WORKERS in Moscow remain guardedly optimistic about the chances of reform, but many have yet to feel changes in their own lives, a poll commissioned by The Christian Science Monitor indicates. They are fed up with lines, worried about inflation, and unhappy about the power of bureaucrats. On the other hand, they feel good about Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the trend toward democracy.
The negative issues highlighted in the poll - among them anger with bureaucratic privilege and the call for more discipline in society - closely resemble those stressed by maverick Communist Party leader Boris Yeltsin as he prepares to run for the new Soviet parliament. They serve to explain why, according to unofficial reports from sociological circles, Mr. Yeltsin is currently rivaling Mr. Gorbachev in popularity.
The present poll may also indicate a slippage in confidence about reform. Sixty-one percent of those polled said they felt that Gorbachev's reforms would eventually succeed; previous polls asking similar questions have produced higher optimism ratings. A poll published last June by the Institute of Sociological Research, for example, reported that 80 percent of a sample of industrial and transport workers nationwide said that reforms were ``objectively necessary,'' while only 12 percent felt that they could not be carried out.
The poll was conducted by telephone in the second half of January by the Center for Public Opinion Research. The center works under the aegis of Tatyana Zaslavskaya, a pioneer in public-opinion polling in the Soviet Union and an influential figure in the Soviet reform program.
The center questioned 943 Muscovites, predominantly blue collar, ranging in age from 18 to pensioners. Ninety percent of those questioned were ethnic Russians; other groups included Tatars, Jews (officially designated here as an ethnic group), and Ukrainians.
The respondents were asked four questions about their perception of Gorbachev's reforms, his chances of success, and what aspects of society most needed change.
Will Gorbachev succeed in his plans for political and economic reform?
Just over 61 percent thought he would. Fifteen percent said he would not.
But those who answered positively thought that Gorbachev stood a better chance of changing the country's political institutions (70 percent) than the economy (40 percent).
Optimism also grew with age. Half of the youngest group said reforms had no chance. The oldest category of respondents, pensioners above 60, were the most inclined to believe the leadership could actually produce changes.
Has your standard of living changed in the last three years?
Forty-six percent said it had. Forty-nine percent said it had not.
Those who had sensed a change were then asked: Has life changed for better or worse?
Just over half noted an improvement. Almost one third said their standard of living had deteriorated. The rest were not sure.
Those who felt their standard of living had declined cited a number of factors, including inflation, the lack of consumer goods, low pensions, and difficulty in paying for such services as medical care.
Once again age appeared to be a determinant. None of the 18- to 19-year-olds felt that life had improved, one quarter of them said it had gotten worse. A sizable minority (30.8 percent) of the oldest age group, however, felt that things had improved.
What aspect of life is most in need of change?
Answers to this question ranged across the board. The largest single group of answers (17.6 percent) referred to the need for legal reform. Economic, political, and administrative reforms came next, followed by calls for improvement in the supply of basic goods and services.
At the lower end of the table came demands for tighter control over cooperatives (6 percent, largely from the older generation) and the need for educational reform.
What do you consider the best and worst features of Soviet life?
This question, researchers note, ``perplexed'' the respondents. Those who answered had more difficulty identifying positive features than calling to mind negative ones. In sharp contrast to the recent past, the emphasis in the media and public debate these days is on the system's failings rather than successes.
Thirty-one pointed to Gorbachev and perestroika (restructuring) itself as the ``best thing'' in Soviet society at the moment. The figure points both to Gorbachev's continuing popularity and to the growing independence of the Soviet public. A few years ago most would probably have opted automatically for the safe answer: heaping lavish praise on the current leader.
Relatively few workers (5.2 percent) singled out radical economic reforms now being introduced in industry. By an intriguing coincidence, exactly the same proportion of respondents (5.2 percent) pointed to the absence of unemployment as the most positive aspect of their lives. If the economic reforms eventually take root, however, many specialists feel that unemployment will become a part of the Soviet scene.
Among the worst aspects of life mentioned by the respondents were:
The power and privileges of bureaucrats (17.8 percent).
Drunkenness, speculation, and a general lack of discipline in society (14.6 percent).
Low level of social and political consciousness (12.4 percent).
Lines and shortages of basic goods (12 percent).
The poor quality of social services, in particular housing (9.8 percent).
High prices and low wages (9 percent).
In response to a final, unrelated question, almost 74 percent said that they no longer feared attack by the United States or its allies. Younger respondents expressed annoyance at the question, researchers said, while older people were more cautious about dismissing the threat.