Central Casting goofed. Alexander Bovin, Kremlin foreign policy analyst, isn't what a Soviet official is supposed to be. His huge girth, imperfectly restrained by bulging suspenders, and his amused eyes suggest some Soviet Socialist Pillsbury Doughboy. His intellect, wit, and cool crisis-manager's vocabulary - his sense of limits of power in a nuclear age - suggest a Soviet Socialist Henry Kissinger.
He speaks with nuance: whether on potential for compromise at arms talks where each side's public positions seem irreconcilable; on balancing each superpower's ''understandable'' national interests in areas like the Middle East; or on the intricacies of internal United States politics.
''Nixon for President,'' proclaims one of dozens of political buttons decorating the entryway of Bovin's downtown apartment. ''Black Power,'' cries another. On his living room bookshelf sit Nixon's ''Memoirs,'' and Kissinger's, a photo of controversial Russian balladeer Vladimir Vysotsky, and a collection of the speeches and writings of Yuri V. Andropov.
Once, when Bovin was out of the room, I could not help opening the Andropov volume. ''With respect,'' it was inscribed by the author.
Alexander Bovin is part of a ''transition'' process in the Soviet political system that really began not one year ago, with Yuri Andropov's accession, but decades earlier with the end of the one-man rule by paranoia of Joseph Stalin.
Bovin is one of dozens of analysts, specialists, and advisers with whose help the Kremlin has slowly altered the way this country is run. The process is by no means complete. It has its limits and potential pitfalls - not the least of which is the fact that, in some ways, Russians have changed how they think more slowly than what they think.
Yet the shift has, by the early 1980s, allowed a widening tendency within the political elite to view domestic and world problems through a prism of informed, relatively objective analysis, rather than force their bends and angles into the perfect circle of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric.
One myth about present-day Russia is that its rulers think their system - notably, their economy - works fine, and that the idea of a ''reformist'' loosening of some of the chains of command planning is profoundly controversial.
Or that the Soviets see crises like the upheaval next door in Poland as mere dastardly plots of ''US imperialism'' with no lessons for the way East-bloc states run.
Or that Moscow, as Pravda likes ominously to imply, seriously contemplates ''giving up'' on dealings with the Americans because it finds President Reagan distasteful and because it sees the basing of new US missiles in Western Europe as inevitable in any case.
Yuri Andropov - says a ranking official with a refreshingly tentative air - ''is an important page, maybe even a chapter'' in this transition process that has begun undermining such assumptions about the Soviet Union.
''Andropov himself is not the only factor,'' says the official. ''I see him as a continuation of a trend that took form in the late 1970s under (Leonid) Brezhnev. . . . Its main aspect is the sense that socialism needs improvement in all directions - above all, as regards our economy.''
In a political vacuum, something for which the Kremlin no doubt often fervently wishes, the goals and limits sought in the Soviet system's long march of change are already fairly evident.
A full free-market economy is not on the agenda. Nor is anything resembling Western-style democracy. On the international front, continued emphasis on nuclear-arms production and development is a given.
Yet the slowly solidifying consensus in the corridors of Moscow power, three years of interviews with ranking officials of various age and background suggest , includes the following:
* Economic ''reform.'' Some form of gradual, measured decentralization of authority is essential to make the Soviet economy keep pace in a modern age.
Details remain to be worked out - subject to political considerations, officials make clear, and to the outcome of debate on some elements of a ''reform'' package.
And even in the smoothest of circumstances, officials make clear, the task is sufficiently complex to ensure that Western pundits' persistent predictions in the past year of an ''economic reform'' session of the full party Central Committee will be moot until at least next spring. But major elements are essentially agreed upon.
Central planners will remain ultimately in charge, stresses Oleg Bogomolov, a prominent economist who worked under Andropov in the 1960s and has been involved since the tail end of the Brezhnev era in Kremlin research and evaluation of other East-bloc states' experience in economic reform.
Indeed, in some senses, the idea is to ''strengthen'' central planning by eventually trimming the number of competing decisionmakers and bureaucrats between Moscow and the local farm or factory floor.
But within this framework, the energies of central planners will be focused on working out overall targets and coordinating larger projects, with ''maximum autonomy for local initiative in how these plans are implemented.''
Market forces also must be strengthened. ''The long-term aim,'' says another ranking official, ''is to make economic levers, like salaries and incentives, work better than verbal exhortations, administrative pressure, sanctions, or reprimands do.''
And the system of grossly inefficient subsidized prices, wholesale and retail , must be revamped. Again, gradually. Prices will still be set centrally, but, as Bogomolov and other officials see it, in closer accord with true market value. Similarly, the practice of continuing to finance the many state enterprises that are either inefficient or outmoded will gradually stop.
* Social policy. Although under an umbrella of Marxist theory, the policy machine must be supplied with far more data on just how the Soviet system works - or doesn't work - and on how Soviet people think.
As with economic ''reform,'' there are clear limits. Various senior officials make clear there will be no return to the brief Khrushchev-era heyday of something approaching true Western-style sociological study and theory. Marxist ideology will remain the one sanctioned explanation for social phenomena.
But one official foresees a genuine invigoration of opinion polling, for instance, tracing this to a sense in the Kremlin that ''especially after the Polish events, it is necessary to know true public opinion.''
And the Kremlin wants more active ''sociological study, on a micro level'' with the aim of seeing how various economic reform levers, like incentives, might best be used to correct profound weaknesses in the economy. ''In the long run,'' the official says, ''this [kind of research] is a serious aspect in insuring the stability and development of society.''
Part of this bid to activate economic- and social-policy inquiry is spilling into the official Soviet news media. In the past year, for instance, something approximating debate on approaches to economic reform has spilled into major newspapers. One editor in chief says that, early in the process, all major editors convened to discuss whether the back-and-forth should perhaps be reined in. Ultimately, he implied, that could happen. But the decision, for now, ''was that the difference of views was natural and indeed better than if everyone says the same thing.''
* Foreign policy. Internationally, there is the primary need for a stable, working relationship with the United States.
Particularly during the past few years' run-up to planned deployment of new US cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe, the Soviets have publicly tried to emphasize their separate relations with key West European states like West Germany and France, and generally to encourage divisions between Washington and its NATO partners.
This, senior officials make clear, will continue. Moscow would be foolish, they say in so many words, not to make use of the vulnerability of Western rulers to internal political pressures.
But equally, they view any all-out split within NATO as highly unlikely and stress that the inevitably crucial foreign-policy relationship for the Kremlin is that with the US.
In a nuclear age, Soviet options are limited. Thus, early in the Lebanon war of 1982, Alexander Bovin smiled when asked about Western predictions of a superpower showdown.
Yes, he recalled, in the 1973 Mideast war, the superpowers had gone on nuclear alert in the run-up to its negotiated finale. But in 1982, for one thing , Israel had quickly thundered all the way to Beirut with no serious resistance.
The Arabs were in no shape to reverse that situation without direct, large-scale intervention by Moscow. ''This is not a realistic possibility. . . . We are realists,'' Bovin remarked. Similarly, Soviet options in replying to eventual deployment of new US missiles are constrained. Yes, various senior officials say, a ''counterdeployment'' of Soviet weapons is definite - first in East Germany and Czechoslovakia (a move they revealed privately before its formal announcement in October), and then ''within roughly 10 minutes' striking distance of US territory.''
But the counterdeployment will not go so far as basing missiles on Cuba, since this would be an obvious violation of the 1962 accord ending the Kennedy-Khrushchev showdown.
The Geneva talks on European nuclear arms are virtually sure to be cut off. But, says Valentin Falin, arms expert and former longtime ambassador to West Germany, ''sooner or later'' talks on Euromissiles will, of course, resume.
Mikhail Nenashev, prominent Central Committee member and editor of the official party newspaper for the Russian Republic, adds that even if the specific Euromissile negotiating format is not revived, Moscow is not about to shelve the arms-negotiating process with the US.
Another official, speaking after a formal Andropov ''statement'' in late September that implied Moscow had ''given up'' on serious dealings with Washington under Mr. Reagan, cautioned against taking the words too literally.
''Reagan may manage to stay for a second term. We may have him for some years to come,'' the official explained. ''The Andropov statement was meant to convey genuine disappointment, genuine alarm. But of course it is also a part of our pressure on each other.''
Generally, three decades of post-Stalin evolution have produced an establishment of policy analysis that reflects more sophistication.
During the intermittent East European upheavals of the 1950s, the then-Yugoslav ambassador to Moscow later suggested in his inside account of the period, no senior Soviet official expressed the slightest doubt that the trouble was fully due to Western instigation.
In the Polish crisis of the early 1980s, a newer breed of ranking official, including ideological specialist Richard Kosolapov, offered a much more nuanced view.
But the Solidarity movement, he and others freely acknowledged, was clearly no mere creature of Western intelligence agencies. Ten million Poles can't be subverted by the CIA.
The officials did feel strongly that Washington was stirring the pot, and that large numbers of Solidarity members were being duped by ''extremists.'' But Lech Walesa was not included among the radicals.
And after imposition of martial law, these officials have added the obvious: that notwithstanding public Soviet and Polish statements, true ''normalization'' is a long way off.
On one point, even older Soviet officials joined the newer breed throughout: Direct Soviet intervention must be avoided under any circumstance short of a genuine threat of ''losing'' Poland to the West.
Pravda editor Viktor Afanasyev remarked at one point that intervention, after all, would mean ''feeding 36 million Poles.'' Besides, another official said, it very likely wouldn't work. Days after martial law, he added: ''Everyone on the Politburo knew there were some problems tanks wouldn't solve. . . . They realized such a step should be avoided under any - almostm any, I should say - circumstances.''
A parallel addition of nuance has occurred among domestic policy specialists. If tanks won't solve some problems, senior officials make abundantly clear, mere fine tuning of the ''planning mechanism'' has similar limitations on the home front.
An official recounts various moves over the past 15 years or so to resolve Soviet economic inefficiencies by ''magically'' coming up with a new ''index'' for use in setting central targets. ''But each one has its problems,'' he says.
Another official notes that any long-term solution to Soviet economic problems must necessarily address fundamental aspects of Sovietm society - and that, inevitably, deciding on change could prove easier than implementing it.
''In 1965 [when an earlier economic reform ultimately bogged down in bureaucracy and inertia], we spent a long time preparing, only to find out those reforms were not fully practical, or worked through.
''We still don't even have a science of political economy for socialism. We have a system, but no laws for it. No models. And nothing to extrapolate from.
''To say we can extrapolate from the different situation of a Hungary (the main East-bloc exponent of economic reform) is not serious,'' the official argued. ''Our country is not taught to work as in the West . . . to show initiative. This country has, historically, usually worked only under the stick.''
Economist Oleg Bogomolov adds the obvious corollary: ''It seems to me we find ourselves today at the very beginningm of serious changes. While it is hard to foresee precisely what form they will take, undoubtedly the turnaround has begun.''
Much the same might be said about the Soviet political system as a whole.
The Soviet-style best and brightest - the Arbatovs, Bogomolovs, Bovins, Kosolapovs, Nenashevs, Afanasyevs, and men like US affairs expert Georgi Arbatov and international relations commentator Fyodor Burlatsky - represent a major sense in which the system has already modernized. Various of these figures, as it happens, started their careers in Jacuzzi-size think tanks attached to the party Secretariat under Khrushchev - this, at the very time a younger Yuri Andropov worked there.
But interviews with them and many other, older senior officials on how the system operates serve to put the development in better perspective:
Decisionmaking - as opposed to the overall policy process - remains the province of a very few: the Politburo, the Central Committee's inner Secretariat and dependent staff or ''apparatus,'' the military, and a smattering of other senior figures.
The so-called aparatchikim - not to mention the full members of the Politburo, Secretariat, and military command - tend more often than such policy analysts and specialists to be products of a technical or party-school education.
Mr. Andropov may be something of a special case. He did work closely with men like Arbatov, Bovin, Burlatsky, and Bogomolov earlier in his career. He seems to maintain a working relationship with them based on genuine mutual respect. But he is not one of them. And as in all political systems, the leadership bases decisions only partly on objective analysis. Subjective considerations - how a decision will look to internal rivals, external foes, or to the Soviet people - are very much a part of the process.
And an abiding, sometimes aggressive Russian sense of insecurity - over change at home, and ''threats'' from abroad - still pervades the entire system.
On most major policy decisions, in any case, there is substantial input from a greatly modernized Soviet policy-analysis machine. Mostly, the input comes in written form, or via policy-specific committees, officials say. Sometimes, individual analysts will be summoned to Secretariat or Politburo sessions.
Yet on questions of crisis, when time is short, consultation often seems to go no further than the ''apparatus'' of the party leadership, generally party careerists with much less of the knack for nuance than the specialized policy analysts outside.
Interestingly, and unencouragingly, the Soviet system seems often to bungle such crisis decisions. One example came in 1981, when dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov went on hunger strike to press the authorities to give his daughter-in-law an exit visa. The gut response was: ''No.'' Only with the foreseeable buildup of Western support for Sakharov, and an equally foreseeable decline in his health, did the issue get fuller airing in the Soviet policy establishment. The result: an embarrassing reversal, as Moscow gave in.
Similar, but of a more serious order, was Moscow's handling of the recent Korean airliner tragedy.
If the shoot-down itself ensured a time of difficult decisions for Moscow, the public handling of the affair greatly compounded the crisis. Charted by a relatively closed circle of figures in the party leadership, the military, and the Secretariat apparatus, the initial decision was to say as little as possible.
Only later - when, officials make clear, other cogs in the policy machine were brought into play - did the Kremlin acknowledge having shot down the jet.
Alexander Bovin refuses comment on the plane episode - as did a few other officials clearly uninclined to risk too high a profile on an issue of controversy within the political elite. But another ranking official said that a day or so after the plane was downed, Bovin refused to address the issue on one of his periodic Soviet television appearances, saying he would do so only after Moscow had publicly aired a full version of the incident.
I asked one of various senior officials who were evidently unhappy with Moscow's delay why it had occurred - only weeks after top-level statements on the need to make Soviet propaganda more prompt and ''convincing.'' The official spoke of abiding rigidities in the system and added that saying they should be corrected is not the same as being able to correct them.
There's a joke here about an elderly professor who goes to a specialist and cries: ''You've got to help me! I used to be an athlete. But I can no longer run even a mile.''
The specialist, puzzled, says: ''Come on! You are, after all, in your 70s.''
''Yes. But I have a neighbor who is in his 80s. And he says he can still run a mile. . . . ''
''OK,'' says the specialist. ''I've got the solution: You do the same: Saym you can still run a mile.''
Next: the limits and pitfalls of change