Kremlin power plays surface in theater . . . audience

The play's the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.m -Hamlet

A controversial Moscow play, attended by 11 members of the Soviet Politburo, is being taken as one sign of increased maneuvering for position among colleagues of President Leonid Brezhnev.

At the same time, Konstantin Chernenko, one frequently mentioned candidate to succeed Brezhnev, has taken a much higher profile. Andrei Kirilenko, on the other hand, seems in at least temporary eclipse.

Soviet sources meanwhile have told the Monitor that Boris Pastukhov -- the Brezhnev protege who has headed Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party, since 1977 - is likely to be replaced this spring. This would be the first change near the top of the Soviet policy pyramid since the resignation (and subsequent passing) of Premier Alexei Kosygin 17 months ago.

No Kremlinologist here has suggested at this point that an outright ''power struggle'' is under way. Nor has there been any visible indication that Mr. Brezhnev's own position as leader of party and nation is in danger.

Yet suddenly there is evidence of some movement in a power system until recently low on that commodity. This has seemed particularly so since the passing on in January of Mikhail Suslov, the Politburo ideological authority who had been near the center of power since Stalin's days.

The play, to paraphrase Hamlet, is one thing. Entitled ''Tak Pobedim'' (''Thus We Shall Triumph''), it uses the metaphor of Lenin's later days to tender what audiences clearly take as comment on the present.

In a system where open debate among senior leaders just doesn't happen, the play is being interpreted by many diplomats as a political vehicle for Mr. Chernenko.

The message that comes across most clearly in the play is one offered in various Chernenko statements over the past year: The party leadership must display fresh vigor, pragmatism, flexibility, responsiveness to the concerns of the ordinary working people.

In a town where a Politburo member's attendance at such productions is automatically taken as a political statement, Chernenko showed up at an early performance of ''Tak Pobedim.'' So, at other showings, did Moscow party leader Viktor Grishin and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Then, on March 3, came an event with no recent Soviet precedent: A group of nine Politburo members including Brezhnev and Chernenko (a long-time Brezhnev associate) attended. The move is seen by some analysts to stem from a perceived need for a show of Politburo unity over a play that has taken on clear political implications.

Other Kremlinologists saw the Politburo showing as something of a Chernenko victory - if only because Mr. Kirilenko, the man once considered most likely to step into Mr. Brezhnev's shoes, was not in the crowd.

Kirilenko has been notably absent from other recent functions - including the official welcome March 1 for visiting Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski. Some unconfirmed rumors have it that Kirilenko is ill.

Although dismissing Western reports that Chernenko has in effect ''replaced'' the late Suslov as Politburo ideological authority and as the usual chairman of the party's Secretariat, one senior Soviet official has told the Monitor privately that Chernenko is moving in that direction.

It seemed likely, the official said, that Chernenko would take on a heftier ideological role. And indications since Suslov's passing, the official said, were that Chernenko would chair Secretariat meetings ''more often'' than Kirilenko. (As late as mid-1981, officials indicated, the order was the reverse.)

Still, the consensus among Kremlinologists here is that the succession picture, and any individual's precise part in it, remains impossible to predict with any certainty. Maneuvering presumably continues.

The play is seen as one sign of this. Others are cited:

* The appearance of a laudatory review of a Chernenko book in the Jan. 22 edition of a Soviet newspaper. Western embassies were sent an apparently redone Jan. 22 edition minus the Chernenko story.

* A sudden variance in the order of listing for Politburo members in some official news media reports: Kirilenko, as is alphabetically correct in Russian, sometimes appears ahead of Chernenko. Intermittently of late, the order has been reversed.

* Unusual appearances of sniping at the traditionally sacrosanct image of Mr. Brezhnev. These have included a biting satirical piece, taken by some Soviets as a reference to the President, in the edition of a Leningrad literary magazine dedicated to Mr. Brezhnev's 75th birthday; and what one senior official termed the ''not normal'' display of a teary Brezhnev on a television news show.

Against this background, Soviet sources have reported the likely replacement of party youth leader Pastukhov. The sources said it was planned to move him to the (less influential) post of chairman of the State Committee for Cinematography. One source said March 4 that the decision had recently been finalized, but most officials suggested the change would come in concert with a congress of the party youth organization set for May.

The initial reports came from within the film community. Yet one well-placed official, asked March 4 when the shift would be made, displayed no surprise at the inquiry and replied: ''I don't think it will be in the immediate future.''

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