IT is ironic that the big flap last week in the Soviet Union - Boris Yeltsin's apparent threat to resign from the Politburo - should have occurred on the pro-reform side, rather than the conservative side of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Yeltsin has been a Gorbachev prot'eg'e and a champion of his glasnost (openness, or more accurately, publicity) and perestroika, or restructuring. Indeed, Yeltsin has voiced reform ideas which Mr. Gorbachev himself was said to support, but to be unable to advocate himself without undercutting his own ability to function as conciliator and consensus-builder.
Yeltsin had grown impatient; change was coming too slowly for him. Hence the threat to resign.
Gorbachev might have expected opposition on his other side, from the recalcitrant bureaucrats who are presumably less than eager for change; indeed, he is presumably getting opposition, or at least resistance.
In his dramatic speech Monday to mark the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, he denounced Stalin's ``unforgivable crimes'' and promised to fill in the ``blank pages'' of Soviet history - which has over the years reduced important figures to mere ``nonpersons.'' He promised the ``rehabilitation'' of many of those whose reputations, as well as lives, were destroyed during the Stalin era. One possible candidate for such rehabilitation eventually is Nikolai Bukharin, whose advocacy of a mixed-market economy may be seen as a prescient call for today's perestroika.
But Gorbachev measured his words. His speech did not go much further than Nikita Khrushchev, whom he praised, did in the mid-1950s, when ``de-Stalinization'' began. He referred to ``victims'' of the Stalin era without explicitly saying that these victims were executed, by the millions.
Gorbachev knows where he is going, but is having to do some pushing and pulling to make sure he brings people along with him. He is well into his third year in power. Whatever ``honeymoon'' glow a Soviet politician may be presumed to enjoy is fading. There isn't yet that much to show for perestroika, and indeed, things are likely to get worse for the ordinary Soviet citizen before they get much better. People are going to have to work harder, and give up some of the security and personal flexibility that slipshod industrial management has afforded them, before they see improved living standards.
On the international front, his willingness to take risks, to make concessions, to baffle the United States by actually acceding to longstanding American demands, has given him an edge in superpower relations and certainly captured the imagination of Western Europe. It can only help the Soviet Union if arms control and other means of lessening political tensions can translate into redirection of resources away from defense. But obviously he will be in trouble at home if the Kremlin thinks he has given away the store.
This is one of those turning points in Soviet history. It is not clear how long Gorbachev and glasnost may last. But if he moves carefully enough, Gorbachev has the opportunity to make some real changes in the Soviet Union - and the world.