You are never quite sure what you'll find when you open a Soviet newspaper these days. Perhaps a full-page examination of the drug problem, in which a senior police officer admits that the authorities are baffled by the problem. More often, a biting analysis of incompetence by a minister or a senior Communist Party official.
Or maybe an article that declares that Nikolai Gumilev, one of the finest poets of the century, was unjustly executed -- by the government of Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union's founder, and not by that of dictator Joseph Stalin, whose excesses have long been acknowledged.
Glasnost is the generic term for this new approach; it's an untranslatable word probably best rendered as ``openness.''
The leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev is encouraging the news media to be active, aggressive, and inquiring.
Glasnost, however, does not mean a shift toward Western-style adversary journalism. The official media here are doing what they have always done: reflecting the thoughts, concerns, and plans of the leadership.
The new style of reporting is one of Mr. Gorbachev's main weapons in the war against conservatives opposed to his new policies and against bureaucrats whose incompetence hinders the country's development. It is also seen as an antidote to the political alienation that set in during the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, who led the country from 1964 to 1982.
The new policy has also led to more-open coverage of disasters -- the Chernobyl nuclear accident, for example, or the Aug. 31 sinking of the passenger ship Admiral Nakhimov after a collision with a freighter.
But this coverage has a clear political message: Cover-ups will no longer be tolerated, and officials who make serious mistakes will have to answer for them. This aspect of glasnost, however, has its limits: The sinking of a nuclear submarine on Oct. 3 was given the absolute minimum of domestic coverage.
Gorbachev's revolution is still a guerrilla war. Although he has largely consolidated his political position in the central leadership, the regional party structure -- carefully cultivated by Brezhnev -- has not yet been restructured.
Glasnost is playing a major role in the effort to bring the regions to heel. ``At the present time,'' says a party official, ``glasnost is one of the most intense forms of struggle.''
The change in journalistic tone has been accompanied this year by a shake-up of the media world, in which at least 20 senior officials have been replaced.
Although Gorbachev seems to have the backing of the country's main newspapers, the very important regional and local media (there are 8,000 newspapers and journals published regularly in the country) are lagging behind. This, officials say, is largely because of the influence of the local party leadership.
``Many party officials in the provinces feel that there is far too much glasnost these days,'' one official says.
The regional and local party structures carry enormous clout. One campaign by the most influential paper in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party daily Pravda, illustrates both the power and the limitations of glasnost -- and therefore of Gorbachev's own authority.
In late August, Pravda carried a lengthy attack on the Communist Party organization in Cherkassy, an important area of the Ukraine. An innovative and dynamic new factory manager had been falsely dismissed. He appealed and was vindicated. Instead of reinstating the manager, the Cherkassy party committee expelled him from the party. Petitions on his behalf, Pravda said, were suppressed by the local leadership. A central committee plenary session chaired by Gorbachev himself then took up the issue. The Cherkassy party organization paid no attention.
At this point, Pravda launched its own investigation. It found local communists generally unsympathetic to the victimized executive: His case had ``blackened the name'' of the area throughout the country, workers of his old factory told Pravda. In its findings, Pravda singled out the Cherkassy party chief, I. Lutak, a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, for special criticism. About 10 of Mr. Lutak's principal subordinates were also criticized, mostly by name -- their sins included harassing local journalists and obstructing press inquiries. The attack was rare in its detail, and the case was described as a classic example of the way party conservatives were ``sabotaging'' Gorbachev's policies.
A month later, Pravda carried a letter from Ukrainian party chief Vladimir Shcherbitsky detailing the steps taken in response to the article. It was clear that the paper had scored only a partial success. The most senior figure, Lutak, was given a reprimand. One of his subordinates was also reprimanded, and two others dismissed. No other officials were mentioned.
If the opponents of glasnost can still blunt the edge of media criticism, even its advocates want to limit its scope.
Criticism by the news media, the advocates say, must be supportive: It should help evaluate the effectiveness of new policies and expose their failings or any obstruction to their being carried out. The media should encourage people to get involved in change. But there is no sign that the present leadership is willing to countenance questioning of the system.
Speaking recently to theater directors and actors, Yegor Ligachev, the No. 2 man in the Kremlin, summed up the leadership's thinking. Criticism should be ``creative and constructive,'' Mr. Ligachev said, and it should emphasize ``faith in the strength of the party and the Soviet people.''
Supporters of glasnost and of Gorbachev see the new openness of the media developing an irresistible force for change.
The policy already seems to have strengthened popular support for Gorbachev. The cogency and detail of his explanation of the Iceland summit, for example, appear to have impressed even the more apolitical Muscovites.
Many people, however, remain uncertain that the new approach can break through the inertia of the last decade.
Commenting on glasnost, one well-entrenched member of the elite remarks that ``Gorbachev's big hope -- I think his only hope -- is to get people used to reading the truth in the official media.''