SOMEWHERE, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin must be rubbing his eyes in wonder. Soviet citizens by the millions have voted in a free and open election in which the very structure and purpose of the state have been questioned. Thousands of candidates were selected in a town meeting atmosphere where many Communist Party hacks learned the true meaning of glasnost and perestroika.
Yes, it's easy to be cynical about this historic exercise in democracy, Soviet-style. No serious talk of a real multi-party system yet. An army of 18 million bureaucrats is still in place. And doubts remain about how much power the new 2,250-member Congress of People's Deputies will have. But last summer's party conference - the first in nearly 50 years - whetted appetites for something new, and now that it's been tasted, political palates are forever changed.
With the election afterglow fading, the bulk of Mikhail Gorbachev's challenge becomes more obvious and more imperative. The problems: How to control the democratic cat now that it's out of the bag? Liberals and conservatives will both be testing the political limits. How to deal with Baltic and other nationalistic groups? They're already pushing for economic independence.
And the toughest problem of all: how to build a healthy economy? The Soviet Union imports 36 million tons of grain a year because 20 percent of domestic crops are lost to bureaucratic mismanagement. Agricultural subsidies amount to 18 percent of the Soviet budget, contributing to a deficit three times the US's.
The Soviet leader is betting all this political openness (glasnost) will impel economic restructuring (perestroika). But how much time does he have? Very few Soviet citizens feel their standard of living has improved during the four years Gorbachev has been in power. The overwhelming election victory of gadfly Boris Yeltsin in Moscow - who's been calling for an end to official privilege and the dismantling of the power of the party bureaucracy - is a clear indication of discontent.
But Comrade Yeltsin has also been urging even more radical reform and an acceleration of perestroika, so there is certainly more desire for change. ``We are passing through the most difficult years now,'' Gorbachev told a crowd in Kiev recently. But he reminded them that the Soviet Union has seen far worse in its short history, and he urged them not to ``lose heart.'' That's our wish for the Soviet people too as we welcome their important step toward democracy.