Soviet leader Yuri Andropov is escalating a public drive against corruption - and pursuing a reshuffle of some key officials - while stopping short of early, wholesale departures from Brezhnev-era policy.
The government disclosed Dec. 18 toughened penalties for various crimes, including economic ones, backing up Mr. Andropov's early public emphasis on the need for greater economic ''discipline.''
Yet in what senior sources portray as a bid to ensure eventual policy shifts actually getting implemented, the new party leader is focusing mainly on conveying an image of toughness, determination, and of concern with the gripes and desires of ordinary citizens.
A better idea of the ultimate pace and extent of substantive policy shifts under Mr. Andropov could come Dec. 21, when he delivers a major address marking the 60th anniversary of Soviet statehood.
But there, too, the most evident differences may be ones of style. Officials say the speech will be decidedly more direct in wording, and compact in length, than the late Leonid Brezhnev's review at an anniverary meeting 10 years ago.
While a general official reluctance to preview the speech may cast some doubt on the reliability of those details that have emerged, senior sources do speak of unspecified ''novelties'' in Mr. Andropov's prepared policy remarks. Yet one senior official adds: ''The overall line will be in keeping with that established so far: continuity.''
In a bit of superpower irony, Mr. Andropov seems to sense that this long-term success in implementing policy shifts may depend largely on a quality the American media like to attribute to Ronald Reagan: skill as a ''communicator.''
The new Soviet leader suggested in his first major policy speech Nov. 22 that he felt less urgency in unveiling new policies for the nation's troubled economy , for example, than in battling the inefficiencies, irresponsibility, and bureaucratic inertia that have complicated earlier attempts at change.
The perception among senior officials interviewed here seems that the rule of late party chief Nikita Khrushchev sufficed to demonstrate that rash, ill-considered, and overly ambitious changes tend to backfire. The lesson of the Leonid Brezhnev era, officials imply, is that a surfeit of caution can be equally unproductive.
The officials do not say so, but both Khrushchev and Brezhnev generally failed in moves to tighten economic discipline. The Khrushchev campaign, lasting from about 1961 to his ouster in 1964, involved a major toughening of penalties for corner-cutting and corruption, but got diluted by officials who were to implement it. Mr. Brezhnev initially took a more conciliatory and cautious approach - but did, in later years, show a tougher tack that produced in September 1981, for example, a tightening of legal sanctions against bribe-taking.
Andropov's bid to convey a new seriousness of purpose at the top, meanwhile, has not gone unnoticed by his countrymen. One Moscow official with responsibilites in the area of labor discipline told The Christian Science Monitor that while he had received no explicit new instructions, ''I do get the strong feeling that the (new) leadership is tough, determined, and that there will be changes.''
In a break with traditional silence on such matters, the party newspaper Pravda has begun publishing brief reports on sessions of the ruling Politburo. A senior official says the change was ''proposed by Andropov as one of his early decisions, and was promptly accepted'' by his colleagues.
The domestic portion of the first Politburo report touched on issues of law and order, and corruption, saying in effect that citizens' complaints on these scores must not go unheeded. A second report, published Dec. 17, gave what amounted to a Politburo pledge of early, sustained efforts to meet chronic consumer complaints of a shortage of spare parts for Soviet cars.
The second report also said the Politburo had reviewed the state of Soviet-US arms talks, yet it avoided the rhetorical blasts at US ''hypocrisy'' often loosed by Soviet press commentators.
In a continuing reshuffle of some top officials, Mr. Andropov has given what seems meant as a further sign of determination to tighten economic law and order. On Dec. 17 a close Brezhnev associate, Nikolai Shchelokov, was replaced as head of the Interior Ministry - which has key responsibilities in battling corruption and economic crime.
In keeping with other early changes, the new minister was not an entirely new face. The job went to Vitaly Fedorchuk, Mr. Andropov's own successor earlier this year as head of the KGB security apparatus. The top KGB post has been given to a longtime deputy KGB head, Viktor Chebrikov.