"Ten days," "nine days," eight days," the dutiful Soviet news media have been counting down like decadent capitalist department stores before Christmas. Finally, it seems, the government newspaper Izvestia could no longer restrain itself:
"The 26th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union," blared a banner headline Feb. 14. "Let us greet it worthily!"
The propagandists are doing most of the greeting.
Diplomats, asked what major policy or leadership changes can be expected when the congress gets under way Feb. 23, find it hard to stifle a collective yawn.
Muscovites canvassed at a jammed stand-up eatery on a chilly Feb. 17 displayed a correct interest in the official centerpiece of Soviet "democracy" -- but no more.
Still, this five-yearly rite is vitally important.
First, as one ambassador here puts it, "The congress provides the most detailed and authoritative presentation of current Soviet policy as the Soviets want others, and their own party faithful, to see it." Roughly translated into everyday English, that means Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev will speak for at least several hours at the opening session. Prime Minister Nikolai Tikhonov will focus on economic policy Feb. 25 or 26.
Second, the latest lineup of Communist Party Politburo and Central Committee members is announced. This should give us a fresh view, however fuzzy, of who may succeed President Brezhnev one of these days, or months, or years.
Yet mostly, to watch a Soviet Communist Party congress unfold is to absorb at least a little of what makes this superpower tick.
Fanfare is central to the operation. Modern myths are central to the fanfare. A revolutionary leader named Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is the embodiment of all that is good. A president named Leonid Breznev is the embodiment of the memory of Lenin. Soviet government is the embodiment of the wishes, achievements, and interests of all Soviet people.
To the up-and-coming party official, all this seems to make perfect sense.
To the relatively tiny dissident community, it doesn't. But the dissidents remain far more successful in galvanzining opinion in the West than in their own country. At least some, meanwhile, have reportedly been told by authorities to stay out of Moscow during the congress.
And the typical lunch-counter Muscovite seems to regard the coming congress as the solemn, faraway ceremony that it is presumably supposed to be.
Grocery stores (sometimes with a colorful poster celebrating the congress) are better stocked than they have been for weeks.
The capital, of late, is winter monochrome punctuated by warm orange and red banners proclaiming the joy, excitement, alacrity, sacrifice, pride, and productiveness with which the Soviet people are no doubt greeting the congress.
"The 26th congress . . ." one proclaims, "self-sacrificing labor of the workers of Moscow."
"We will fulfill the party's plans," another banner promises.
"The congress is good," says a stocky woman sipping coffee with her daughter at a Moscow snack room. Both are secretaries in a construction company.
And what will happen at the congress? The older woman paused, thenn said: "For us, personally, nothing. . . . In our lives, all is already established." Then, in a curiously Russian turn of phrase, she added: "We do not have a bad feeling about any part of our life."
A man nearby, at first reluctant to talk, ventures between bites of an unruly sandwich: "The congress has no meaning, for me or for you. Wouldn't it make more sense for you to go see the cultural points of our city?"
Will the congress change Soviet presidents?
In answer, there were neither compliments nor criticism of Mr. Brezhnev; only the occasional "nyet" and, invariably, what seemed a knowing and good-natured smile.
"Politics," one Muscovite seems to sum things up, "is something apart."