However dramatic the changes that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has worked in the Soviet Union over the last five years, they were just a prologue to the battle now being waged over the future of the country.
The struggle is over the nature of its political system, the type of economy it will have, how it will use its remaining influence as a superpower, what kind of society it will be. Far more than a political debate, this is a struggle for power, for wealth and, ultimately, for a different way of life.
Nothing is untouched. From consumer goods sold in neighborhood stores to food on the table for dinner; from management of the country's factories and farms to the guarantee of lifetime employment that workers here enjoy; from the lessons children are taught in school to the stories newspapers publish and the films movie theaters show; from resolutions of the local village council to laws enacted by the Supreme Soviet, the national legislature--everything is affected.
The struggle gains in intensity each day, and it will sharpen further this week as delegates to the Soviet Communist Party's 28th congress attempt to settle some of the fundamental issues facing the nation and to elect leaders able to guide it through the turmoil.
"Everything depends on this congress, simply everything," Veniamin A. Yarin, a Siberian steelworker and a member of the Presidential Council, said in an interview. "The whole nation feels we are at a crossroads, a crucial point in our history, a time when absolutely every question is open and virtually none has been settled. This has plunged the nation into an even deeper crisis.
"While we do not expect this congress to answer all questions and resolve every issue, we do want it to decide the direction we should take and the people who will lead. . . . Struggle is important when the issues are important--and this is the struggle of an epoch, for the next century--but we must now move forward."
Indeed, this sense of crisis is widespread. Partly because the promises of Gorbachev's reform program, perestroika, have not been fulfilled and partly because the reforms have often aggravated the country's problems rather than resolved them, another crisis--one of confidence in Gorbachev and perestroika --has been added to those developed over the seven decades of Soviet rule.
Despite Gorbachev's reforms--or because of them, his conservative critics contend--the Soviet economy has declined further and is now shrinking. The system of state ownership and central planning has not yet yielded to entrepreneurship and a market based on supply and demand. People, to put it simply, have much less to eat, and it costs them a lot more.
The Soviet political structure, established over seven decades and based on the Communist Party's absolute monopoly on power, has not yet been replaced by the multi-party democracy Gorbachev wants. Voters have freely chosen their representatives in powerful legislative bodies for the first time since the earliest days of the Soviet state, but the lawmakers have been almost overwhelmed by the tasks facing them.
"While the deep-seated causes of our crisis are rooted in history," Vadim A. Medvedev, the party's chief ideologist, acknowledged last week, "it has been aggravated by inconsistency and the half-heartedness of the measures being worked out, and sometimes by the errors made during perestroika. "
Also, the Soviet Union appears to be spinning apart as a state under these pressures. The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are endeavoring to secede. Nationalist groups are pushing for independence in the southern republics of Armenia and Georgia, in Moldavia and in the Ukraine; and even Russia, the largest of the 15 republics, last month declared its "sovereignty."
The sense of crisis has been compounded, political observers here say, by the party's confusion and the overall lack of certainty in a land where all used to be guided by "scientific communism" and the five-year plan. The outcome of the current struggle is so uncertain that even those charged with mapping the nation's future and guiding the changes under way here say that they can see only a week or two ahead.
"People are tired, people are weary, and the fatigue is demoralizing," Alexander Tsipko, a leading Soviet political philosopher, said in an interview. "They need solutions to the problems that seem ready to overwhelm them; they need concrete language that tells them what must be done and what the result will be.
"The people's confidence must be restored, and first of all in the little things, so that they can go on. . . . This is a struggle, and the people are suffering from combat fatigue."
When he opens the congress Monday, Gorbachev will be at the center of this battle, seeking at once to restore the momentum that perestroika had in its first three or four years and putting forward his ideas for the next stage.
In addressing party meetings last month, Gorbachev declared his intention to broaden and accelerate the reforms, to restructure the party and rejuvenate its leadership and, if he can, to galvanize the people to support these changes.
Gorbachev, speaking Friday to the party's policy-making Central Committee, stressed his desire to build a consensus during the congress around as progressive a set of policies as possible and then to elect leaders committed to carrying them out.
So far, however, that consensus is more of a hope than a reality.
At the congress re-establishing the Russian Communist Party last month, Gorbachev's policies came under fierce conservative attack as party officials from the provinces vented their opposition to reforms stripping them of their power and more senior party leaders questioned his commitment to socialism. Orthodox Marxists have formed a faction within the party to press for a return to traditional socialist values.
Across the political spectrum, radical reformers are threatening to quit the party unless it fully abandons its "vanguard role" and shares power with other political groups. Their vision is of a Western parliamentary democracy, whose government might be socialist but whose goal would no longer be communism.
Without a political consensus on the nature and cause of the crises or on ways to resolve them, what might have been a broad debate on "national goals" has turned into an acute struggle to shape the country's future, and the party congress was chosen as the forum.
The Soviet Union's problems are so pressing that the congress, originally scheduled for next spring, five years after the last, was brought forward twice and has become the focus of political maneuvering here for more than six months.
"We are in a watershed period, no question about it," a senior official at the party's Central Committee headquarters said last week. "Much must be discussed, much must be decided, and then much must be done. . . .
"The struggle that has gone on, and still goes on, around the congress, the party platform and the internal changes in the party has been intense. We are not talking about words or even ideas--we are talking about revolutionary changes in the way this country is run.
"These changes are precisely revolutionary in that most of the country's power holders are being overturned--and not just political power, but economic power and broad social power as well."
The struggle has pitted reformers against conservatives, workers against their bosses, the bosses against the bureaucrats, farmers against urbanites, provinces against the center, ethnic minorities against the Russians. There are conflicts inside conflicts, and long-forbidden factions within the party and political groups outside have proliferated rapidly.
"Some people say this is unimportant, or that it won't be decisive, or even that it is sham politics," a Soviet political commentator remarked last week. "If that is so, what are people fighting about? No, this is about real change, and what we do will determine whether we live better or worse."
The congress, in fact, is regarded by the party as its most important since the Communists came to power in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Not only is the fate of the nation at stake but so is the fate of the party.
The upheaval of the last five years has been so momentous that the party's once unquestioned authority has diminished to the point where every decision is questioned; there was even a question last week whether the congress would be held as scheduled.
"Consider the problem--we have to lead, but fewer and fewer people are willing to follow," one official at the Central Committee headquarters said. "We talk about a multi-party system, but at this point there is only us and, in any case, we are for sharing power, not abandoning it. So, we have to lead, and we want to lead, but we must regain the trust we have squandered, not just in those dark decades but even in the past few years."
The party's membership is declining; it is threatened by potential splits to both the left and the right. And popular trust has diminished to where the party's own opinion polls show that the Russian Orthodox Church, the Red Army and even the KGB, the Soviet security service, are all held in higher esteem.