Moscow — In the great Kremlin palace, delegates to the Supreme Soviet half-listen to long reports on the need for greater productivity and discipline. Members of the Communist Party Politburo chat among themselves.
And on the streets of Moscow, snow obscures the vision. So do rumors, and Soviet press reports that leave out more than they say.
For Yuri Andropov is not to be seen.
Muscovites huddle under fur hats and layers of clothing, more interested in last-minute shopping for the New Year's holiday than in deciphering what's happening in the upper reaches of power.
How can the economy be improved?
''That's difficult to say,'' says a young woman with a purple scarf knotted tightly at her throat.
What about Yuri Andropov? Why has he been out of sight for so long?
''That is a political question,'' she replies sharply, ''and we don't talk about that.''
Not in public, at least, where a militiaman might observe.
But Yuri Andropov's health is on a lot of minds. The papers carry only the text of a speech that Andropov wouldm have delivered - had he been at a meeting of Central Committee of the Communist Party this week. There is a single cryptic passage, expressing his regret that ''for temporary reasons'' he is unable to attend. It is easy to miss. Some people have.
''Everything is OK,'' says a short man carrying a package. ''You should know from the press that he has been attending the meetings.''
When it is pointed out that Andropov was at neither the closed-door plenum of the Central Committee nor at the public meeting of the Supreme Soviet, the man replies: ''Oh, well, I don't think it's serious.''
Still, he adds, ''Too little is written in the papers. We don't know.''
''How can we know?'' asks a young woman.
''What can one think?'' asks a tall man in a rabbit-fur hat.
In fact, questions - unlike quality consumer goods - are in abundant supply this holiday season.
The leadership concedes that the economy needs improvement. ''Obsolete appliances are produced that are not in great demand,'' Finance Minister Vasily Garbuzov told the Supreme Soviet.
The man in the rabbit-fur hat agrees that things need to be set right.
''We need to increase the discipline,'' he says.
That's exactly what the party leadership has been saying ever since Yuri Andropov came to power. But what does it mean?
A middle-aged man who has just crossed a busy street has a quick answer: ''In all our organizations, from the very bottom to the very top, we should absolutely change the style of the work. Absolutely stop the loss of working hours.''
''Connections'' between factories and their suppliers should be improved, he says, so that orderly production can take place. And there should be better management, he adds.
Again, the Communist leadership shares that view. Nikolai Baibakov, chairman of the State Planning Committee, told the Supreme Soviet that too many government ministries have failed tointroduce new technology and cut waste.
The new economic plan for 1984 ''will promote the acceleration of the pace of development of the country's economy, as well as the solution of a number of major scientific, technological, production, and social problems.''
The middle-aged man hopes it will also allow people like him to get ahead.
''In the [United] States, for example, an enterprising young man can move up and up and up. Here, he can stay in the same place for life.''
A young woman, a teacher, seems a bit nonplussed by the party's calls for greater discipline.
''We do work hard, really,'' she says.
Greater discipline must be instilled from within oneself, she says.
''Conscience, it seems to me, is the most important thing.''
And what about the country's leader, Yuri Andropov?
''I don't know. It was written that he caught a cold. . . . I hope that he will be all right.''
The middle-aged man is quite sure he will be all right.
''If I get a cold,'' he says, ''I will suffer. As he is the leader, however, the doctors will take care of him. They will try to keep him from going out before his time.''
What kind of a leader is Andropov?
''He is a very good leader for his time,'' says the man. But, he adds, so was Joseph Stalin. And so was Leonid Brezhnev.
When it comes to questions of economics - or the health of the party leader - a gray-haired babushka hesitates.
''I don't know,'' she says. ''The main thing is that there's no war. Outside of that, I don't know.''