AS the TV camera rolled, Soviet essayist Yuri Koryakin checked his notes and launched into another attack on Yegor Ligachev, one of the top-ranking members of the Soviet leadership. He wondered out loud why Mr. Ligachev had not done any military service in World War II; he accused him of banning any obituaries in the Soviet press for the writer Viktor Nekrasov, who died in exile 18 months ago. And he hinted unmistakably at Ligachev's involvement in the Andreyeva affair, an attempt last year to water down the agenda for political and economic reform.
Ligachev should withdraw his candidacy for the coming parliamentary elections, Mr. Koryakin said. People like Ligachev should not be entrusted with the fate of the country, he said, and ``all legal means'' should be used to make sure this never happens.
No one in the audience expressed shock or anger; some looked delighted. The TV correspondent taping the occasion - an award ceremony for the dozen best political essayists of 1988 - looked tired. One of Koryakin's fellow awardees, Andrei Nuykin, also devoted part of his speech to Ligachev, accusing him of trying in the past to censor Soviet television.
Koryakin, Mr. Nuykin, and most of their audience at the ceremony identify themselves with the need for radical change in the Soviet system. Ligachev, who under the disgraced party leader Leonid Brezhnev was uncomfortably reformist, has now become the symbol of communist conservatism - a force that reformers fear is still strong inside the Communist Party apparatus.
The sharpness of the attacks on Ligachev were prompted in part by the approach of a major discussion on agricultural reform scheduled to open today. The issue has sparked intense debate, and the meeting - a long scheduled session of the full Communist Party Central Committee - could prove to be a watershed in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reform program.
At the very least, the meeting will provide an indication of the relative strength of radical reformers and more conservative members of the hierarchy.
Reformers are hoping that the plenary session will make drastic changes in agriculture. They want a sharp de-emphasizing of the collective farm system - until recently hailed as one of the great achievements of communist rule, but now largely dismissed as grossly ineffective. They want to introduce a system of long-term leases that will allow peasants to farm the land as their own; and they want to see a land law that will guarantee long-term tenure of land leased in this way.
They also say that Gosagroprom, the State Agro-Industrial Committee that oversees agriculture and food production, should be disbanded.
Ligachev, who for the last five months has been nominally in charge of agricultural policy, has publicly opposed many of these ideas. He remains passionately committed to the collective farm system.
Collective and state farms ``have withstood the test of time,'' and should remain the foundation of Soviet agricultural policy, he told party officials in the Siberian city of Omsk earlier this month.
Mr. Gorbachev, speaking last month, took a noticeably different approach. The present agricultural system had ``torn the peasant from the land and from nature, [and] he has become a day worker'' on the soil, he said.
Ligachev's objections to possible changes in agriculture appear, however, to go far beyond economic considerations. The new policy would significantly de-ideologize agriculture, limiting party control over the day-to-day functioning of farms.
One of Ligachev's abiding concerns is that the present reforms - by repudiating much of the country's post-revolutionary history and economic theory - is undermining party authority.
Without naming Ligachev, other senior leaders have openly taken issue with this line.
``You don't win or keep authority by covering up uncomfortable truths,'' said one of the Politburo's most radical reformers, Alexander Yakovlev, in a speech late last month in Georgia.
Many Soviet observers, however, feel that Ligachev's concerns are shared by a large proportion of the Communist Party's nationwide administrative structure, often known in Russian as the apparat.
``Ligachev represents the views of the apparat,'' says a senior Soviet official. Many reformers perceive the apparat as being one of the main obstacles and a possible source of open opposition to Gorbachev's reform programs.
The clearest discernible break between Ligachev and radical reformers happened exactly one year ago. An article in the influential newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya, by Leningrad lecturer Nina Andreyeva, attacked reforms and called for the reassertion of what she viewed as the true principles of the Communist Party. Gorbachev was out of the country at the time, and Mr. Yakovlev was just about to leave. Ligachev, at the time the second-ranking Politburo leader, was in charge.
Radicals interpreted the Andreyeva article as a determined effort to revise the reform agenda in a sharply conservative direction. People like Koryakin and another prominent writer Yuri Chernichenko say openly that the Andreyeva article was a ``rehearsal for a coup d''etat.''
Publication of the article was accompanied by successful attempts from the party hierarchy to block any criticism of Ms. Andreyeva's theses. Writers actively involved in the effort to answer the article say that Ligachev was behind the blocking action. Regional party newspapers were reportedly encouraged to reprint the article - a clear signal that it should be considered a statement of policy.
Only back-channel appeals to Gorbachev on his return to Moscow - including a letter from one writer reportedly delivered to Gorbachev by Yakovlev - forced a repudiation of the article.
After that, Ligachev's influence appeared to wane somewhat, although he remained outspoken in his views. In a hastily convened plenum last September he lost his second-ranking position and his ideology portfolio. But he still remains too powerful for the liking of Koryakin and other angry intellectuals.
Koryakin freely admits that Ligachev is something of an obsession with him: ``Everyone has their hang-up. Ligachev is mine.'' But Ligachev's removal from the leadership would, he says, be a ``powerful message'' to party apparatchiks that their days are numbered.