The buildup to this week's Communist Party plenum has been accompanied by a surge in agitation by supporters of radical reform. The activists are small in number - perhaps about 20. They are prominent academics, journalists, and a few writers. And their actions seem to have the encouragement of Alexander Yakovlev and Ivan Frolov, two close associates of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Their efforts seem to be directed at ensuring that this present reform campaign does not stop at partial change, as previous efforts have done. They are trying to make sure that the system is totally transformed. In university discussion groups, reformers have raised issues of bureaucracy, social problems, and the privileges of the party elite.
Historians, notably Yuri Afanasyev, have spoken to overflow audiences about the need to reexamine key periods of recent history: Stalinism, Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization, and Khrushchev's unsuccessful reform efforts of 1956 and 1965.
Other historians and economists - notably Gavril Popov and Nikolai Shmelyov - have attacked the Stalinist system of management.
The officials who appear to be supporting the reformers are both former academics. Mr. Yakovlev heads the propaganda department of the party Central Committee and was made a candidate member of the Politburo in January. Mr. Frolov, a philosopher by training, was recently appointed Mr. Gorbachev's adviser.
The activists include sociologists like Tatyana Zaslavskaya, political commentators like Fyodor Burlatsky and Alexander Bovin, editors like Vitaly Korotich, and economists like Oleg Bogomolov, Leonid Abalkin, and Abel Aganbegyan.
These people have a number of points in common. Nearly all were born between 1927 and 1935.
Perhaps most important, they appear to be frustrated activists.
All have spent most of their adult lives in a period that is now being described as one of economic and political stagnation. Their feelings were probably aptly summed up by Yuri Afanasyev in a recent newspaper article. It's ``bitter to think that the mature and the best part of my contemporaries' lives are linked with [this] stagnation,'' he wrote.
Several share another trait: They have run afoul of previous generations of the Soviet leadership.
Alexander Yakovlev spent 10 years in the political wilderness after offending the Brezhnev leadership with an attack on Russian nationalism. Yuri Afanasyev several years ago ran afoul of the historical establishment, and was dismissed from the editorial board of Kommunist. Tatyana Zaslavskaya recalled in a recent Soviet newspaper interview that she had been ``anathemized'' for several years early in her academic career because of research that questioned official figures.
And, though much of the country's top leadership has in the past had an engineering background, the activists are from the social sciences or humanities.