transport and communications.

To some extent, Soviet politics in recent months has been like a slow-motion recapitulation of events in Eastern Europe last year. What began as President Mikhail Gorbachev's "revolution from above" has taken on aspects of a "revolution from below," with grass-roots political groups sending hundreds of their members to various legislatures, and new politicians, outside Gorbachev's circle, winning mass popularity and forcing the Kremlin to radicalize.

The changing of the names of the republics -- and possibly of the union itself -- is part of a pattern of changing symbols in a country that once thrived on its icons, ideology and mythologies. Symbols of the Marxist-Leninist past have been disappearing steadily almost from the start of Gorbachev's rise to power in 1985.

For a few years, Moscow has been nearly bare of propaganda signs. A billboard reading "We Are Building Communism" near the Dobrininskaya Metro station is beginning to look as out of place here as an Egyptian tomb.

Across the country now, people have taken to tearing down statues of Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik state. In offices of high-ranking Soviet officials, traditional portraits of Lenin often have been replaced by seascapes or wall hangings.

Earlier this year, Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel proposed that "socialist" be dropped from his country's title. Poland and Hungary have dropped the word "people's" from their official names.