DURING Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's visit to Washington this week, the Soviet press corps has scurried around as eagerly and energetically as a crowd of American reporters. The Soviet propaganda machine has become slicker and more sophisticated. The urbane Soviet spokesman, Gennady Gerasimov, has been in town. The Soviets now not only respond to, but initiate, major stories. They are into the business of leaking. Recently they spent $350,000 on an insert in the Wall Street Journal touting cooperation and opportunities for American investors in the Soviet Union.
All this is taking place under the mantle of glasnost, the new Soviet policy of openness, which has significant meaning for the Soviet press.
But at home in the USSR, glasnost hardly means openness for journalists in the Western understanding of the word.
For instance, one American journalist who has just finished a three-month exchange program in Moscow tells how use even of the office copying machine is restricted for reporters. Reporters who want to copy an item must get approval from an office supervisor and submit the material they want copied before such approval is forthcoming.
American newsrooms, where use of the copying machine is rampant, would come to a standstill if such restrictions were imposed. But in the USSR this is part of the overall system designed to hobble and hinder the flow of information.
Similarly, there are no computers in Soviet newsrooms. Computers can open up a dangerous information flow which Soviet regimes have traditionally feared and sought to curb.
For similar reasons, the Soviet telephone system has been strictly controlled. The USSR has the lowest per capita distribution of telephones in the industrialized world - 10 per 100 citizens.
Under glasnost there are going to be changes in the USSR. The telephone system will be doubled by the 1990s. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recognizes that there has to be expansion of his country's limited computer network. But experts warn that computer evolution will be slower than in the West. And, they say, it could be a mistake to underestimate the Soviet government's ability to keep effective controls over the new channels of information.
The fact is that the loosening up which is taking place in the Soviet press is designed to achieve Mr. Gorbachev's own objectives. The press is encouraged to attack bureaucrats Gorbachev wants attacked and to investigate targets Gorbachev wants investigated. When the press is doing Gorbachev's will, there is openness. Otherwise there are subjects to be avoided, and tightropes to be delicately walked.
Soviet journalists are going to remain careful, because they do not know exactly where the guidelines are drawn. They do not even know whether Gorbachev - and his policy of glasnost - will survive. Boris Yeltsin, a Gorbachev prot'eg'e, roughly equivalent to mayor of Moscow, took a sharp public drubbing from party officials last month, and that may have been a veiled attack on Gorbachev. Then this week the head of the KGB, Viktor Chebrikov, expressed coolness toward some Gorbachev reforms.
All this has injected a fair amount of contradiction into the USSR's journalistic glasnost. On the one hand, many Soviet reporters feel considerably more freedom to tackle subjects previously taboo. But on the other, though glasnost is supposed to project an image of journalistic objectivity, much of the anti-US rhetoric in the Soviet press has been sharply heightened.
These anomalies continue to confuse a policy of journalistic glasnost, which means different things to different people.