What if, despite all the obstacles, Mikhail Gorbachev is able to realize his dream of creating a modern communist superpower? Will it produce a more persuasive rival to the West, or a more amenable partner?
The short answer to these questions is that no one really knows.
Some Western observers are trying to balance the pros and cons of successful reforms; others reject any chance of success.
Soviet leaders have yet to make any clear pronouncement on the subject, other than emphasizing forcefully that reform does not mean an abandonment of socialist ideals.
It does, however, seem probable that successful reforms would be accompanied by intensified ideological competition between the Soviet Union and the West - conducted, the Soviets, hope, on a more equal footing than before.
``If restructuring works, its impact will be gigantic,'' says playwright Mikhail Shatrov. ``The power of the example of a modern Soviet Union will be tremendous. The horrible image that Stalin's terror left [on the world] will finally be overcome.''
Mr. Shatrov probably sums up the hopes of many Communist Party members. His plays are strongly anti-Stalinist, and he is personally acquainted with several of the country's top leaders.
If restructuring is successful, the United States will be seen in a more critical light than it now is, Shatrov believes. ``The US has one of the highest standards of living in the world, but the way of life it projects to the rest of the world - materialism, moral values, etc. - is open to debate.''
Communist Party officials make it clear that an awareness of having fallen behind the West is one of the driving forces behind reform.
``Many of our own mistakes in internal policy have allowed [President] Reagan to depict us as a mistake of history,'' says one official.
Soviet leader Gorbachev and his allies obviously want to prove Mr. Reagan wrong. Like Shatrov, they see the present policies as a chance to prove that communism is a better system both in theory and in practice than capitalist democracies.
Some top leaders apparently want to intensify the ideological competition right away.
Yegor Ligachev, the No. 2 member of the ruling Politburo, has called for a more pugnacious, self-confident attitude toward the West on such issues as human rights. Genrikh Borovik, whom Mr. Ligachev has publicly praised for having the right stuff in this respect, was appointed head of the Soviet peace committee this week. Mr. Borovik, a writer, is currently working on a biography of the British double agent Kim Philby and also recently conducted a televised interview with Edward Lee Howard, an American defector to the Soviet Union who worked for the US Central Intelligence Agency.
In a speech this month, Ligachev told party workers that the reforms had already undermined some of the traditional Western anti-Soviet arguments.
The reforms refuted the idea that socialism had no future and that the Soviet Union was a closed society, he claimed. In response to this, the country's enemies were stepping up their efforts to discredit it and slow down its development, he added.
Alexander Yakovlev, a candidate (nonvoting) member of the Politburo and probably Gorbachev's closest associate, also apparently wants to step up the competition between ideologies. Moreover, in an article published here several months ago, Mr. Yakovlev predicted that by the year 2000 - Gorbachev's target date for the transformation of the Soviet Union - the US will have ceased to be the undisputed leader of the noncommunist world. Possibilities for cooperation seen
Some Soviet analysts see more room in the future for cooperation.
``My long-term threat perception centers not on the US or the West but on Japan and China,'' said one foreign policy analyst.
``Japan has a huge technological potential. China a huge demographic potential.'' Given these ``emerging superpowers,'' the analyst said, both Moscow and Washington should start reassessing their perceptions of the world.
A senior Western diplomat in Moscow feels that the reinvigoration of the Soviet system would increase the Soviet challenge to the noncommunist world. But ``on balance, the pluses will just about outweigh the minuses'' for the West.
``The changes will lead inevitably to a more complex and pluralist society,'' the diplomat said. If the reforms are pushed through, Moscow will have to deal with new phenomena such as public opinion, and ``they will find it more difficult to pursue a consistent and coherent foreign policy. In other words, they'll have some of the same problems we do.''
``On the other hand, if the military superpower becomes an economic superpower, then Soviet capacity for economic aid [to the developing world] - an area in which they have been particularly unsuccessful in the last few decades - will be considerably increased.'' Reforms may pose challenge to West
``Equally, a reformed Soviet society - with no or very few political prisoners, cultural freedom, greater freedom to travel - would pose a greater challenge to the West in propaganda terms. It would become much more attractive, particularly to the third world,'' the diplomat concluded.
A former colleague of the Western diplomat, the outgoing US Ambassador Arthur Hartman, feels it is too early to ponder the implications of successful reforms.
Gorbachev's approach so far, he said in an interview before his departure, was limited essentially to ``exhortation plus a little better organization on the farm.''
Real improvement, Mr. Hartman said, would mean a change in the system.
``And that's not what Gorbachev is after.'' Last in a three-part series. Gorbachev: two years in power 1985 March 11: Mikhail Gorbachev named party leader. July 1: Andrei Gromyko named President, replaced as foreign minister by Eduard Shevardnadze July 29: Gorbachev announces unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests until Jan. 1, 86. Extended beyond that date several times. Oct. 2-5: Gorbachev begins four-day visit to France, his first to West since coming to power. Nov. 19-21: Superpower summit in Geneva. Reagan and Gorbachev spoke privately for about five hours. 1986 Feb. 11: Dissident Anatoly Shcharansky released to West in prisoner swap. Feb. 25-March 6: 27th Party Congress. Gorbachev's economic plans approved. April 18: Gorbachev speaks to East German party congress. April 26: Accident at Chernobyl nuclear reactor. May 14: Gorbachev makes his first public statement on Chernobyl; extends nuclear-test moratorium. June 30: Gorbachev speaks at Polish party congress. July 28: Gorbachev gives major speech in Vladivostok on Asian relations. Aug. 30: US journalist Nicholas Daniloff seized in Moscow. Exchanged, in essence, a month later for Soviet spy Gennady Zakharov. Oct. 5: Dissident Yuri Orlov arrives in New York from Moscow. Oct. 11-12: Iceland superpower summit. Leaders fail to reach historic arms accord proposed by Gorbachev. Nov. 25-29: Gorbachev visits India. Dec. 5: Soviets pledge to abide by SALT II ``for the time being,'' despite US's Nov. 28 violation. Dec. 7: Riots in Kazakhstan, after ethnic Russian replaces local plarty boss. Dec. 23: Andrei Sakharov freed from internal exile. 1987 Jan. 27-28: Party Central Committee plenum. Gorbachev calls for democratization, including election by secret ballot and multi-candidatures. Feb. 5: Soviets end nuclear-test moratorium. Feb. 10: Announcement that 140 dissidents being released. Feb. 28: Gorbachev proposes elimination of Soviet and US medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe.