Change, like everything else in the Soviet Union except spring and Kremlin limousines, moves slowly. Throughout Russian history, whether under Peter the Great or Stalin, change has almost always come from above.
Yet the story of 1980s Russia, under Yuri Andropov or those who will follow, is one of change and of how to cope with it. This time, the process began in some respects from below, and outside.
Russian society has changed. During the three decades since the death of Stalin, it has gradually become more vital, informed, even ''freer'' within limits most people instinctively learn and observe. It is more cynical, less easily manageable, less fearful.
The world outside has changed: threatening to open up an ever-wider economic and military gap with Moscow in an age of microtechnology, an area of chronic Soviet weakness.
Now comes the Kremlin's turn.
Some Soviet-style ''reform'' - activated partly by an infusion of younger, brighter, better-educated, and informed Soviet policy specialists - has already begun. The change is part of an ongoing ''transition'' process that began not a year ago with Yuri Andropov's rise to the party leadership, but far earlier. The current state, in the words of a prominent Moscow official, lies partly in the realization that ''socialism needs improvement in all directions.''
Yet, the process also promises to be a halting and complex one. And it could fuel the very sort of aggressive, old-Russian insecurities that would shoot down a Korean jumbo jet lest it ''escape,'' or give an extra crack of the disciplinary whip at home lest ''economic reform'' risk loss of political control.
The Monitor starts today a series of four articles by Ned Temko, its Moscow correspondent for the past three years. The series is based on several hundred interviews and conversations with ordinary Soviets - on sidewalks or park benches, in apartments or discotheques. It also draws on nearly 100 meetings with ranking Soviet officials, many of whom had rarely if ever before been interviewed by a Western reporter.