THE Soviet Union I found on my arrival in June 1986 was little different from the country I had known on brief visits as a student in the late 1960s. It remained a demonstrably authoritarian regime, even though its new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was toying with some rather daring modifications. Mr. Gorbachev's new ideas, however, had not touched the essence of the regime or the empire it controlled. Power was the monopoly of the Communist Party; Eastern Europe was stagnant but passive.
Dissidents were dissidents: Andrei Sakharov was in exile in Gorky. The literary critic Lev Timofeev was arrested a couple of months after Gorbachev came to power. The veteran activist Anatoly Marchenko died in prison in December 1986. The anti-Stalinist historian Roy Medvedev lived in isolation. Demonstrations by a handful of would-be Jewish emigrants were broken up on the Arbat, Moscow's historic shopping precinct, by plainclothes men who clearly enjoyed their work.
There were, to be sure, changes. A member of the ruling Politburo had made history a few months before I arrived by speaking to foreign journalists; a new government spokesman named Gennady Gerasimov was actually willing to answer questions instead of denounce Western correspondents. A couple of magazines like Ogonyok were, veteran correspondents noted with something approaching awe, regularly publishing controversial articles.
The Soviet Union of today is totally different. It defies political labels. The political system is not being reformed: It is being disassembled. Week by week the structures - and more important, the ideas underpinning those structures - are being chipped away. Watching this process, I find it difficult to decide what impresses me most: the speed with which the basic political and social tenets of the Soviet system - unquestioning belief in the armed forces, the party's unquestioned right to rule - are being rejected, or the passive way in which conservative party leaders watch their world crumbling around them.
Five years ago, Moscow correspondents were still para-diplomats, poring over speeches for variations in punctuation or syntax that might indicate a glacial shift in policy. Three years ago we were still part-time Kremlinologists. Now we are journalists: We phone people at home, we talk on and off the record, and we are learning fast that, when a top leader in the present leadership says he is expressing a personal opinion, he really is giving us his own thoughts. A couple of years ago senior officials did not have their own thoughts.
These days we are also part-time lobby correspondents. Every Monday and Tuesday we can go to the Supreme Soviet, the country's new parliament. There we can mix with deputies during recess, grab a minister or Central Committee member for a quick quote, then go back and listen to the country's new parliamentarians - people like Roy Medvedev and Mr. Sakharov.
It's hard to say how this change took place. But with hindsight, it's now obvious that signs of profound change were discernible at least by early 1987.
The reform spectrum among top leaders was already beginning to polarize by the start of 1987. Around then Soviet officials were beginning to note a difference in emphasis between Gorbachev and Yegor Ligachev, then his No. 2 - since demoted but still powerful. One official summed up the difference in a small phrase that Ligachev regularly used in policy meetings. While other leaders would push for fast change, the official said, Mr. Ligachev would protest mildly: ``Comrades, why are we in such a hurry?''
Today Ligachev and Gorbachev have little in common, and do not try hard to hide this. At the time, however, this was not something that officials considered proper to discuss openly. When I wrote an article on Gorbachev-Ligachev tensions, a Soviet official leaving for an overseas posting asked for a copy. It had, he explained, caused ``agitation'' among some of his colleagues.
Then in the middle of 1987, a regular source told me of his recent meeting with Gorbachev. The next few years, Gorbachev had reportedly said, would be a time of political and economic ``ferment.'' I wrote a story based on this, but then was tormented with doubt: Was I hyping a story? Now the prediction seems laughably modest.
Early in 1988, the Baltic region was still calm and apparently untouched by the ferment in Moscow. That February, I spoke in Tallinn to an Estonian painter who had been involved in nationalist agitation of the late '60s. A generation of Estonians is coming of age, he said, young adults who are no longer afraid of the KGB (the Soviet secret police). He spoke of the demonstrations there in 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and of Indrek Toome, the Estonian Communist Party youth leader who was apparently shunted off to Moscow afterward for showing too much sympathy toward the demonstrations.
``The only reason we have been quiet since the late '60s is because of the KGB,'' he said. Once that pressure was lifted, he predicted, there would be a nationalist revival.
Seven months later the Estonian Popular Front was formed. It has become the dominant political force in Estonia. In two months' time, Estonia and its Baltic neighbors will take over responsibility for their own economic development. Estonia is also planning to issue its own currency. The man who has been negotiating much of this in Moscow is the republic's prime minister, Indrek Toome.
For me, however, one of the pivotal events was not a Gorbachev speech, a Communist Party plenum, or the 19th party conference. It was a work of fiction. In June 1987 Novy Mir, the country's paramount literary journal - headed these days by a noncommunist, the crusty old Siberian writer Sergei Zalygin - published Andrei Platonov's ``Kotlo van'' (``The Foundation Pit''). The story had been written in 1929, but had never been published in the Soviet Union. People as different as Joseph Brodsky, expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972, and Ivan Laptev, the present editor of the government daily Izvestiya, were convinced that it never would be.
Written in hypnotic and complex language, the story is set in a building site where workers are building the foundations for a new building to be called socialism. In fact, the story destroys the foundations of socialism itself. The willingness of the new leaders to allow such a work to be published signaled a whole new approach to literature. With its appearance, the party abandoned its monopoly on thought, and showed that it was willing to allow not only a reassessment of Soviet history, but a fundamental questioning of the regime's origins.
It is this attitude toward ideas that has transformed Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union, and it is this attitude that - if it is allowed to achieve its logical conclusion - will bring about the most profound change the Soviet Union has known since 1917.