If Westerners harbor any hope for ultimate reform of the Soviet Union's totalitarian system, it lies in the possible difference of outlook in the new generation of Soviet leaders - those who will one day succeed the Brezhnevs and Gromykos. Outsiders watch avidly for any inkling of change. So it is interesting to note, as Monitor correspondent Ned Temko has done in his series on ''Soviet insiders,'' that the relatively younger officials of Sovietdom (in their 50s and 60s) are more at ease with a foreign journalist, less strident, less reticent to talk frankly, more self-confident and sophisticated. That does not unlock the mystery of what policies future Soviet leaders will pursue, but it does hint at change.
What may be most instructive, however, is Mr. Temko's observation that, younger or older, those Soviet officials who hold positions of influence usually share something in common: a sense of national insecurity, a sense that the Soviet Union, for all its might, is not yet accepted by the United States as a member of the club. In the view of both generations, the two superpowers should in effect run things and respect each other's interests.
Viktor Afanasyev, editor of Pravda, voices resentment of the way US customs agents searched diplomatic cargo on an Aeroflot jet. ''We are not El Salvador or Panama. We are a superpower, with the self-respect of a superpower.'' Richard Kosolapov, editor of the journal Kommunist, suggests that President Reagan must learn ''the talent, the art even, of speaking with people as equals.'' Meanwhile veteran writer Alexander Chakovsky, whose generation now rules the USSR, remarks: ''We will never put up with any imbalance in the sphere of armaments. What we stand for is full equality in this respect.''
This is no case for accepting Moscow's distorted bipolar view of the world. Nor for hesitating to criticize the Soviet Union, or to stand up to it with all the moral, political, and military force needed to defend the West's interests. Far from it. It is, however, a reminder that, in dealing with an adversary, taking account of the impulses of national character is no less important than counting missiles and tanks. It is just possible that a little more sensitivity in Washington to the pride of the Soviet Union, to its determination to be treated as an equal in the world, and a little less of what George Kennan calls the ''systematic dehumanization'' of Soviet leaders might go far toward putting relations back on track.