THE best way to see how glasnost is and is not changing the Soviet Union is to look at religion. More than even freedom of speech or press, true religious freedom would be incompatible with the regime Lenin built. Religion offers a source of authority beyond government - not just to intellectuals, but to millions of ordinary people. Its claims strike at the metaphysical and emotional core of Marxism; given his premises, Lenin was right to insist that ``there is nothing more abominable than religion.'' Even Nikita Khrushchev, who relaxed censorship on secular intellectuals, intensified religious persecution.
But in the last two years, Moscow has made more concessions to religious believers than in the previous seven decades. The only comparable period is the reversal of Stalin's anti-religious policies during the Nazi invasion. Why? What next?
It is difficult to say. One might heed 'emigr'e Russian writer Andrei Sinyavsky: ``The Soviet system is made up of massive, heavy blocks ... well suited to the suppression of human freedom, but not to revealing, nourishing and stimulating it. On the whole, it resembles an Egyptian pyramid. ... Can you rebuild a pyramid into the Parthenon?''
The most welcome changes in the USSR are the most fragile - and they may have far from welcome motives. Last year, for example, the head of the agency that regulates churches gave a secret speech at Moscow's Higher Party School, notes of which were obtained by 'emigr'e journalists. Soviet official Konstantin Kharchev told his colleagues that Moscow's greatest success in controlling religion has been with the above-ground, legally registered Orthodox bishops and priests; far more troublesome are believers who go underground, ``over whom we completely lose control.''
Mr. Kharchev has since been reassigned, but in keeping with his strategy the regime has registered hundreds of new Orthodox parishes. About half of these are in heavily Roman Catholic western Ukraine; Russia's Orthodox heartland, by contrast, still has fewer than one-tenth as many churches as before the Bolshevik coup. By continuing to restrict worship in fervently Orthodox villages while promoting it in Catholic ones, Gorbachev is using the church as a tool to promote nationalism in a region with strong separatist leanings, just as Stalin did.
More radical is Moscow's new approach to charitable activities. After decades in which the very word ``charity'' was banned from Soviet dictionaries - on the ground that socialism had made private philanthropy obsolete - officials are now encouraging believers to serve as volunteers in state hospitals. But significantly, Christians are allowed more access to institutions for the elderly than to children's wards. And the idea of letting churches start their own hospitals or schools is not even up for discussion.
Even these concessions to religious charity could be ended overnight simply by enforcing laws from the Stalin era that remain on the books. One key statute, the Law on Religious Associations, bars churches from any corporate activity other than formal worship services. For several years Soviet spokesmen have said that new religious legislation is on the way; many drafts have been circulated. But action is constantly postponed.
Kent Hill's new book ``The Puzzle of the Soviet Church'' suggests that the most sweeping revisions will advance religious freedom only if they are implemented in practice. The West has shown ``a strong tendency to mistake rhetoric for reality,'' he writes. ``The Soviets admit the existence of a problem, declare their intention to correct it, and we rush to consider the promise an accomplished fact.''
If Lenin were alive, he might well support the current flexibility toward religion. He combined doctrinal fanaticism with tactical opportunism. He would see that open persecution has failed: Russia has scores of millions of believers, including more intellectuals and young people than in decades.
By co-opting these citizens instead of jailing them, Moscow splits potential opponents in the Russian nationalist movement; rallies support from the alienated masses, crucial in the absence of economic progress; strengthens its campaign for sobriety, work, and family; alleviates labor shortages in fields like nursing; and wins praise abroad for becoming more ``democratic.''
But religious glasnost also risks consequences that Lenin would find less welcome: increasingly explicit religious messages in literature and film, new scope for Orthodox dissidents such as Aleksandr Ogorodnikov and Fr. Gleb Yakunin, and growing calls for a genuine separation of church and state, including an end to discrimination against believers. The West should be working to maximize such risks. That means we should avoid premature celebration.