Helsinki — The United States and the Soviet Union are showing slow, careful progress toward making the November summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a success. To be sure, serious differences remain between the two countries. But after a three-hour meeting here between US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, both sides gave a cautiously upbeat assessment of the course of relations between the two countries.
``I think the meeting can well be called a good first step . . . in making that [November summit] meeting a genuinely constructive one between the leaders of our two countries,'' said Mr. Shultz just minutes after seeing Mr. Shevardnadze off from their meeting at the US ambassador's residence.
Kremlin spokesman Vladimir Lomeiko said, ``Preparations for the summit could and should give an impulse for a turn to the better'' in US-Soviet relations.
A senior US official held out the possibility that some agreements -- on airline landing rights, air safety over the North Pacific, an opening of consulates in Kiev and New York, and a cultural exchange agreement -- could be completed before the summit, and be formally adopted when Reagan and Gorbachev meet in November.
Both sides made it clear that serious divisions still exist. But Mr. Lomeiko said the meeting here ``was an exchange of opinions, not a confrontation.''
A senior US State Department official who asked not to be identified called the meeting ``interesting, useful, frank, businesslike, productive.''
``We called it productive,'' she said, ``because it did, in fact, advance our planning for the November meeting.''
The Soviets used similar words in describing the exchange, although they omitted the terms ``productive'' and ``businesslike.''
Nevertheless, they chose to strike a hopeful note about the possibility of improving relations. Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, said that while ``a considerable part of the fabric woven creatively in the past happened to be destroyed . . . we hope that the summit meeting will lead to a restoration of the fabric.''
US officials, however, characterized the emerging Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev and Shevardnadze as one of ``continuity.''
``The positions that were described [in the meetings] are positions that are quite familiar to us,'' said one US official.
Shultz and Shevardnadze also seem to have established a good working relationship early on. Mr. Dobrynin said they ``managed to establish the necessary working contacts, the necessary personal rapport'' during their meeting.
Shultz said, ``From all indications we should have the ability to talk to each other in a direct and forthright way.''
``I believe we should have an easy ability to talk with each other,'' said Shultz, in much the same way he had been able to communicate with Shevardnadze's predecessor, Andrei Gromyko.
US State Department officials said the agendas of the two sides during the meeting dovetailed. They included arms control, regional issues (the Mideast, Afghanistan, and other trouble spots), US-Soviet relations (including trade), and human rights.
The Soviets indicated that a similar agenda had, ``in principle,'' been discussed for the November summit in Geneva. But they stressed that no firm agreement had been made -- and pointedly dropped human rights from the list of topics for discussion. Dobrynin said that ``it would be unrealistic to count on any immediate solution'' to the problems dividing the two countries.
The US side also worked hard to play down hopes for immediate changes in US-Soviet relations.
``We got into the issues in a very substantive way,'' said another US State Department official, but added, ``It would be wrong to leave the impression that substantive breakthroughs were made. They weren't.''
Some details of Shevardnadze's style of diplomacy are now emerging. He appears to be a fairly quick study. He was apparently familiar with all of the issues that came up at the meeting, and US officials said they were able to move ``briskly'' through the agenda. Shevardnadze handled all of the discussions himself.
``He handled the issues competently. He described them in great detail,'' said an American diplomat.
Another said, ``He has a kind of inner compass of his own. He will be a strong interlocutor.''
Perhaps more important, said the US official, ``He's got good strong connections with his boss [Gorbachev], and that will be important in itself.''