STARTING with Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, Russia's rulers have attempted major reforms every 50 years or so. The tempo has increased this century, but the success rate has not. Mikhail Gorbachev's plans for reform are among the most ambitious ever attempted. Like Peter the Great (who ruled from 1682 to 1725), he is attempting to drag his vast country into modernity - in this case, to transform it into a technologically advanced superpower. Like Russian reformers of the 19th century, he wants to overhaul the structures of the country. He is also trying a third, equally daunting task: to restore people's faith in the system.
As he attempts this, Mr. Gorbachev is faced with many of the problems that thwarted his predecessors: the entrenched interests of the dominant class; a massive, immovable bureaucracy; and a delicate ethnic balance between Russians and other nationalities.
Gorbachev's analysis and some of his approaches are reminiscent of earlier Russian reformers. Like Peter Chaadayev (1794-1856), Gorbachev speaks of the country's ``stagnation.'' And like Chaadayev, he sees his country playing a special role in world history, if it can break out of its retardation. Czar Nicholas I had Chaadayev declared insane. In 1856, as Russia was emerging from 30 years of stagnation similar to today, a prominent intellectual called on Czar Alexander II to allow a free press as a way to restore communications between ruler and ruled. Alexander was assassinated in 1881.
Gorbachev looks for inspiration to the leadership of Lenin. Today's reformers call for a restoration of Leninism, which they define as a more flexible, less dogmatic approach to social change.
More-conservative leaders may, however, remember another aspect of Lenin's rule: the constant political disputes; the leaders who leaked the date of the October 1917 Revolution; Leon Trotsky's defiance of the government's instructions during armistice negotiations with the Germans in 1918; or the military opposition that opposed the reintroduction of ranks into the Red Army.
Reformers now openly declare their debt to Nikita Khrushchev, the last leader seriously to attempt reform. Until recently Khrushchev, overthrown in 1964 by Leonid Brezhnev and others, was a nonperson. His brief period in power, however, was the intellectual turning point in the lives of most reformers, who were just entering adult life at the time of the 20th Communist Party Congress, in 1956, when Khrushchev began his attack on Joseph Stalin's crimes.
Gorbachev, like Lenin and Khrushchev before him, is trying to reduce the power of the bureaucracy. So far, however, the bureaucracy has never been beaten.