Washington — HE once indexed Stalin's collected works. He has translated the poetry of Andrei Voznesensky. And he recently prepared short speeches for the Voice of America in Ukrainian, Uzbek, Georgian, and Azerbaidzhani. Jack F. Matlock Jr., the new United States ambassador to Moscow, is, in short, a quintessential expert on the Soviet Union. He speaks Russian fluently. He is also steeped in the history and culture of the land.
``He's a top-notch Sovietologist with a good grasp of history and the dynamics of Soviet politics,'' says a ranking State Department official. ``He's tough on the issues and knows how to deal with the Soviets quite effectively.''
There is no disguising Ambassador Matlock's enthusiasm for his assignment, which represents a pinnacle of his long career in Soviet and East European affairs as a scholar and diplomat.
A career Foreign Service officer for 30 years, Matlock has been posted in the Soviet Union three times before and has also been ambassador to Czechoslovakia. Before returning to the State Department last year, he was on the staff of the National Security Council as the chief adviser to President Reagan on Soviet affairs.
In that job he is credited with having moderated the President's anti-Soviet rhetoric and developing a tough, but less strident US policy toward Moscow. Recognizing Mr. Reagan's desire to try to improve the Soviet-American relationship, Matlock helped broaden the President's knowledge of Soviet affairs by pointing him in the direction of literature and history books and getting him together with experts. He also played a major role in Reagan's summit meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985 and in Iceland last October.
The new ambassador takes up his post at a time of extraordinary change in the Soviet Union. As Soviet leader Gorbachev tries to cut through the lethargy of the Soviet system and inject a new spirit of glasnost, or openness, American diplomats will be counted on to interpret the changes and help steer US-Soviet relations in a constructive direction.
Matlock is cautious about forecasting the outcome of Gorbachev-style reformism. ``It could be significant, but it's too early to tell,'' he said in an interview before leaving Washington. ``We went through the same emotions in the '60s with Nikita Khrushchev, though the reforms were more modest. But a lot of things that were started then did not come off. So nothing is certain.''
``But that makes it fascinating,'' he quickly adds.
Matlock indicates that he will put the new policy of glasnost to the test by trying to push out the boundaries of communication with the Soviet people. He would like, for instance, to get on Soviet television from time to time or offer an occasional article for publication in a popular Soviet magazine such as Ogonyok. The short messages he prepared for the Voice of America will be broadcast soon after his arrival this week, in effect introducing him to the Soviet people.
``We'd like to see the embassy being actively involved in the Soviet media,'' he says. ``I'm realistic ... but I'd like to see how far we can go in terms of explaining our attitudes and policies and encouraging dialogue.''
For all of Matlock's expertise and diplomatic experience, his appointment has not been without controversy. Some State Department officials regard him as too conservative and too hard-line on the Soviets.
For instance, Matlock for years has advocated a drawdown of Soviet personnel employed at the US Embassy in Moscow. He says he is not disturbed that the Soviets last year suddenly withdrew more than 200 drivers, cooks, and other domestic employees from the US Embassy in retaliation for the expulsion of Soviet diplomatic personnel from the United States. As a result of the Soviet move, American diplomats in Moscow had a difficult winter washing cars, cleaning apartments, and performing other chores previously done by the Soviet staff. Morale has suffered as a result.
But in the long run, the new envoy says, the US Embassy will benefit because it will force the diplomats to interact with Soviet society. ``We did have a morale problem ... and it has taken a number of months to provide support personnel,'' Matlock says. ``But spring is coming and help is on the way. Within certain limits this will has a salutary effect because many of these activities get people out in the streets - buying theater tickets, shopping, and so on....''
It's a good idea for the Embassy to be relatively self-reliant, Matlock argues, for then it cannot become hostage to Soviet whim and to the security problems attending the presence of more than 200 Soviets. The arrest of two American Marine guards last week is certain to intensify the concern about security.
Matlock's wife, Rebecca, herself a Russian-speaker and a lively and enthusiastic diplomatic partner, readily agrees that the Americans can be self-sufficient. ``We'll be a lot better off,'' she says. ``In Washington I have four floors and no servants and an absentee husband. In Moscow there are two floors and three servants and I have no basis for complaint.''
As for Matlock's conservatism, some diplomatic experts suggest that it is an advantage, given the ideological bent of the Reagan administration and the President's own attitudes.
``If you want an ambassador that can do a good job, you would not want a weakling who would be under attack by Reagan conservatives and whose effectiveness would be diminished,'' says Dimitri Simes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``Within this administration you have to have basically a conservative who is informed and judicious, and Jack has the potential for that.''
The new envoy is expected to run a tight ship and, in fact, has a reputation as something of a disciplinarian. But he defends the demands he makes on his staff.
``US-Soviet relations are so important that you need to get the best people working on it and help the product to be the best,'' he says. ``Morale at a post is better if people are proud of their work. I do ask for reporting promptly because, if the wire services and the press have something out and the Embassy has nothing to say, you're not relevant.''
Also, Matlock says, in a crisis ``you have to be able to work rapidly, so you better be in shape.''
``I am demanding, but I do try to be human about it,'' says the ambassador, a genial man who is himself an indefatigable worker. ``I can be rather curt if people don't get out and learn the language and sit and complain about the job. That attitude has not gone well with me; that's not why we're there.''
Clearly Washington's new man in Moscow feels strongly about the importance of what he is doing. ``US-Soviet relations always acquire the spotlight, and that's a strain in many ways. But it's a great privilege to represent the United States there and most of our people see it that way. The key to morale is to be proud of your work, and I want to encourage people to do their best.''
Mrs. Matlock is as enthusiastic and committed as her husband. A short, dark-haired mother of five, she, too, has played an active role in embassy life and won the respect of the diplomatic community.
She has helped write a book, ``Welcome to Moscow,'' for diplomats' wives; organized seminars for the embassy women on Russian history and literature; and once wrote up the experience of having a baby in a Soviet hospital, an account that so impressed the ambassador at that time that it went out in a cable to the State Department and became de rigueur reading for Moscow-bound wives.
Her next project, she says, is an ``anecdotal'' book on Spaso House, the ambassador's residence in Moscow.
``I'm looking forward to going back,'' she remarks. ``I hope this time there'll be a light at the end of the tunnel, and we achieve agreements with the Russians that stick.''