Clark Gable, in a deservedly forgotten 1940 film, plays a spy posing as a journalist in Moscow. Along the way, our hero adds one bit of wisdom to Western man's understanding of the Kremlin:
''Face the facts, baby, there ain't no news in Russia!''
Comrade Gable remains largely right about one key area of ''reporting'' on the Soviet Union -- the emptiness of many of the political stories to which we in Moscow devote most of our time and energy. Such dispatches should carry some kind of consumer warning, like packs of cigarettes.
For instance, on the Polish crisis: ''The following article, however knowledgeable it may sound, is based on what the Soviet news media say -- not necessarily what Soviet officials think -- about Poland. The author can claim no insight into such thinking, much less into Soviet intentions. The 'diplomatic sources' are in the same fix.''
(One example of the potential discrepancies: For weeks now, the Soviet media have reported a gradual ''normalization'' in Poland. One Soviet official, when interviewed recently, shrugged this off - ''Normalization? Yes, in about five years, maybe. . . .'')
The current Monitor series, if written from anywhere but Moscow, would be in a Monitor wastebasket. The first article is about reporters and reporting, something reporters are not supposed to write about for the excellent reason that the subject puts most people to sleep.
The rest is about Soviet politics, policy, and power at the tail end of the 17-year-old Leonid Brezhnev era.
The subject is not at all new. The approach, however, is a bit unorthodox: based both on the Western reporter's normal fare of news media and diplomatic sources -- and on 32 lengthy interviews over the past year with ranking Soviet officials.
The plan was simple, and, to at least some Soviet officials, clearly crazy. I wanted a firsthand account of how the Soviet system works, how power and paper flow, of who matters and who doesn't.
What kind of men are at, or at least near, the top?
And on specific policy issues, like Poland, do they really think in the stark blacks and whites of Pravda commentary? (All evidence on this last question was, incidentally, ''no.'')
A little like the Soviet bureaucracy, I quickly found planning far easier than results.
''I'm calling about a possible interview with Mr. Mikhail Suslov,'' began one phone call early last year to the Communist Party Central Committee. (Mr. Suslov , who passed on last month, was a member of the central Soviet leadership for some 35 years.)
After a moment of stunned silence, the voice on the other end of the line erupted into hearty laughter. ''I suppose the next thing you'll tell me is that you want to see Comrade Brezhnev!'' (It was. Neither interview materialized.)
Or, there was the head of the Central Committee's ''Letters Department,'' which handles the swelling thousands of requests and complaints the committee has been encouraging, and receiving, from ordinary citizens. His office's initial response (with no discernible trace of irony) was: ''Write a letter'' (to the Foreign Ministry).
Word of my shenanigans evidently spread. A few months back, I met Yuri Chernyakov, the tall, stately chief of the Foreign Ministry press department. ''Ah, so you're the Mr. Temko who has been trying to see our senior officials,'' he said, not at all unkindly. ''Well, I think you should keep at it. There are still unfortunate tendencies - mostly, I would say, from earlier days -- that make this difficult. But really, do keep at it.''
My eyes lit up. I suggested he might help me in my longtime quest for an interview with his boss, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Mr. Chernyakov smiled and, in several wonderfully crafted sentences, delivered a polite, but unmistakable, ''no.''
Yet ultimately, 18 high-ranking Soviets agreed to lengthy interviews and, in some cases, to four or five interviews. Fifteen of the officials were members of the Communist Party's Central Committee. The rest sat on the Central Auditing Commission, theoretically a troubleshooter for party finances and bureaucracy and often a way station to a place on the Central Committee.
Two men interviewed turned out to be, in effect, unlisted members of the Central Committee's Secretariat -- next to the party Politburo, the country's most powerful political body. At least one-third of the officials had attended both Politburo and Secretariat meetings. Boris Pastukhov, leader of the party's youth wing, said he did so quite often.
Another official attended Secretariat sessions less frequently, but gets what were described as thorough briefings on top-level discussions and decisions.
Within the government (as opposed to party) hierarchy, one man held the rank of minister. Another, though without formal rank, said he attended all meetings of the Council of Ministers.
Perhaps inevitably, some of the officials open to the idea of an interview were foreign policy specialists with some experience in dealing with Western diplomats or reporters. These included men like Georgi Arbatov from Moscow's Institute of the United States and Canada, and political commentators like Alexander Bovin of Izvestia and Yuri Zhukov of Pravda.
But much of the material in the articles that follow came from others: people like Mr. Pastukhov; the editors in chief of Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya (the equivalent of Pravda for the Russian Republic); the two Council of Ministers men; and the chief of the Communist Party's official ideological journal, Kommunist.
A few of the interviews were a bit frustrating. Arranging them in the first place sometimes involved a fair amount of verbal acrobatics. On one occasion this plainly backfired.
In seeking an interview with a Ukrainian novelist, who happened to be a member of the Central Committee, I professed a not entirely genuine adoration for his writing. So when we met, in the lobby of a Moscow hotel, Alexander Gonchar afforded an encyclopedic briefing on the subject. I then slipped in a question about the workings of the Central Committee, to which he promptly replied: ''I won't say anything on that subject. Let's talk about literature. . . .'' We did.
Yet even the more reticent or formal of those interviewed often provided insights into the way the system works, or the way its protagonists think and act. Most went much further, addressing with what I sometimes found remarkable frankness issues of politics, policy, and power.
What emerged was not a perfectly precise picture of the workings of a nation Churchill called ''a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.'' But the officials did uncover some parts of the puzzle and, in other areas, at least suggest which pieces went where.
The articles that follow may present merely the picture Soviet officials want to offer. But I have sought to skirt, or at least minimize, the possibility by cross-checking information and by speaking with various senior officials more than once. Information that seemed suspect has been explicitly hedged or omitted.
Without overstating the value of this series, there is another sense in which the interviews were worth doing. From the start the idea had been -- regardless of what facts and insights ranking Soviet officials might or might not provide -- to go beyond the generally passive approach that marks our everyday reporting on the Kremlin.
When reporting on other subjects -- like the way Russians live, or joke, or dissent -- we work harder and write better. To be fair, this is probably natural. Ordinary Russians, and dissident Russians, talk more openly than official Russians.
Leonid Brezhnev's latest utterances on the perfidy of world imperialism tend to be somewhat less riveting than the jokes Muscovites tell about him.
But will Soviet tanks rumble into Poland? Or out of Afghanistan? Here, we rely almost exclusively on ''sources'' that cannot possibly, by themselves, answer such questions. We absorb the enormous daily word-spew of Pravda, Izvestia, Tass, Soviet television, and the like.
Then we talk to diplomats who rely largely on the same ''sources.'' Official or not, even the most sophisticated of Soviet media commentaries tell us only what the Kremlin thinks, perhaps even only what the author thinks. Often, we cannot be sure which. As for what the Kremlin will ''do,'' we are left to make an educated guess.
Worse, in a town where journalists routinely collaborate with diplomats and with one another, we are often satisfied with a single, consensus guess. Worse still, our dispatches, no matter how carefully peppered with stock Moscow adverbs like ''apparently'' and ''reportedly,'' often suggest a far greater certainty about Kremlin workings and intentions than any of us can honestly claim.
One example: Intermittently over the past year, Moscow dispatches have noted parallels between Soviet media commentary on the upheaval in Poland and official coverage of Czechoslovakia before the tanks rolled into Prague some 14 years ago. The implication was that the Kremlin might be revving up its tanks once again.
Yet just as conceivably, the media rumblings could have meant the Kremlin wanted the outside world, particularly the Poles, to think the tanks were about to roll. Ultimately, we could not know.
Sometimes we admitted this problem, starkly and explicitly. Yet at other times, we finessed it with a quotation or two from a Moscow diplomat no more clued in to Kremlin thinking on Poland than we were. Depending on the diplomat chosen, Soviet intervention was portrayed as more, or less, likely.
Almost never did we track down a Soviet official for at least a hint of what the men in the Kremlin were planning. In most places outside the Soviet Union, this would be a Western reporter's automatic impulse.
Clark Gable is right. Things are different here. A few days after I arrived in Moscow, a European colleague told how he had tried to chase down rumors of an impending Warsaw Pact summit meeting. With pristine logic, he phoned the information department of the Central Committee.
''Why are you calling us?'' he was asked.
''You are, I was told, the information department,'' he rebutted dryly.
''Yes,'' said the voice, polite and patient. ''But we don't give information. We get it." Soviet officials interviewed for this series CENTRAL COMMITTEE MEMBERS
Afanasyev, Viktor Grigorevich: Editor in chief, Pravda. Board chairman of USSR Union of Journalists.
Arbatov, Georgi Arkadyevich: Director, Institute of the US and Canada. Member USSR Academy of Sciences.
Biryukova, Mrs. Alexandra Pavlovna: Secretary, All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions.
Chakovsky, Alexander Borisovich: Novelist. Editor in chief of newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta. Board secretary, USSR Union of Writers.
Gonchar, Alexander Zerentevich: Novelist. Board secretary of USSR Union of Writers. Chairman, Ukrainian Republic Committee for Defense of Peace.
Kosolapov, Richard Ivanovich: Editor in chief of Kommunist (official ideological-political journal of the Communist Party).
Kruglova, Mrs. Zinaida Mikhailovna: Chairman of Presidium of Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Relations With Foreign Countries.
Kulidzhanov, Lev Alexandrovich: First secretary, USSR Union of Cinematographers. Producer at the M. Gorky Central Cinema Studio or Children's Films.
Nenashev, Mikhail Fedorovich: Editor in chief of Sovietskaya Rossiya (party Central Committee newspaper and official organ of Russian Republic).
Nikolayeva-Tereshkova, Mrs. Valentina Vladimirovna: Former cosmonaut. Chairman, Soviet Women's Committee. Member of Presidium of USSR Supreme Soviet (parliament).
Pastukhov, Boris Nikolayevich: First secretary, Central Committee of Komsomol (youth section of Communist Party). Member of Presidium of USSR Supreme Soviet.
Romanov, Alexei Vladimirovich: Editor in chief of party Central Committee newspaper Sovietskaya Kultura (Soviet Culture).
Smirnov, Alexei Alexeyevich: Board chairman, USSR Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives.
Stukalin, Boris Ivanovich: Chairman, USSR State Committee for Publishing Houses, Printing Plants, and the Book Trade. Member USSR Council of Ministers.
Zhukov, Georgi Alexandrovich: Political commentator, Pravda. CENTRAL AUDITING COMMISSION
Bovin, Alexander Yevgenevich: Political commentator, Izvestia.
Fedulova, Mrs. Alevtina Vasilevna: Secretary, Central Committee Komsomol (youth section of party). Chairman, Central Council of Pioneer Organization (party organization for younger teen-agers).
Golubev, Vasily Nikolayevich: Editor in chief of party Central Committee newspaper Sotsialisticheskaya Industria (Socialist Industry).