Mikhail Gorbachev told a Soviet visitor this summer that it would take four to five years before the situation in the Soviet Union is ``normalized'' - that is, before the new economic and political reforms that he intends to carry out are working smoothly. Signs of ferment related to the reforms are already clear:
The existence of Pamyat, an extremist Russian nationalist organization, troubles the authorities.
Nationalists in the Soviet republic of Latvia say they will hold their third demonstration this year in the capital, Riga, on Nov. 18.
More discreet, but perhaps more subversive in the long run, is the steady growth of comments by people, often well-placed academics, who are apparently questioning the political basis of the Soviet system.
These developments worry two very different groups in the Soviet leadership. Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranked Soviet leader, and Viktor Chebrikov, chief of the KGB (Soviet secret police), stress the need for discipline. Both have expressed concern in recent speeches that the new atmosphere of openness here could be exploited by Western enemies.
Meanwhile, some of the most radical Soviet reformers fear that a serious ``provocation'' - in the form of popular unrest or a particularly daring political statement - could do major damage to chances for far-reaching restructuring (perestroika) of the system.
Pamyat - ostensibly devoted to the preservation of historic monuments, but in fact anti-Semitic - has been the focus of renewed official criticism in recent weeks. The organization has kept a low profile since it was attacked in the Soviet press several months ago. But supporters of reform say they are worried that it will soon start organizing in Soviet schools and universities.
This reporter and a colleague were recently visited by a man claiming to be the deputy head of Pamyat's ``counterintelligence'' group. He claimed Pamyat had established its own ``self defense'' force and had a well-organized covert organization in the government and the armed forces. He denounced Mr. Gorbachev as a tool of Jews. And he asked for material assistance. When refused, he became menacing. It was unclear whether this was a genuine approach from Pamyat, or an attempt by the authorities or Pamyat to discredit us.
Activity by Pamyat at Soviet schools and universities would be particularly dangerous, a prominent reformer said, because Komsomol, the Communist Party youth group, could not offer effective resistance. ``Our Komsomol is weak and conservative,'' he remarked. Gorbachev, he commented, underestimates the danger from nationalist extremism.
This official expressed the concern that Pamyat receives active encouragement from those in the Soviet hierarchy opposed to change. He outlined his own personal ``nightmare'' of how Pamyat could trigger a backlash against reform: After a particularly inflammatory Pamyat rally, crowds in Moscow go on the rampage. Troops are called in to restore order, and the leadership then feels obliged to limit public debate.
Nationalist sentiment in the Baltic republics is also troubling to the Kremlin. Two previous demonstrations held this summer by Latvian nationalists passed without major intervention by the authorities. But Moscow accused Western radio stations of whipping up support for the demonstrations. (Participants say that plans for a gathering were announced on US-funded Radio Free Europe.) November's demonstration would probably be one of a number held in Baltic states, a participant in earlier demonstrations said.
Finally, hints by some academics and writers that they do not think Soviet-style communism, even as reformed by Gorbachev, will work may in the long run worry the Kremlin most. So far, the number of people who have expressed these heretical views is very limited. But several are writers and teachers who have achieved some degree of prominence in the recent debates on economic reform.
A letter published in May in Novy Mir, a literary journal, cast doubt on the possibility of reforming the Soviet system. It singled out for criticism the Western social democracy of countries like Sweden. There can be no ``third way'' in economic systems, the writer said. ``You cannot be a little pregnant.'' Politicians either have to choose the plans and directives of socialism, or the market forces and competition of capitalism, he wrote.
Later a prominent academic was asked his view of the letter during a lecture to other academics. He dismissed it as a confused piece of thinking, but criticized particularly the writer's comments on the ``problems'' of the Scandinavian countries. ``Would to God that we had such problems,'' he remarked ironically.
The same academic recalled with sympathy the work of Czech economist Ota Sik. An advocate of industrial decentralization, Dr. Sik was a vice-premier under Alexander Dubcek during the Prague Spring of 1968. His work has been ignored in the Soviet Union.
An economic affairs commentator was recently asked if reforms advocated by Gorbachev and others were compatible with Marxism. ``Time will show us whether they are compatible,'' he said. ``I'm not sure they are. But we are dealing with the survival of the country. We can't worry about 19th century theories [like Marxism] when the country is in danger of destruction.''