AFTER a months-long buildup, the promised fireworks between conservatives and reformers at the 28th Congress the Soviet Communist Party have failed to take place. Instead, inside the gargantuan Kremlin's Palace of Congresses, it is like being inside a bubble of status-quo Soviet communism, a feeling easily explained by the fact that the party's most liberal wing, the Democratic Platform, was almost completely shut out in the elections for delegates.
Indeed, this week's Congress packed the hall with delegates who owe their livelihoods to the party. The scene is a sea of gray suits, punctuated by uniforms and colorful dresses of women delegates from Muslim republics.
``I'm here to help the party consolidate the forces that want to strengthen it,'' says Alexander Tarasenko, first secretary of the Ukrainian city party committee of Znamenka.
Mr. Tarasenko's standard communist line - given after much careful consideration as he faces perhaps his first interview by a Western reporter - is a typical response for most delegates interviewed at random during breaks in the proceedings.
These, in short, are the people who really run most of the Soviet Union - the party secretaries of cities, towns, and factories all over the country. There is little reason to believe they will reform the system into one that leads to their unemployment.
Mr. Tarasenko, for example, feels Politburo members speeches were ``constructive.'' He singles out one by Yegor Ligachev, the Politburo's standard-bearer, who, Tarasenko says, is laudable for his stability. ``He hangs on to his position.''
And what about the appearance by Alexander Yakovlev, whose very liberal speech was given surprisingly warm reception? ``Well, he does make an impression,'' Tarasenko replies cautiously.
Tarasenko's diffidence, it turns out, was shared by many of the delegates - scores of whom complained after the first day to the Foreign Ministry press department that they were being accosted by Western journalists during breaks in the proceedings.
Journalists themselves have been heard muttering their own complaints, along the lines of ``When's the action going to begin?'' On opening day, during President Gorbachev's forceful but fairly standard speech, some delegates were seen sleeping or reading.
So far, the Democratic Platform's 100-plus delegates (out of 4,683) have been lying low. The city of Moscow's ruling duo, Gavril Popov and Sergei Stankevich, usually not shy of microphones or press, have not been heard from. Boris Yeltsin pointedly snubbed Mr. Gorbachev by missing the July 3 session, opting instead to convene the first session of the Russian Republic parliament.
Still, ideological schisms have occasionally burst through the surface calm, in the corridors. One shouting match, between Leningrad's liberal mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, and some collective farm leaders quickly drew a crowd.
``You pumped billions of rubles into agriculture and nothing happened,'' Mr. Sobchak screamed. ``You can pump even a billion more rubles and nothing will happen. Land should be given to owners as their private property.''
The farm leaders' response was not audible. But after the dust settles, one sighs to reporters, ``Guys like Sobchak ... misinterpret the existing agricultural system, because they have no idea what happens in the soul of the peasant.''
It was the kind of scene Gorbachev has tried mightily to keep out of the formal proceedings - much to the relief of party regulars, and the tedium of the 1,000 foreign journalists.