The Soviet editor spoke with a trace of indignation. ''We too are a proud country and people, with a history, a culture, traditions,'' he said. ''But you do not want to treat us with a sense of equality. What your President seeks is US superiority, and we can't accept that.''
At a reception at the Soviet Embassy on Wednesday, other members of a visiting Soviet journalistic delegation voiced similar sentiments: that President Reagan has moderated his tone toward the Soviet Union only because it is an election year; that he has not offered any arms control proposal the Soviet leadership can accept; that he has not followed through on arms initiatives proposed by Moscow.
''It is humiliating to have our country described by your secretary of state as the source of international terrorism,'' said another member of delegation, which is in the country on a 10-day visit as part of an exchange arranged by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
The journalists' comments echoed the official line of skepticism and injured pride Moscow has been putting out for some time now. But they seemed to reflect genuine feelings and to point to the difficulties of trying to steady the superpower relationship when the two have such opposing views.
Despite these difficulties, administration officials say, the United States and the Soviet Union are inching toward an improvement of their relations. President Reagan, in a speech this week, outlined the various areas - cultural, scientific, consular, economic - in which the US is trying to make progress despite the stalemate in nuclear arms negotiations. He urged the Soviets to ''join us and work with us.''
''If they sincerely want to reduce arms, there's no excuse for refusing to talk,'' he told participants in a conference on US-Soviet exchanges. ''And if they sincerely want to deal with us as equals, they shouldn't try to avoid a frank discussion of real problems.''
Since Jan. 16, when Reagan in a major foreign policy address conspicuously adopted a more conciliatory posture toward Moscow, US diplomats have been trying to get ties back to where they were before the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner nine months ago. Explorations were then under way on a number of bilateral issues.
In some areas the Soviets now have responded positively. For instance, the administration was expected to announce yesterday the two sides have agreed to extend the long-term economic-cooperation agreement that expires this month.
Next month the two sides will meet to discuss maritime boundary delineation in the Bering Sea. Consular review talks are under way in Moscow and are expected to lead to the establishment of consulates in Kiev and New York. Also, the US is waiting for Moscow to set a date for talks between the US Coast Guard and Soviet authorities on search and rescue at sea.
Mr. Reagan also mentioned US readiness to start negotiations on a new agreement on cultural, educational, scientific, and technical exchanges. This agreement lapsed in 1980 when renewal negotiations were suspended because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
These are all deemed relatively minor issues in the total relationship, leaving the major matter of arms control still deadlocked. But administration experts say Reagan, given his strong ideological views, has made an appreciable shift from the positions he took when he first came into office. He has toned down his rhetoric and displayed willingness to make headway on bilateral problems - even softening his conditions for a summit meeting.
At the same time, administration officials say, the President is under strong public pressures to make clear to the Soviets the US concern about violations of human rights and aggressive acts abroad, which Americans find reprehensible. Hence, Reagan faces the dilemma of sounding forthcoming on issues that divide the two countries without abandoning America's moral principles.
The President in his speech Wednesday criticized the Soviet Union for the invasion of Afghanistan and internal repression. ''When Soviet actions threaten the peace or violate a solemn agreement or trample on standards fundamental to the civilized world,'' he said, ''we cannot and will not be silent.''
US proposals for improved contacts, Reagan said, do not mean ''we will ignore violation of the Helsinki Final Act or the plight of Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner, Anatoly Shcharansky, Yuri Orlov, and so many others. The persecution of these courageous, noble people weighs very heavily on our hearts. It would be wrong to believe that their treatment and their fate will not affect our ability to increase cooperation.''
At the Soviet Embassy reception, the President's comments elicited a negative reaction. One editor suggested that every statement the President makes about the Soviet Union is ''double-edged.'' From Moscow, too, came the official party assessment in Pravda that the President's offer to engage in a dialogue was a ''masquerade'' designed to court votes.
Many experts say they believe progress in human rights is more effectively pursued through ''quiet diplomacy.'' But even that, they say, requires a relationship in which useful discussions are taking place. The problem now is that the US-Soviet relationship is frayed and requires reweaving - all at a time when the United States is in the throes of an election and the Kremlin is still grappling with another leadership change.