In central Moscow, if you take Marx-and-Engels Street to the end, you will find a dimly lit office distinguished by lofty ceilings and an enormous bust of Karl Marx.
The room belongs to Richard Kosolapov, the quiet, articulate editor of Kommunist, the Soviet Communist Party's ideological journal. Asked about Poland (two days after the imposition of martial law), he replies:
''It is not possible for Polish leaders to bypass Solidarity. . . . Undoubtedly, there will have to be a dialogue, an intensive, effective dialogue. . . .''
The ''transition'' from the era of Leonid Brezhnev to whoever and whatever follows has, in a sense, already begun.
Younger men -- like Kommunist's Richard Kosolapov, Pravda editor Viktor Afanasyev, or Mikhail Nenashev of Sovietskaya Rossiya -- have moved into positions of ''access'' and influence within the policy machine. (''Younger,'' by Soviet political standards, means men between 50 and 60 years old -- some 15 to 25 years less than men like Mr. Brezhnev.)
The older men may have changed a bit, too. They did not roll tanks into Poland when many in the West said they would. A few weeks back, I asked a younger Central Committee member why.
''Everyone on the Politburo,'' he said, ''knew there were some problems tanks wouldn't solve. . . . They realized such a step should be avoided under any -- almost any, I should say -- circumstances.''
A few days later I asked another of the younger men, foreign policy analyst Alexander Bovin, about the ''gradual normalization'' the official Soviet news media were detecting in Poland:
''Normalization? Yes, in about five years, maybe. . . . We cannot speak of normalization. The issue, in the shorter run, is canceling martial law. It will gradually change in color. Some aspects will remain, others will be changed. . . . At least, this is how I see things.''
Only a fool would venture precise predictions on the men who will lead the Soviet Union when Leonid Brezhnev is gone. Only a greater fool would presume they will necessarily be men like Alexander Bovin or Richard Kosolapov -- strikingly (to the outsider) more articulate, sophisticated, open, and self-confident than the typical older official. With others of roughly the same age group (Mr. Afanasyev, for instance, or party youth leader Boris Pastukhov) the impression comes over less strongly.
And whether such officials who are now in the younger generation will rule differently when they eventually reach the top remains to be seen. Yet they do often seem to think -- or at least talk and act -- differently, with two marked exceptions:
They seem to share with much older officials a sense of national, as opposed to personal, insecurity. It is the sense that their nation remains an acutely vulnerable superpower, not fully accepted by the United States as a member of the club, and beset by problems at home and abroad. The economy is not working right. And beyond Soviet borders lie real or potential sources of trouble: Poland . . . and upheaval in Iran . . . and Afghanistan . . . China . . . and (in the longer run, suggested one official interviewed) Japan.
Officials of both generations projected a starkly bipolar vision of the way the world should be: Two superpowers, Soviet and American, should in effect run things. That, after all, is the point of being a superpower. They should help each other out, respect each other.
This arrangement, in Soviet eyes, presupposes that what Moscow does to its dissidents, for instance, is Moscow's business. (Older officials interviewed were much more prone to address this subject, yet the few younger ones who mentioned it were plainly of similar mind.) On international issues, ''respect'' would cover a Soviet sphere of influence, or legitimate concern, deemed to embrace Afghanistan as surely as Poland. Also, Iran and other bits of the Mideast.
But can the world really run this way? Does it? And what can the Soviet Union do about all this?
Yuri Zhukov, Pravda political commentator and party Central Committee member, has written newspaper copy of equal distinction under Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev. (''Stalin . . . I mean Brezhnev,'' he began one sentence in the second of our interviews.) He is an incisively articulate man, a file cabinet on the ups and downs of superpower relations, yet he prefers speechifying to conversation. Still, he did open up considerably as time went on. So I asked about Afghanistan:
''Suffice it for Reagan to tell (Pakistani leader) Zia to sit down with Babrak Karmal,'' was the sharp, unhesitating response.
Izvestia foreign policy analyst Alexander Bovin -- a man who offers analysis not only to his readers, but also at times to the men who rule the Soviet Union -- speaks with more nuance. When Israeli jets struck an Iraqi nuclear reactor last year, the Soviet media held Washington responsible.
Mr. Bovin, too, said US support for the Israelis had ''created the conditions'' for such an attack. But he added: ''Personally, I can conceive that Reagan or Haig might have been against the attack . . . or against the (earlier) Israeli strike on populated sectors of Beirut. I think Israel is really starting to get out of control, presenting the US with a problem.''
No official interviewed suggested it was time to shelve superpower ''detente'' -- that would constitute a departure from unwritten rules of behavior that would be somewhat akin to calling Brezhnev a tired old man. Yet there were occasional hints, nonetheless, of a difference in outlook between old and younger.
I asked everyone, for instance, whether Soviet policy might be affected by the fact that younger people had not endured the horrors of world war. The typical reply from younger officials was: No, hatred of war is an irrevocable part of our national psyche.
Septuagenarian Alexei Romanov took the question differently, replying: ''If the nation faces any danger, it will unite the people. All of them . . . I am confident youth today is very patriotic . . . strong, and tough.''
Alexander Chakovsky, editor of the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, literally read a typewritten text at me during our ''interview.'' He alternated condemnation of the US with a call for negotiation and ''detente,'' then digressed at the end.
Obviously, he said, Ronald Reagan was trying to force Moscow to spend money on guns and not butter. ''But we are not afraid of any difficulties. We know how to overcome them. If need be, we can subsist on brown bread and potatoes, but we will never compromise our security.'' He added: ''We will never put up with any imbalance in the sphere of armaments. What we stand for is full equality in this respect.''
Another of the older men interviewed picked up on the same theme: Soviet soldiers, he said, could do better in tougher conditions than American soldiers.
(He was among those who quite happily took on the issue of Soviet dissidence. He mentioned an official Soviet committee on compliance with the Helsinki Accords. This group, he said, monitored compliance only in the Soviet Union. ''But the Americans are concerned with compliance in our country.'' The man chuckled, as if to emphasize the audacity, the very ludicrousness of such a scheme, and then added, more seriously: ''We regard this as a violation of our sovereignty.'')
Interestingly, it is the younger men among the ranking officials interviewed who have come to play a more direct role in the policymaking process. (Perhaps less surprisingly, it is younger men -- as opposed to younger women -- who matter most. I interviewed the highest-ranking women in the country. If any of them play a major policy role, they hid this fact expertly.)
These ''younger men'' are not a single group. Background matters. Boris Pastukhov, the party youth leader, has spent his entire career in that group's ranks, picking up an engineering degree (1958) along the way. He talks a lot more like his elders than do men like Alexander Bovin.
Mr. Bovin's background - and those of Mr. Kosolapov and US-affairs analyst Georgi Arbatov - are different. These men got a nontechnical education, then were seconded as experts or consultants to the Central Committee Secretariat. They speak, in some cases, more like crisis managers than Communists. (Oddly, it is ideology that often seems to puzzle Soviet officials most about Ronald Reagan. . . .)
* Alexander Bovin is intelligent, irreverent, irrepress-ibly good natured. Sitting in his seventh-floor office, his corpulent frame imperfectly restrained by suspenders, he looks vaguely like the late Zero Mostel. ''Diplomacy is something of a game,'' he says in one of five lengthy conversations. On one wall of his office is a poster from the US Military Academy at West Point. (''An American gave it to me.'') On another is a poster from Israel. (''I got it when I was in Tel Aviv.'')
''There is something in common between Reagan's policy and (Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini's,'' he said at one point last year. ''Reagan is looking for answers in the 19th century. Khomeini is looking in the 7th century. . . . Both want to escape from our epoch. . . .''
''You have your game,'' he said three weeks ago - after the latest dip in the roller coaster of superpower relations. ''We understand the reasons, . . . and on some specific issues, like Poland, we tell you to go to hell. . . .
''The Soviet strategy now, he says, is to ''wait.''
Echoing, indeed outdoing, public remarks from Mr. Brezhnev, the Izvestia analyst dismisses as ''stupid'' a Reagan administration proposal for mutual cuts in European-based nuclear missiles. (The Soviet line is that Mr. Reagan is demanding ''unilateral'' Soviet disarmament.) Yet Mr. Bovin quickly adds that the US proposal could provide a starting point for agreement. ''There should be a compromise'' somewhere between the current US and Soviet stands, he says.
He terms ''without doubt encouraging'' the fact that, even after Polish martial law, US Secretary of State Alexander Haig has not altogether stopped talking about the possibility of strategic-arms talks.
''I am positive there will be further (Soviet-American) meetings'' on various issues: ''a lot of them.''
Mr. Bovin argues there can be no other way. ''The first place must be taken by Soviet-American relations.'' This can be a guide for other regions, like the Middle East: ''Of course, the US has vital interests there. I will acknowledge this.'' But ''the region is much closer to Soviet borders.'' So if, for instance , Israel and Syria go to war, Moscow could not ''stay behind a screen.'' The idea, he says, is to avoid war. ''The US should persuade Israel. . . . We can talk to the Syrians. This is a good area for compromise.''
Meanwhile, Mr. Bovin says, the Soviet Union would welcome better relations with more pro-Western Mideast parties, like Saudi Arabia or Egypt. He says progress on both these fronts will likely take time -- precisely how much depending on Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With the Saudis, ''There are, of course, some ideological considerations . . . like Islam, or the Saudis' ties with America.
''But that is their business. We consider that normal. Fundamentally, between the national interests of the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia, we see no contradiction.''
These ''national interests,'' he maintains, involve a comprehensive Mideast settlement that is ''impossible without the Soviet Union.''
I asked in one conversation what he thought of US suggestions that the Soviet Union might intervene in a nearer swath of Mideast soil -- Iran -- when Ayatollah Khomeini goes. ''Such fears are premature,'' he said. ''Until now, all conflict situations in Iran are because of the American presence (under the Shah), not a Soviet one.'' Then he added: ''It is very important for us to have on our borders a strong, stable state . . . supporting good relations with us.
* Viktor Afanasyev of Pravda has a somewhat more direct role in the policy machine. He attends regular meetings of the Secretariat.
At first glance, seated in a penthouse office in Pravda's new headquarters, he seems more like a Brooks Brothers model than a Soviet socialist politician. He is sun-tanned, looks younger than he is, and wears an immaculately tailored sky-blue suit. He smokes imported cigarettes, with an antitar filter (''it's American''). And he begins with an assault on Ronald Reagan's administration. Like Bovin, one of his sharpest immediate concerns is the Middle East.
Yet the line is harder, the nuances fewer. (Perhaps only as speculation is it worth noting that he, unlike Bovin, is not a trained foreign policy man.) ''With US support and connivance,'' says the Pravda chief, ''Israel flouts international law. . . . The (US) Rapid Deployment Force is purely aggressive, directed at the Soviet Union.
''Or take Afghanistan. The US and the West don't want a solution. At one point Pakistan agreed to talks but, under US pressure, withdrew.'' Then, he comes to what appears the major source of his anger: the somewhat ham-handed search by US customs agents last year of diplomatic cargo on an outgoing Aeroflot jet.
''Reagan seems to have forgotten with whom he is dealing,'' snaps Afanasyev. ''We are not El Salvador or Panama. We are a superpower, with the self-respect of a superpower.''
With this out of the way, he becomes more circumspect. ''We assess very positively,'' he says, Reagan's lifting of a Carter-era grain embargo. And about US fears in the Mideast: ''If the Americans help us with our oil deposits, why should we go to the Mideast for oil?'' On grain purchases from the US (this was shortly before Moscow contracted for more American grain): ''I think we will buy from the US. . . . To be honest, it is much more convenient for us.''
Then, unprompted, the national sense of insecurity exhibited by older officials emerged: ''The time may not come soon. But eventually I think we will become even a grain exporter.''
Finally I asked about Poland: ''We hope the Poles themselves will decide their own problems. (The crisis manager emerges.) They have to. Nobody else will feed 36 million people.''
Afanasyev's mere willingness to discuss the issue sets him apart from an earlier generation of officials. Older officials are much less likely to tell an American reporter that American grain is a help. Still the Pravda man seemed somewhat less at ease in the give-and-take of an interview than others of the younger officials interviewed.
A few weeks later, I had just completed an interview with Yuri Zhukov down the hall from Afanasyev's office. The chief editor happened to be near the elevator when I emerged. He turned, not quite quickly enough, to avoid recognition. I said hello. A little like a guilty schoolboy, he replied: ''I was just out for a minute smoking a cigarette. . . .''
This sense came across much more strongly in an interview with party youth leader Pastukhov. Of all the younger men, he was the only one visibly ill at ease. He seemed to approach an interview with a Western reporter in much the same way as officials much older.
He was demonstratively friendly, his taut boxer's face frequently creasing into a smile. Yet it was somehow the friendliness of a headwaiter, rehearsed and performed. When he did open up, the catalyst was, as often with Soviet officials , the question of the world war:
''My father was killed in the war,'' he said quietly. Yes, in some ways, kids are different nowadays. They don't feel as acutely the hardships of the war years. But that will change: ''I am sure young people will do everything asked of them by party and country. . . .''
Three other younger officials interviewed -- Kosolapov, Arbatov, and to a slightly lesser degree, Sovietskaya Rossiya editor Nenashev -- were more at ease , often less strident, particularly on issues of foreign relations.
Nenashev began with a comment frequently heard from a variety of Soviet officials: that the Americans, with their quadrennial election-year lurches, challenge the crucial imperative of ''continuity'' in superpower relations.
''What,'' I asked, ''should the Soviets do about this?'' He replied that one imperative was ''not to act in haste.'' Nenashev, like the Pravda editor, attends Secretariat meetings. I saw him shortly before the Polish Communist Party's extraordinary congress last year, amid a distinct lull in Soviet media commentary on events in Poland. Why the lull, I asked.
His reply: ''There is no need to pump up the (tense) situation. . . . Also our press must be careful not to interfere . . . on the eve of the congress.'' He said this was because Polish ''opposition'' elements ''are standing somewhat expectantly'' to use such a move to their political advantage.
* Georgi Arbatov, like Izvestia's Alexander Bovin, is a foreign policy specialist. His is the vocabulary of Realpolitik, Soviet style. Its underlying assumption: Superpowers (read: the US) should act like superpowers, not like outmoded crusaders (read: Ronald Reagan) who presume they can dictate terms to another superpower (the USSR).
Take Poland, for instance. ''Nobody knows how it will end. The Poles have a lot of problems, economic, . . . internal. . . .'' Before martial law some extremists ''wanted a showdown, even would have welcomed Soviet intervention.''
Public statements in Poland indicate a measure of continued reform is possible and suggest ''this is not a move backward,'' he says. In this context, martial law -- with public statements indicating a measure of continued reform is possible and suggesting ''this is not a move backward'' -- is ''by far not the worst of things that could have happened,'' Mr. Arbatov concludes. ''No one has really serious reasons to complain.''
* Richard Kosolapov stands between the world of foreign policy specialists like Georgi Arbatov and Alexander Bovin and the more direct domestic policy involvement of men like Pravda's Viktor Afanasyev. Mr. Kosolapov is a smallish man typically outfitted in a somber three-piece suit. He was once deputy head of the Secretariat's (domestic) propaganda department, then the No. 2 man at Pravda. Now he is the top man in the party's official journal of politics and ideology. He sometimes attends Secretariat sessions. When he doesn't, officials say, he is among those fully briefed on top-level discussions and decisions.
Last June, he was one of a group of Soviet editors and journalists on a fact-finding visit to Poland. He is a hard man to pigeonhole -- equally articulate and open on foreign and domestic issues, with a vocabulary that suggests both the crisis manager and the devoted, if not didactic, communist.
Detente? ''I don't even need to harp on such things as the 'mystical Russian soul,' '' he says with a half smile. ''The imperative is social tasks at home.'' Later, he says that a system of ''incentives'' for Soviet workers would seem another obvious prerequisite for shoring up the economy. (''In a free market, prices really do provide for efficiency. Our system is more humane, but more difficult.'') The challenge: find similar economic ''stimuli,'' not just money, but ''higher-quality goods'' for Soviet workers to buy with their money.
General international relations? ''We see much potentially in common in the (geopolitical) interests of our country and the US, also in use of natural resources.'' Meanwhile, ''consider the danger if a man like Idi Amin, let's say, or Pakistan, got the bomb.''
On Libya's Muammar Qaddafi: ''One must not forget he is a fanatic Muslim, with all that implies.''Poland: Yes, there must be ''intensive, effective'' dialogue with Solidarity even after martial law, a search for some kind of entente. The union group ''is an organization of millions of people. . . .''
''Even if the crowd is wrong, someone has to talk to it.''
''Quite a lot of (Polish Communist) party members are in Solidarity,'' the Kommunist editor had said in a conversation some six months earlier.
''One cannot say, at this point, whether that is necessarily a good or bad thing. . . . A process of discussion continues, within the party and within Solidarity, too.''
''The system has failed in Poland,'' he said a little later. Then, he added: ''Much is said in the West about the fact that the Soviet system failed there. . . . This is not quite true. It is the Polish system that failed.''
In a further interview, Kosolapov turned again to Poland: ''One mistake (by the leadership) was not paying enough attention to the Catholic Church. The Poles are religious people. The church is important. . . .'' And, a few months later: Yes, the situation is becoming more tense. It is almost as if some ''extremists are sort of having fun, a kind of national masochism. . . .''
Was he referring to Solidarity as a whole: No, Solidarity, ''I think, includes mostly ordinary people. . . .''
''You know,'' he went on, smiling slightly, ''there's a joke I heard not too long ago: There are two dogs running, and they collide at the Czechoslovak-Polish border. . . . The one coming from Poland says: 'I am running in order to get something to eat.' Then the one from Czechoslovakia, who is a little puzzled at this, replies: 'I was running in order to bark freely.'
''Solidarity is scared of taking economic, and other, responsibility, scared of being discredited. . . . They only destabilize, and damage, and demand. . . .
Yet above all, Kosolapov stressed in five lengthy conversations, there must be an understanding on the part of the United States that Poland is not ''the kind of issue that should be allowed to strain our relations. . . .'' Ronald Reagan, he argues, must learn ''the talent, the art even, of speaking with people as equals.'' By ''people,'' Mr. Kosolapov clearly meant the Soviet Union. The ''Reagan approach . . . well, this is not the century for such things. Distances have become so small, . . . peoples so interrelated. . . .''
On Afghanistan, the sense of superpower vulnerability surfaces anew. Had Soviet troops not intervened, he says, ''the situation in Iran would be very different'' for Moscow. ''Our southern border would be encircled with unfriendly neighbors.''
The concept, he suggests, applies much farther afield. The Soviets, for instance, have occupied since World War II a small group of islands claimed by Japan, the Kuriles. Could Moscow give in?''No,'' says Kosolapov. ''First, this water has become in effect an internal Soviet sea. . . . The Americans wouldn't compromise, either, in our place. Second, there is the problem of creating a precedent:
''It is like acupuncture. You have an ache in your ear and get a pin in your heel. . . . It could mean reopening (territorial) issues like Poland . . . or areas of Soviet Asia. . . .'' Soviet officials interviewed for this series CENTRAL COMMITTEE MEMBERS
Afanasyev, Viktor Grigorevich: Editor in chief, Pravda. Board chairman of USSR Union of Journalists. 1922.
Arbatov, Georgi Arkadyevich: Director, Institute of the US and Canada. Member USSR Academy of Sciences. 1923.
Biryukova, Mrs. Alexandra Pavlovna: Secretary, All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. 1929.
Chakovsky, Alexander Borisovich: Novelist. Editor in chief of newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta. Board secretary, USSR Union of Writers. 1913.
Gonchar, Alexander Zerentevich: Novelist. Board secretary of USSR Union of Writers. Chairman, Ukrainian Republic Committee for Defense of Peace. 1918.
Kosolapov, Richard Ivanovich: Editor in chief of Kommunist. 1930.
Kruglova, Mrs. Zinaida Mikhailovna: Chairman of Presidium of Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Relations With Foreign Countries. 1923.
Kulidzhanov, Lev Alexandrovich: First secretary, USSR Union of Cinematographers. Producer at the M. Gorky Central Cinema Studio for Children's Films. 1924.
Nenashev, Mikhail Fedorovich: Editor in chief of Sovietskaya Rossiya. 1929.
Nikolayeva-Tereshkova, Mrs. Valentina Vladimirovna: Former cosmonaut. Chairman, Soviet Women's Committee. Member of Presidium of USSR Supreme Soviet. 1937.
Pastukhov, Boris Nikolayevich: First secretary, Central Committee of Komsomol. Member of Presidium of USSR Supreme Soviet. 1933.
Romanov, Alexei Vladimirovich: Editor in chief of party Central Committee newspaper Sovietskaya Kultura. 1908.
Smirnov, Alexei Alexeyevich: Board chairman, USSR Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives. 1921.
Stukalin, Boris Ivanovich: Chairman, USSR State Committee for Publishing Houses, Printing Plants, and the Book Trade. Member USSR Council of Ministers. 1923.
Zhukov, Georgi Alexandrovich: Political commentator, Pravda. 1908. CENTRAL AUDITING COMMISSION
Bovin, Alexander Yevgenevich: Political commentator, Izvestia. 1930.
Fedulova, Mrs. Alevtina Vasilevna: Secretary, Central Committee Komsomol. Chairman, Central Council of Pioneer Organization. 1940.
Golubev, Vasily Nikolayevich: Editor in chief of party Central Committee newspaper Sotsialisticheskaya Industria. 1913.