WITH David Shipler's new book and other recent popular works on the Soviet Union, average Westerners have an extraordinary chance to begin understanding the Soviet mystery, riddle, and enigma.
Western journalists have made some of the major contributions toward better understanding of the USSR. Shipler's colleague, New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith, for example, swept open the Iron Curtain with his 1976 volume ''The Russians.'' In it, Smith helped dismantle a whole set of stereotypes when he documented an intensely stratified society in which the easygoing, indolent, disorganized peasant mentality was still present at all levels; where corruption , crime, and dissent were more common than Westerners may have thought; and where, beneath scientific socialism and dialectical materialism, the mystical religious fervor of Orthodox Holy Mother Russia was still alive.
Although such points had been known for years by Russophiles, Smith's book, drafted during detente, was the first since the cold war to capture wide public attention in the West.
Then came two more excellent works: Washington Post correspondent Robert Kaiser's overview ''Russia,'' and ''From the Yaroslavsky Station: Russia Perceived,'' by Elizabeth Pond of The Christian Science Monitor, a more scholarly (though very readable) account which combines economic and political analysis with societal insights.
In ''Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams'' Shipler may not have the popular touch and fluid style of a Hedrick Smith. Nor do we find the penetrating, critical powers of an Elizabeth Pond. Instead, the book is valuable for its own unique vision of the various facets of Soviet society and Russian character that will help lay readers better comprehend daily life in modern Russia.
And ''modern'' needs to be stressed. What I find most interesting - and most important - is Shipler's indirect portrait of the difficult spiritual condition of present-day Russia. Hence, ''Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams.''
What we see is a country experiencing what amounts to an existential crisis. The Russians, of course, have never had it easy. Boris Pasternak talks about his people's ''cursed capacity for suffering.'' But before the revolution, Russians could seek solace in Eastern Orthodoxy's promise of a heavenly afterlife. Then, after the revolution, the people and the state were going to create a corporeal heaven on earth. That hasn't happened. And today, Shipler can write that, in Soviet society which is ''at the juncture of suffering and indifference, there exists a vacuum.
''For Russians it is generally impossible not to believe in something,'' says one social thinker Shipler spoke with. Yet the problem for Russians today is what to believe. Their need for a strong central personality has not been fulfilled for years: Brezhnev is already forgotten. Andropov never really made an impression. It is a situation that led liberal Soviet historian Lev Kopelev to remark to Shipler that ''Stalin today is less dead than he was twenty years ago.''
Neither do many Russians still believe strongly in communist ideology. To the average Russian, Shipler writes, communism is not the vital idea it was 50 years ago. The momentum is gone. Heroic emotion ''no longer comes with spontaneity; it requires a measure of concentration to evoke the exhilarating vision of a new order'' in a society where hypocrisy, corruption, and the black market are a way of life. To those disillusioned by the failure of socialism to provide adequate answers to human needs, ''the future is blank,'' he writes; ''there is a great emptiness.''
In such a cultural milieu, Shipler's book pinpoints two broad trends many modern Russians either identify with, or fall back on: ''Soviet Patriotism'' and ''Russian Nationalism.'' Patriotism stems from love of the Motherland, from the shared experience of the war, and from the recognition that the Soviet Union is today one of the world's superpowers. Unlike Russian nationalism, patriotism cuts across ethnic boundaries. It is an emotional bond, although not a completely uncritical one. Patriots, for example, are concerned about the loss or distortion of Russian history taught to the young. (''What is a Soviet historian?'' the joke goes in Moscow: ''One who can predict the past.'')
Although smaller in scale at present than patriotism, Russian nationalism (as defined by Shipler) is much more radical and purist. It is an ethnocentric movement that calls for a return to isolationism, to the Russian Orthodox Church , to the land, to authoritarian rulership - to what is perceived to have been good in the past. If the relatively mild-mannered Andrei Sakharov is a type of patriot for Shipler, the fiery Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a type of nationalist.
Shipler's discussion of Christianity in the Soviet Union may be one of the more unusual aspects of the book. He devotes an entire subchapter to what he feels is a powerful, growing force in the culture. While Christianity does not vie with Soviet patriotism or Russian nationalism in terms of direct influence, Shipler is intrigued by the staying power of the different faiths. When he asked a young Muscovite, for example, how she could reconcile her religious faith with the party, she answered, ''It's easy. At the Komsomol committee, when they ask if I believe in God, I say no.''
It is true that cultural observations such as Shipler's can be extremely subjective - due, in part, to the kinds of Russians attracted to a Western journalist and to the inherent limitations the Western press endures in a closed society.
Still, in terms of background, documentation, and general sweep, this book is on target. From the sheer volume of interactions with all varieties of Russians, the inclusions of many jokes and anecdotes, and the wide range of subjects covered, it is clear that the author has fought his way clear to an understanding of the underlying dynamics of contemporary Russia. Further (and to his credit), Shipler scrupulously avoids the role of prognosticator - predicting whether or not the Soviet Union will experience any sudden massive changes.
I asked Shipler in an interview if, after four years there, he ever got angry at what he saw?
''Oh, sure - well, angry and full of grief,'' he said. ''Angry because the Soviet authorities reminded me of Southern bigots in the old days - before the South had really changed. They were intolerant and narrow-minded, and preached intolerance as a virtue. I found it very irritating, very annoying. When you'd get a runaround on an interview, or be thwarted, or people would say ridiculous things to you and put absurd obstacles in your way, you'd get angry.''
Why full of grief?
Because of the dissidents, some of whom Shipler had become close to, he explained. ''Every time a friend was arrested it was goodbye. I knew I'd never see him again. After four years of that, your cup fills with grief, and you feel you have to go, get out, leave the Soviet Union. You have enough of it. But I discovered when I left that I didn't escape, because my friends were still left behind. Anatoly Shcharansky (a Jewish dissident arrested and sent to a penal camp) will always be my friend. He was my friend and always will be. So it's not something you feel angry about. It's something that eats at you.''