AT times, during Mikhail Gorbachev's Polish visit, it was hard to avoid the feeling that the Poland of today is the Soviet Union of tomorrow. On balance this is not an optimistic thought. First impressions are overwhelmingly in Poland's favor. Warsaw seems brighter and more affluent than Moscow. Restaurants are luxurious by comparison. The hotels are somewhat better, and you don't have to endure the irritation of a security check when you enter them.
Then there is the delightful novelty of being able to travel wherever you wish in the country.
Moscow-based journalists have to request permission, not always granted, at least 48 hours ahead of time, and then stick rigidly to their declared itinerary. If you drive, you are checked at frequent intervals by the police.
In a four-hour drive from Krakow to Warsaw I noticed one booth that had probably been used in the past for checks: A chubby civilian was sleeping in it, his bare feet sticking out the door.
On the other hand, the economy is in a mess. People seem cynical at the chances of any reform working. And some observers seem to be waiting for either a political explosion or economic collapse, or both.
Politically active Poles express a sort of indulgent interest in Soviet reform. This indulgence is partly perhaps an echo of what Fyodor Dostoyevsky used to call ``Polish arrogance'' toward his country. But much of it probably comes from a type of post-reform fatigue.
Poland has already been through reform, a Polish journalist commented. ``And it did not work.''
The few Soviet observers who pay any attention to Poland feel that what the Poles have seen is conservative reform - one that cannot and will not touch the heart of the matter, the political system.
The Polish political climate seems very different from that in the Soviet Union. If Marxist idealism is enjoying a revival in the Soviet Union, in Poland it seems dead.
Political vitality in Poland seems to be the preserve of anticommunists, or at the very least noncommunists. In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, you can still find a lot of intellectuals who believe there is a chance - albeit slender - of reforming the system and creating a humane, non-authoritarian form of socialism.
Anticommunist Poles and some Soviet Marxists share one complaint. Speaking of the political openness in Poland today, a Polish intellectual remarked that you can say whatever you want in the news media, but achieve nothing.
Soviet journalists say much the same thing. Both are faced with bureaucracies that have made an art of inactivity. In both places, for example, nonformal political groups are trying to obtain official recognition, but remain in limbo, neither approved nor banned.
But despite expressions of mutual interest, it is not clear that the even average educated Soviet or Pole knows much about his or her neighbor. The Soviet official media were recently chided for not paying enough attention to Moscow's socialist allies. Newspapers and television have increased their coverage of Eastern Europe, but without much enthusiasm.
``Domestic politics are more interesting,'' a Soviet journalist explained this week. ``Relations with the US are considered more important, and we always have to be careful not to offend our socialist allies.''
Polish journalists working for independent publications were hard pressed to remember visits from Soviet academics or journalists. Marcin Krol of the independent monthly Res Publica could recall about five in the past year.
Only one Soviet journalist seems to have gone a little off the beaten track: Mr. Krol and a journalist at the Roman Catholic newspaper Tygodnik Powszechny both remembered a visit from a correspondent of the weekly Ogonyok, one of the liveliest Soviet publications.
And it is not clear how closely Poles are following events in the Soviet Union. A Soviet reformer might be rather surprised by a comment in Res Publica - a clearly upmarket intellectual and political monthly - that the Soviet Communist Party daily Pravda was playing a major role in ``unmasking enemies of perestroika.'' Many Soviet intellectuals place Pravda on the conservative end of the reform spectrum.
In cultural and social life, both countries seem to be going through a spasm of what might be called post-authoritarian hedonism. In the Soviet Union, actors and actresses (mostly the latter) are celebrating newfound artistic freedom by taking their clothes off. There are at least five plays currently on the Moscow stage which feature some degree of nudity (in one case, bizarrely enough in a play about Pol Pot's Cambodia). At least one current hit movie includes some soft-core scenes.
Poland has gone one step further, with the publication of a pinup magazine called Pan (Sir) with nude centerfolds. At the current rate of change, Moscow is probably less than two years away from this.
Mr. Quinn-Judge is the Monitor's Moscow correspondent