The success or failure of reform in the Soviet Union will depend largely on the relationship between two men: Mikhail Gorbachev and his No. 2 in the Communist Party hierarchy, Yegor Ligachev. Few know what that relationship really is. Guesses range from the belief that the two men are at total loggerheads to the belief that their differences are based on temperament, not substance.
A senior Soviet official who has watched the two men in closed-door meetings describes them as different in temperament and in the speed with which they feel reforms should be adopted.
Mr. Gorbachev wants rapid change, the official says. Mr. Ligachev fears that too much haste could spoil the chances of reform. Ligachev supports reform, the official asserts, but he ``represents the moderate leadership'' that wants ``slower implementation'' of the new programs.
Although he says the two are not adversaries, the official's description of their relationship leaves open the possibility of future clashes. It also implies that opponents of radical change could eventually look to Ligachev for leadership.
When they appear together in small meetings, the officials says, Gorbachev and Ligachev are a study in contrasts. Gorbachev is an energetic and sometimes excited participant, often gesticulating to make his point. Ligachev, on the other hand, often sits quietly and very still, sometimes not speaking until the very end.
One point that Ligachev often makes, the official notes, is a simple one: ``Why are we in such a hurry?'' Gorbachev, on the other hand, wants to move fast, the official says. This need for speed is accepted by most leaders, the official maintains. And, he adds, the haste is justified: ``If we move more slowly, we will lose.''
Ligachev's position in the leadership is both vague and wide ranging. He holds the informal rank of second secretary in the ruling Politburo. Essentially this makes him Gorbachev's ``understudy,'' Soviet sources say, and as such allows him to choose his own responsibilities.
Like his recent predecessors in the position, Ligachev has reportedly taken a special interest in ideology and cadre affairs (the staffing of the top echelons of the party structure). His other interests include foreign policy and the economy.
Western specialists on the Soviet Union say that the Soviet Communist hierarchy usually tries to choose a second secretary who is independent of a new party leader, and who can thus act as a counterbalance.
Ligachev, however, may already have lost some of his authority. Alexander Yakovlev, a candidate (nonvoting) member of the Politburo and a close associate of Gorbachev, seems increasingly to be assuming the key role of the ideologist of perestroika (restructuring, the shorthand term for Gorbachev's reform program). Responsibility for personnel, meanwhile, is apparently shared with Georgy Razumovsky, a member of the party's influential Central Committee Secretariat.
Plainly, Ligachev's character and views are less clear cut than many Western or Soviet observers believe.
Ten years older than Gorbachev, Ligachev spent much of his career in Siberia. He seemed to fall into disfavor under Leonid Brezhnev, and spent 18 years, until 1983, as party chief of the Siberian region of Tomsk. As such, he aptly fits Gorbachev's recent description of the current leadership as people who sat ``on the periphery'' watching with dismay the buildup of problems in the '70s. He has the reputation of being tough on corruption and a strong supporter - some reports say the initiator - of the present anti-alcohol campaign. He is depicted as forthright, a disciplinarian, more conservative and less innovative than Gorbachev.
Ligachev has, however, openly disagreed, so far successfully, with one pet project of Gorbachev's - limiting the tenure of party officials. Western observers here note that Ligachev's recent speeches have been made in out-of-the-way places like Saratov, on the Volga River.
His statements on key policy issues have tended to reinforce his conservative image. But his unpublicized actions have on a number of recent occasions considerably modified his tough public line. He has appeared to take a cautious line in the debate over the reassessment of the Soviet Union's past, and especially of Stalinism.
Although Ligachev said in a recent speech that ``we are for an honest and open view'' of the past, he also said ``we are decisively against ... the depiction of our history as a series of mistakes and disappointments.'' And after noting that some long-unpublished writers have recently been published, Ligachev warned against exaggerating the value of the newly published works.
An official who has discussed literature with him was struck by Ligachev's knowledge and appreciation of Nikolai Gumilev and Alexander Tvardovsky - two of the more controversial poets of the Soviet period, and two of the latest writers to be republished. Gumilev was shot in 1921 for his alleged participation in an anti-Bolshevik coup, and has been rehabilitated only in recent months. A long anti-Stalinist poem by Tvardovsky was published earlier this year after 20 years' suppression.
Moreover, despite his reputation for a lack of innovation, as a young party official in the late '50s he played an active role in setting up the Siberian settlement of Academogorodok, now one of the country's main scientific research centers.
But on one important issue Ligachev takes a consistently pugnacious line. He regularly calls for Moscow to be more aggressive in defending its human rights image and attacking the West's. There is no Jewish problem in the Soviet Union, Ligachev asserted at a recent meeting. The issue of Jewish emigration is ``maliciously exaggerated'' by the West. ``We have to persistently unmask the dirty work of Western intelligence agencies who entice Soviet citizens overseas.''