VLADIVOSTOK, USSR — IN the hills above the Bay of Amur, the men who consider themselves the toughest fighters in the Soviet military stand ready. Sgt. Valeri Morozov was working in a Moscow factory when his draft call came. Now he stands in his barracks, 4,000 miles away in Vladivostok, his black beret set at an angle, his arms held tautly at his side. Only the fittest recruits have a shot at the Marines, the slight 19-year-old proudly says. He has made eight paratroop jumps already.
But even here, among the elite of the Soviet military, evidence of rot is not hard to detect. On the base's main road, a large billboard shows a fist smashing down upon dedovshchina, the word that describes the widespread physical abuse of new recruits by second-year men.
Soldiers fall back on nationalism if their self-esteem is low, explains Capt. Konstantin Gedman. As is typical in elite forces, the vast majority of Marines, 49 out of 60 in this unit, are Russians or Ukrainians. The men from Central Asia and the Caucuses - the chornii, or blacks, as they are derogatorily called - fill out the ranks of the Army grunts and the construction brigades.
This is only one of the many woes besetting the Soviet Red Army.
Draft calls are being ignored, with recruitment falling 400,000 men short of target already this year. Many of those who do show up, officers complain, are ill or have criminal records. About 15,000 Army men are alleged to have died in the past four years because of harsh noncombat conditions, including ethnic violence among the troops. Living conditions are worsening rapidly, with 173,000 officers and noncommissioned officers waiting for housing, even before troops in Eastern Europe return home.
The decay in the ranks is a key factor in the push for military reform. The most radical reformers want to see the changes that swept the United States military after the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union had its own Vietnam - the 10-year war against Islamic rebels in Afghanistan. The Soviet reformers want to end the draft and create a wholly volunteer professional army. The living conditions and pay of soldiers should be raised, they say, and servicemen should be given legal protection from abuse by superiors.
To do this, the Red Army must change. It was formed in 1918 as the military arm of the Bolshevik Revolution, battling the counterrevolutionary armies during the civil war. To this day, it remains an instrument of the Communist Party: One out of every four Army men is a party member and the party enforces its policies through a vast network of political officers and political propaganda.
The reformers argue that since the Soviet Union is becoming a modern, parliamentary democracy under President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika (restructuring), the Army must be placed under neutral civilian control.
All the problems confronting the Soviet military - and the beginnings of change - are visible at this tidy base.
Standing in the soldiers' quarters, Captain Gedman complains of ``weak comrades who don't want to work.'' The recruits cannot master the new technology of weapons. ``The boys from the village are strong but it is difficult to teach them intellectual tasks,'' he says. There is a lack of qualified men to become sergeants, a fellow officer adds.
Down the hall is Lenin's Room, the ubiquitous political education center found in every Soviet military unit. The lean and handsome Maj. Andrei Prokonich is the unit's political officer. In the mid-1980s, he volunteered to fight in Afghanistan, spending two years in combat in the harsh mountains. Now, he delivers lectures twice a week standing next to a bust of Vladimir Lenin and flanked by a poster that proclaims ``Always Ready for Battle'' and shows a marine, his gun thrusting skyward. Soon, Major Prokonich says, the posters will come down and a recreation room will be created.
``It's better to use a psychological approach than to read a lot of slogans and books,'' he says dismissively.
THE living conditions here are better than average, the men agree. Neat cots stand side by side on carpeted floors in an open room lined with curtained windows. Weight-lifting equipment occupies a corner. A stereo and television hold a prominent spot.
But below the base gates, men with families are crammed into tiny apartment blocks. They fear losing even these if they have to transfer. Soldiers salaries range from 7 to 25 rubles a month ($5 to $16, at the commercial exchange rate), hardly enough for a couple of nights on the town and far below even the minimum average worker's salary of about 200 rubles a month.
The wrenching process of reform within the military can be seen across the Soviet Union.
On the outskirts of Moscow, at the end of a long drive lined with white birch trees, stands the Soviet West Point - or as it is formally known, the General Academy of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
A group of cadets in their brown wool uniforms, brass buttons shining brightly, stand together in a rare moment of repose. The cadets are loyal sons of the Army; a third of them actually come from families of Army officers. They easily dismiss stories of an Army coup, appearing daily in the liberal Moscow news media.
``It can't happen,'' answers Yuri Rashkov, to the nods of his comrades. ``We are part of the people. We shall not use our guns against our fathers. We trust our commanders - they will never give us such orders.''
But if they are confident of their leaders in that arena, the cadets do not hesitate to differ with the generals when it comes to reform. While the Ministry of Defense says a professional army is an expensive betrayal of a citizen force, the cadets shout in an enthusiastic ``yes'' when asked if they want to command professionals rather than draftees. They know an ordinary GI makes more than a Soviet general.
``There should be a professional army so that every soldier would be motivated by his salary,'' says Kiril Kuvbatov. ``And soldiers should take more care of equipment, and not damage it.''
The man responsible for the future of the entire officer corps personnel, Col. Gen. Alexei Mironov, sees it quite differently.
About half of the military, counting commissioned and noncommissioned officers and some servicemen, are already professionals, General Mironov says.
Aside from them, ``why would we need a professional in a tank crew loading a gun or in an artillery crew that just carries shells?,'' he asks rhetorically. ``That's a humiliating job ... This is just selling your body for a tin piece. Two years is enough for a guy to learn this business.''
The draft reform of the Ministry of Defense adds an economic argument against a professional army - a volunteer force would cost three to four times more than the present forces do. But the ministry takes initial steps toward a professional army in certain high-technology areas, such as the Navy, nuclear forces, and the Air Force. A naval experiment to begin next year will offer a seaman a choice of a two-year contract at 60 to 70 rubles a month or three years at 200 rubles a month.
Mironov's main concern, though, is to improve the miserable living conditions of the military, particularly officers and men returning from Eastern Europe. Only 40 percent of the returning officers have housing, says Mironov, adding to an annual deficit of 30,000 apartments. He is waiting for promised German aid, and builders, to help meet the demand.
The Army is also considering reforms to help attract qualified officers from a younger generation that, as Mironov puts it, ``is more liberal, more freedom loving.'' The reform will allow officers to leave the service after 10 years rather than the current 25-year contract.
Back in Vladivostok, Comdr. Georgi Rakhmetov is second in command of the Admiral Vinogradov, the most modern antisubmarine warfare cruiser in the Soviet Navy. Commander Rakhmetov is not in charge of torpedo tubes or missile batteries. As the ship's political officer, he is in charge of the minds of his men.
His headquarters is a wood-paneled, carpeted cabin, with a small refrigerator and a television set, where American action films played on the ship's video channel blare away. A photo Lenin hangs amid bookcases filled with textbooks and pamphlets.
The Admiral Vinogradov has just returned from a friendship visit to San Diego, a first for the Pacific Fleet.
``After the visit, the sailors had a lot of questions. Why do we live so badly now, and why do Americans live so well? And when can we reach the American level of life?''
``I answered them that the idea of socialism is more progressive than the capitalist system. But capitalism now in practice is better than socialism in practice. For 70 years, we made a lot of mistakes. And I tell them perestroika is a good chance for us to live as well as Americans.''
Rakhmetov is part of the vast machinery of the Military Political Department, the military arm of the Communist Party Central Committee in Moscow. There Maj. Gen. Alexander Gorbachev (no relation to the Soviet president) is in charge of party work in the Army. Some 38,000 party cells, ``more than 1 million Army communists,'' including three quarters of the officer corps, are under the supervision of this soft-spoken man.
Since April, when the Communist Party abandoned its constitutional monopoly as the only legal party, the demand for ``de-politicization'' of the Army and KGB (the secret police) has grown. On Sept. 3, President Gorbachev issued a decree ordering a plan for political reform in the armed services to be completed in 3 months.
But the president and the party he heads, plus the Army, have made it clear they will not agree to removing Communist influence from the military.
Instead, explains General Gorbachev, the main political department will be transformed from a party organization to a state body, responsible to the government. ``This is not just a mere change of title,'' he insists. The new body will include specially trained psychologists, sociologists, and lawyers to assist servicemen with their problems.
PARALLEL to this, however, the network of party cells will remain. ``The heads of the military-political organs will be members of the Communist Party,'' though not under party command. ``It is quite a delicate difference,'' General Gorbachev admits.
Delicate indeed. Other parties are free to try to organize cells, but only ``parties favoring the socialist choice will enjoy the support of commanding officers,'' he says.
Soldiers are free to practice their religious beliefs, but there will be no religious services on base or Bibles in Lenin's Room.
``We uphold communist ideals and our approach is atheist,'' the general says.
Third in a series. Thursday: Defense spending and conversion.