''New year's resolution?'' The smartly dressed Moscow woman nodded knowingly. ''We have this system, too. Only we call it socialist obligation.'' Well, not exactly. I hear the supply-siders have taken over back home. I'm not really clear on what supply-siders do. But I assume the typical American still resolves, at year's end, to lose weight, to do well on exams - not to ''overfulfill the plan'' on K-cars for the good of the state.
''I mean personal resolutions, or maybe wishes and desires would be a better way of putting it,'' I clarified.
The woman smiled and peered down at her young daughter, who was bundled tightly against the Moscow cold.
''I haven't really thought of such wishes. . . . But my wishes would be for my family. I have an older daughter, and I wish that she succeeds in her first year of university. We worked hard, she worked hard, to get her admitted, you know.
''And my younger daughter, she is in first grade. We hope she will go to music school.'' The girl was by now wandering off, up the snowy sidewalk.
''Thank you,'' I said to her mother. ''And happy new year.''
''A happy new year to you, also,'' she said with a warm smile, turning to locate her budding violinist. ''I hope our countries will be friends next year.''
The Soviet Union's official, secular holiday season is here - centering on the new year and overseen by a figure called Father Frost, who looks remarkably like Santa Claus. Muscovites are putting aside a few rubles for small fir trees, or a few rubles more for the increasingly popular artificial variety. Parents are buying presents. Skates and toy airplanes are a common choice for boys, dolls for girls.
And the new year? Even for Russians, it means more than overfulfilling the plan.
''It is easy to say what my new year's wish is,'' says one woman weakly. Her spindly arms strain under the weight of a bulging bagful of lemons for the holiday. Her weathered face says she has lived through the world wars, one socialist revolution, the genocide of Stalin, the de-Stalinization of Khrushchev , the 17-year tenure of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev.
''I want peace,'' she says. ''Peace for my children and grandchildren.''
A slim, muscular young man walking arm in arm with a slightly chubby, unmuscular young woman has more modest desires: ''We are getting married next year,'' he announces proudly. ''I want her to enter the Institute for Foreign Trade. Maybe when she has finished the institute, we will try to buy a car.''
A taller, blondish man nearby has another institute - military - on his mind. ''My wish is to do well and to finish my studies.''
Would he like to be posted to Afghanistan? ''No,'' he says, smiling, ''I don't think that would be good.''
Poland? ''No, . . . I think I would like to stay here.''
It is snowing now. But the pretty teen-ager waiting for her bus home is evidently not thinking about snow. ''I have very important exams coming up,'' she explains. ''The marks will go down on my diploma. Obviously, for the new year, I want to do well on the exams.''
She is studying at a teknikum, a technical institute, and she wants to be a supervisor in a clothing factory.
''Or, perhaps, a member of the Politburo, like Mr. Brezhnev?''
''No,'' she says with a shy smile. ''I don't think I'd like that.''
Three stocky men nearby give up on the bus and set off together for a cafe. ''I am a hockey coach,'' one of them barks amiably. ''I have traveled with my teams to the West.'' Then, in a confidential tone: ''I always tell my players to go ahead and hit hard. Then, of course, say you're sorry. . . .
A young man with a moustache is headed in the same direction. He says he is looking for ''a car and furniture for my apartment'' in the new year.
The waiting list for cars in Moscow is long. ''But no problem,'' the man adds. ''My father lives in a village. . . . In rural areas, it is easier to get a car. So he can buy it for me.''
Marina, if I got her name right, is 20 years old. She goes to a theatrical institute. ''We're going through a tough period there. . . . It would be nice,'' she says, ''if the new year meant our teachers will treat us with a little more care and understanding.''
Any plans for marriage in the new year? ''No. Not yet,'' she replies unhesitatingly. The institute is hard enough.
I explain that, by the rules of new year's resolutions, she can resolve, or wish, for just about anything. She can turn the world upside down.
''Ah yes,'' she says, grinning. ''That might not be such a bad idea, to turn the world upside down. . . .''
By now, new year's resolution-ing has caught on. Two men, one huge, the other small and stocky, stop to contribute. ''I just wish, in general,'' says the smaller one, ''that next year will be better than this year.''
Does he think that is likely?
His friend answers: ''Well, let's say at least not worse than this year.''
It was then that I spotted my final quarry, a nicely dressed woman with two small children. My finely honed reporter's instincts told me that here was a typical Russian lady and, more than this, a typical young Russian lady who would pause, maybe scratch her head, and volunteer the quintessential Russian new year's resolution.
''Excuse me,'' I ventured in Russian.
She smile politely. ''I'm sorry,'' she said. ''My Russian is not very good.''
Her name was Nancy Coffey. Her husband works at the US Embassy here.
Ah well. Another day, another reportorial triumph. In any case, a happy new year from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I wish all and sundry a hefty overfulfillment of plans.