''Things were, well, different before Brezhnev,'' the Soviet official began. He paused, took a sip of tea, and smiled: ''I remember once Khrushchev, all of a sudden, decided a certain man must be named deputy premier. . . . Well, it was done. Then Khrushchev said, no, this wasn't the man he wanted. . . .
''The first man, who of course couldn't figure out from the start why he was suddenly becoming deputy premier, was given a nice job somewhere else. . . .''
The moral, various senior officials suggested, is this: Under Leonid Brezhnev , there is greater stability, logic, ''professionalism,'' in the business of making decisions and policy. More people - better-trained, more-specialized people - have a say: individuals and institutions well outside the ''interlocking directorate'' of Politburo and Secretariat.
But in practice, some of these ''individuals and institutions'' matter much more, or differently, than others. There is often an enormous amount of input in the formulation of domestic or foreign policy. Yet the extent to which input equals influence depends on the particular people and issues involved. Ultimate policymaking power remains the province of a very few. Below them trails an intricate, if not always perfectly decipherable, hierarchy of influence . . . and of access.
For some, access is more indirect, influence less powerful, than for others. But the story begins with nonmembers:
Down a nondescript alley almost literally within shouting distance of the Kremlin sits a lobby that, with its public writing tables, looks a little like a post office. A sign outside says it is an official ''reception'' area. There you will typically find a small gathering of quite ordinary Russians (or Byelorussians, or Ukrainians) - bundled old women and war veterans and younger working people.
Most are hunched over tables, scribbling requests or complaints to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. By official figures, there are some 600,000 ''Dear Central Committee'' notes a year. Yet if the small percentage penned at the reception room is any guide, most seem to seek no real ''policy'' input.
On my latest visit, I found a huddle of people, including a young woman from Byelorussia and a war veteran from south of Moscow, framing requests for more apartment space. An older woman wanted to get back at a prosecutor for wrongfully hauling one of her relatives into court.
''I don't know if the letters work,'' said a third woman. ''Some people say they do. . . .''
The letters do get read -- by a recently created Central Committee department attached to the Secretariat. Thus the voices of these people, and of many other Soviet citizens without high official rank -- whether workers or shoppers, or local government and party officials -- do get heard near the top. They undoubtedly matter. How much is impossible for a foreign reporter to say with any certainty.
But senior Soviet officials made one thing clear: The major role in policymaking belongs to people and institutions that don't have to write the Secretariat (or to those explicitly asked to do so).
The cast of characters tends to be largest, their individual roles most predictable, for set pieces like the framing of the yearly economic plan or of a long-anticipated Brezhnev foreign policy address.
Yet occasionally, most often in foreign relations, the Politburo and Secretariat cannot set their own agendas. Dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, for instance, may go on hunger strike. A Soviet submarine may run aground off Sweden. Ronald Reagan may give the green light for production of a neutron weapon -- or announce economic sanctions over the Polish crisis. Then, the cast of characters is apt to narrow.
One group, officials said, has virtually automatic input: the Secretariat's own departments and apparatus. (If you're not a member, it helps at least to move in the same circles.) Beyond this? One official said eloquently, ''It depends. . . .''
Last August, Ronald Reagan decided to go ahead with production of a neutron weapon. (Leonid Brezhnev was vacationing in the Crimea.) The Soviet response came a week later: an acridly worded official statement ending with a nicely vague hint that Moscow might build a neutron warhead of its own.
The cast of characters, officials suggested, had been small: principally Mikhail Zimyanin (a member of the Secretariat, and former editor of Pravda) and Leonid Zamyatin (head of the Central Committee's international information department, and former director of Tass).
The task required relatively little consultation, one official said. After all, Jimmy Carter had moved, then retreated, on the neutron weapon issue during his term in the White House.
''Our position was already formed, in large part,'' the official said. What remained, he suggested, was to refine the script a bit - ''Reaganize'' it.
A few months later came a trickier challenge: A Soviet submarine faltered in a restricted area of Swedish coastal waters. That was bad enough. But the Swedes said the vessel appeared to be carrying nuclear weapons - a particularly unwelcome charge at a time when Moscow was pushing for a ''nuclear-free zone'' in northern Europe.
Officials here would give no details on how the Soviet policy machine handled the sub's mishap, but did outline the pattern of response to similar foreign policy problems. Other actors come into play:
In addition to virtually automatic participants like Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and various other Politburo and Secretariat-level figures, one official said, ''The response (to more urgent questions) typically involves reports from the relevant embassy, from the (Soviet) press there, maybe from the KGB, and, if there is a military aspect, from military intelligence. . . . Also there may be a meeting of the Defense Council.'' (The existence of this senior military group was first revealed in 1976, when the Soviet press offhandedly mentioned Mr. Brezhnev as its chairman.)
Conspicuously absent from this blueprint are what Western analysts often call the Soviets' ''foreign policy specialists'': academics or writers like Georgi Arbatov, head of Moscow's Institute of the United States and Canada, or Izvestia commentator Alexander Bovin. Their influence began in the late Khrushchev years and widened after Mr. Brezhnev took over.
One official recounts that ''various'' specialists, ''Bovin and Arbatov among them, began to work, at first somewhat informally, later formally'' with the Secretariat and its apparatus. Through the 1970s the role of such specialists has continued to matter, officials suggest, but its nature has gradually changed.
Mr. Bovin's own (good-natured) characterization of the change -- "Back then, I gave my opinion even when no one asked, now I give it when they ask me" -- is exaggerated, other officials say.
He, Mr. Arbatov, and various fellow ''specialists'' are said to retain frequent enough contact with men of at least Secretariat level to make an important contribution to the policy machine, asked or unasked. Besides, officials say, they are asked. The distinction is that more of their contribution is now apt to be ''of a longer-range nature,'' as one official put it, ''not necessarily, for instance, on how to answer such-and-such diplomatic note.''
The issues may range from arms talks to Mideast policy. Both Arbatov and Bovin said that, typically, they are asked for their written assessment -- often by the Secretariat, sometimes by the Foreign Ministry. In some instances, other officials said, the foreign policy specialists are invited to Secretariat or Politburo sessions, or are called on by individual members of either group.
Men like Arbatov and Bovin also participate in preparation of some foreign policy statements by Soviet leaders, officials said. Such specialists were among those who helped prepare the foreign affairs portion of Brezhnev's keynote address to last year's Communist Party congress.
When Reagan announced economic sanctions against the Soviets late last year, Arbatov wrote a commentary for Pravda. Bovin wrote a piece in Izvestia. Neither seems to have been summoned for urgent policy consultation. Bovin, at least, says he was not. Arbatov, who had been scheduled to go on vacation at the time, did so.
On the domestic front - at least on the economic front -- policymaking typically moves more slowly. Both the economic crisis and the pattern for dealing with it have become something very close to institutions in recent years. Policy ''input'' is enormous, almost constant.
Policy output, officials say, is in large part a function of bargaining among actors like Gosplan (the gargantuan state planning organization), government ministries, and party officials; or among competing regions and economic sectors.
The scientific community plays an increasingly important role, the officials said. So do other, not strictly economic, groups: for example, the youth organization of the Communist Party, whose say stems largely from the importance of young work brigades in key economic projects.
Much more rarely on the domestic front than in foreign policy does the Soviet decisionmaking machine have to cope with the equivalent of an errant submarine.
(Perhaps partly from lack of practice, the machine seems to have flubbed a recent exception: Dr. Sakharov's hunger strike in appeal for an exit visa for his daughter-in-law. The initial decision, as officials tell it, was to stand tough. Yet as Dr. Sakharov kept fasting, as the Western press kept writing about him, and as Western scientists began shouting at Moscow, the men at the top rethought things. One official said Anatoli Alexandrov, head of the Academy of Sciences, was a key voice for compromise. ''He and others did not want the death of Sakharov on the Soviet Union's shoulders.'' Moscow, in the end, gave in.)
More typical of domestic policymaking was Mr. Brezhnev's late 1980 call for a novel ''food program'' to deal with a not-so-novel problem: a growing shortage of meat and dairy products on Soviet store counters. The groundwork, and bargaining, quickly got into full swing.
By the time of the party congress in early 1981 (they are held every five years), Alexei Smirnov, head of a nationwide system of food cooperatives and a man with ministerial rank in the Soviet government, says his group ''had already calculated we would provide an increase of 15 percent (in food supplies) in the current five-year plan.''
By July, he had done some new figuring: ''After working this out with our regional contacts, we decided we could provide an increase of 25 percent - assuming we get some help from the state in increasing equipment and transport capacity for some farming enterprises. . . .''
''The food program will surely be announced at the fall (1981) plenum of the Central Committee, in conjunction with next year's economic plan,'' Mr. Smirnov said.
It wasn't. Mr. Brezhnev told the plenum, in effect, that work on drawing up the program was continuing and that the full package would be offered at a later committee session. (Meanwhile, officials said, some aspects of the program -- like a shift of agricultural resources from wheat to more appropriate livestock feedgrains -- were being carried out piecemeal.) The bargaining may continue even after a food program is announced. Last year, the Secretariat and the Soviet government published guidelines for shoring up another problem area: coal mining. Shortly afterward a follow-up meeting (organized by the Secretariat, one senior official said) was held in Moscow. Among the participants listed in Pravda were senior government ministers, two members of the Secretariat, and various regional and local representatives. Boris Pastukhov, head of the party youth organization, was not mentioned in Pravda, but he was at the meeting:
''Various speakers were exclaiming, 'The youth will do this, the youth will do that.' I said, 'The living conditions (for young miners) are still far from good. There is no (activities) club, for instance. . . . Until you meet these demands on our part, you will not get young workers.' ''
Yet whether the issue is coal or neutron weapons, whether you are Boris Pastukhov or Leonid Zamyatin, not all those with input and influence in the Soviet system are created equal.
For a foreign reporter, charting an individual's precise place in the policy hierarchy can be roughly akin to counting angels on a pin. Still, hints of the intricate dividing lines do come across in interviews with various officials
Pastukhov, for instance, said he quite often attended Politburo and Secretariat sessions. But when asked why ''Komsomol (the party youth wing), or you, don't have a formal place on the Politburo,'' he did suggest the distinction mattered.
His first, chuckling reply was: ''Well, maybe if you put in a good word for us. . . .'' Then, more seriously, he said ''this highest echelon'' of leadership required vast experience. He in effect said he saw Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest Politburo member and a one-time regional leader in Komsomol, as speaking for the group at ''the highest echelon.''
Mikhail Nenashev, editor of the newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya, regularly attends Secretariat sessions, although he is not formally a member. He participates in discussions which, with protocol minimal and formal votes rare, constitute much of the Secretariat's work. Yet in some functions, he suggested, he had less influence than official members of the group: either when ''things are rejected from the start, or (it is decided to have them) moved to the Politburo for further discussion.''
Or, there is Leonid Zamyatin, the department chief said to have helped frame the Soviet statement on the neutron weapon. Alexander Bovin lists Mr. Zamyatin, who also acts as press spokesman on President Brezhnev's trips abroad, as one of those who ''can give advice even when not asked.''
Yet when I asked a senior official whether Zamyatin might therefore be called the coordinator of foreign policy input for the Secretariat, the man replied: ''No, not really. Remember, he is not a member of the Secretariat. . . .''
(A glimpse of the hierarchy was offered in talks last year between the visiting Canadian agriculture minister and Soviet officials. At one session Mikhail Gorbachev, an agriculture specialist who is a member of both Politburo and Secretariat, was joined by the Soviet agriculture minister and by the head of the Central Committee's agriculture department. Gorbachev is said to have done ''literally'' all the talking for the Soviet side.)
Here as elsewhere, access to men at the top cannot help but influence policy for those further down the hierarchy. Given the degree of power vested in the Politburo and Secretariat, access is especially important.
Though it is sometimes hard to confirm officials' portrayal of their own access or lack of it, two interviews did provide a hint of the intricate pecking order: Yuri Zhukov, a veteran Pravda commentator, remarked shortly after last year's meeting between Foreign Minister Gromyko and US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.: ''Well, I haven't seen Gromyko yet. He is still in the US. . . .''
Later, Alexander Chakovsky, editor of the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, offered me help in arranging interviews with other officials: ''I can't help with the Gromyko level, of course. . . . But on the Zamyatin level, I'd be glad to.''
Another editor, Vasily Golubev of the newspaper Sotsialisticheskaya Industria , showed me a roughly 20-page report he had sent the Secretariat summarizing comments from various workers, executives, engineers, and scientists on the current economic plan. This, he said, was one form of policy input. But as if to say the real requisite was ''access,'' he added: ''I know Dolgikh,'' referring to the member of the Secretariat specializing in industrial issues.
At times, the drop-off between those with "access" and those without it can be abrupt: After Mr. Reagan's neutron weapon decison, I talked with Nikolai Novikov, a deputy chief editor of Izvestia. (His boss, like the editors of Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya, attends regular Secreatriat meetings. The Pravda editor, in an interview, had earlier demonstrated rather detailed familarity with another military question, which led me to believe Mr. Novikov might conceivably be helpful.) Mr. Novikov indeed addressed the neutron issue -- hinting ominously at Soviet plans to build a similar weapon.
Later, I asked a Central Committee member about this. He replied, not unkindly: "Well, Novikov wouldn't be in a position to know anyway. That's for sure." 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.
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 for 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.
Pastukhov, Boris Nikolayevich: First secretary, Central Committee of Komsomol. Member of Presidium of USSR Supreme Soviet.
Romanov, Alexei Vladimirovich: Editor in chief of party Central Committee newspaper Sovietskaya Kultura.
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 (the newspaper of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet).
Fedulova, Mrs. Alevtina Vasilevna: Secretary, Central Committee Komsomol. Chairman, Central Council of Pioneer Organization.
Golubev, Vasily Nikolayevich: Editor in chief of party Central Committee newspaper Sotsialisticheskaya Industria.