The Soviet Union will begin today what one top Kremlin official calls a ``new stage'' in its history. The Soviet Communist Party Congress meets here to give its blessing to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to revitalize the party and the government, and to improve this country's living standards.
The event, lasting some 10 days, will serve as a benchmark for measuring the political power Gorbachev has managed to accumulate during his first year in office.
By an ironic twist, this congress -- a once-every-five-years event -- is convening 30 years to the day after another new chapter in Soviet history was opened. On Feb. 25, 1956, the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, speaking at the opening of a party congress, denounced his predecessor, Joseph Stalin, and started the process known as ``de-Stalinization.''
In many respects, that speech ushered in an era of re-markable change in Soviet and Eastern European politics. And yet Khrushchev failed to bring about the qualitative change in Soviet life that he promised and was ultimately turned out from office in disgrace. And the period of relatively open expression that his speech sparked proved to be short lived.
Yet Kremlin spokesman Leonid Zamyatin says the congress opening today means a ``new stage'' of history, one ``aimed at a qualitative change in our society's life.''
Another Kremlin official, Vadim Zagladin, dismissed as coincidental the fact that this ``new stage'' was coming exactly three decades after the Khruschev speech.
Yet history has a strong hold on this land and its people. And the enduring hope for change here is tempered by skepticism, rooted in the knowledge that Gorbachev will be facing serious obstacles in bringing it about.
The parallels between Gorbachev and Khrushchev, while easily overdrawn, are nonetheless striking. Both came into office saddled with the legacy of a man who had held power for years -- then, it was Stalin, now it is the late Leonid Brezhnev.
Both promised to expose and correct the mistakes of the past. With Khrushchev, it was the zealous denunciation of the excesses of Stalin. With Gorbachev, it is veiled, but nonetheless harsh criticism of the sloth and corruption of Brezhnev's tenure in office.
Above all, both men promised change. Khrushchev, at the 20th party congress, pledged that the party ``will lead the people along the Leninist path to new successes, to new victories.''
Mr. Zamyatin, on the eve of the congress, promised a renewed effort to ensure that party officials will henceforth ``concentrate on the needs of the people.''
``He [Gorbachev] is certainly serious about it,'' says one government official.
``It's all noise,'' says a dubious Muscovite. ``I don't believe any of it.''
Nevertheless, Gorbachev has pledged himself to a major overhaul of the Soviet political and economic system. He has already replaced scores of aged or corrupt party officials. Western analysts expect that at the end of the congress, when a new party central committee is named, at least half the membership will be new. If the turnover is even greater, says one, it will be a rough indicator of support for Gorbachev's reform initiatives.
The congress will also adopt a number of documents that bear Gorbachev's hallmark. One, for example, a long-range economic plan until the year 2,000, pledges a virtual doubling in the country's national income and its industrial output.
And a party program will be adopted to replace one fashioned by Khrushchev. The new program drops promises that a near-Utopian society is at hand, and instead says the party ``does not set itself the aim of foreseeing in detail the features of full Communism.''
The party cannot help but see in detail the immense challenges facing the Soviet Union at present, however. Falling oil prices are causing this country -- the world's largest oil producer -- millions of dollars in foreign exchange earnings. That, in turn, makes it more difficult for the Soviet Union to import more technology from the West. Yet new technology, as Gorbachev has noted, is essential to improving Soviet economic performance.
And the Soviets must spend some 60 percent of oil revenues on importing grain, even from this country's ideological nemesis, the United States. Grain harvest figures have been so disappointing in recent years that the Soviets simply stopped publishing them in 1981.
Moreover, Soviet standing in the world is ``pretty bleak,'' says one Western diplomat. Soviet influence in many regions -- notably in Africa -- seems to be on the wane, he says -- and the Soviets are doubtless aware of the slippage. Nevertheless, the diplomat says that Gorbachev will doubtless ``express a great faith in the ideology and principles of the regime.''
His message of revitalization and renewal is primarily one ``for the believers,'' the diplomat says.
The challenge, it seems, will be to count more Soviet citizens among those believers. For, as Gorbachev said recently, ``The main thing in the entire political process is translating decision made into reality.''
Without this, he said, ``There is no policy.''
``We wage a determined struggle,'' he said, for ``words to be matched by deeds.''
Khrushchev, speaking three decades ago, would doubtless have agreed.