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News in the USSR

I generally listen to the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) before turning in at night, and sometimes while twiddling the radio dials I stumble on a Moscow station. I pause in curiosity for a minute. The English is impeccable - but the propaganda is preposterous. A child wouldn't believe it. What kind of audience do the Soviets think they are addressing? After a minute or two I give up (with mingled emotions) and turn back to the impersonal, dry, informal late news summaries and Big Ben.

The Soviets are a curiosity. An American observer finds it hard to understand them. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko will be visiting the White House next week and presidential candidate Walter Mondale. The more interchange of information the better. Meanwhile, the Academy of Political Science has just issued a 244 -page booklet, ''The Soviet Union in the 1980s,'' which is about as good a summary of current Soviet conditions as I have run across. In brief, the two dozen essays, which are certainly learned and seem to be dispassionate, indicate that the Soviets aren't doing so well.

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The Soviet Union has a funny system. Suppose I were a reporter in Moscow instead of in Washington. A lot of the news I couldn't cover. Ellen Mickiewicz, dean of the Emory University Graduate School, explains: ''The familiar Soviet media practice of not covering events deemed unsuitable for the population is under attack. If the story enters the public consciousness through an unofficial route, the task for the communications professionals is made more difficult. For this reason the local media are a particularly thorny problem and are suffering from a crisis of confidence. ''Because of the prohibition on stories about crimes and deviance, and because of the didactic nature of the Soviet media, local newspapers present a certain view of local life - a view that is unreal, stilted, and varnished. Much that goes on and is of interest to the local populace simply goes unreported.''

Most Americans at one time or another have complained that there is too much vice and crime in the newspapers. But suppose we lived in the Soviet Union, where it has been winnowed out along with all sorts of political news. Events that we had seen happen on the streets would go unreported. We would lose confidence in the press. Says Dr. Mickiewicz of a local survey: ''Only 3 percent of the readers of an urban newspaper said that the newspaper rarely distorts the events it describes.'' That is a backward way of putting it, but it does not indicate much readership confidence.

And we might take this matter of press coverage in Russia as symbolic of dozens of other things brought up in the Academy of Political Science surveys. One of the first essays is simply entitled ''What Ails the Soviet System?'' It's by Timothy Colton, of the University of Toronto. He finds ''the agenda of Soviet politics is indeed a disquieting one ... the spread of self-seeking behavior in such forms as corruption ... the failure of faint-hearted reforms are all harbingers of more trouble ahead. The Soviet system is not yet in crisis, but unless its new leaders can slow downward trends, especially in the economy, the time may not be very far off when it will be.''

This note runs through essay after essay. I cannot see that the political scientists are letting anticommunist prejudice guide them. ''Since the mid-1970s ,'' writes Seweryn Bialer, Columbia University, ''the Soviet Union has been expanding externally while declining internally.'' Will the Soviet leadership resolve problems? he asks. He can't answer.

The US scholars say Moscow's problems are both domestic and foreign. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national-security adviser, sums it up. He finds Russian paranoia toward the outside world. Here at home, he thinks, ''American passivity in the Middle East and American overengagement in Central America are the most immediate geopolitical dangers.'' And Russia?

''The Soviet Union - too strong not to be a rival, yet feeling itself too weak to be a partner - cannot be counted on to be a true participant in the constructive global process, since its systemic interests are diametrically opposed to the preservation of the status quo in a world that Moscow can disrupt but not dominate.''

That's an effort to describe the uneasy condition of the world as Foreign Minister Gromyko pays his first visit to President Reagan next week.

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