A NEW cultural thaw in the Soviet Union may be real enough, and it could last for years, not months. What remains to be seen, though, is what happens when Mikhail Gorbachev, now somewhat the Moscow ``outsider,'' becomes the truly entrenched leader of the Soviet Union, and how cultural openness may impinge upon economic and even political reform.
Glasnost - ``openness, candor,'' a willingness to discuss shortcomings - has been the new Russian vocabulary word for newspaper readers over the past year. After inexcusable stonewalling on Chernobyl, for example, the Soviets ultimately surprised many by being relatively forthcoming. The Gorbachev regime has been marked by a new public-relations consciousness. The embassy in Washington seems able to deliver more-articulate and less heavily accented talking heads than before to make the Soviet case on network television.
This ``openness'' has had its counterpart on the cultural scene as well. Anatoly Rybakov's novel ``The Children of the Arbat,'' set in the Stalinist period, is to appear in a Soviet literary monthly next year. And another treatment of that dark chapter in Soviet history, a film called ``Repentance,'' is sparking quite a reaction among select audiences in Moscow and the Soviet Republic of Georgia. The expected release next year of this movie, by Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze, has been hailed as the Soviet cultural event of the decade.
And in May the Kremlin let a group of ``Young Turks,'' promising to revive the Soviet film industry, vote out a number of the leaders of the Cinema Union.
Leadership transitions in the Soviet Union - even from Lenin to Stalin - have been marked by a certain general loosening up on the cultural front, a willingness to entertain criticisms of the regime - of the previous regime, that is.
But these cultural d'etentes tend to self-destruct as soon as the regime in power gets sufficiently entrenched that whatever is wrong cannot be so blithely blamed on previous regimes.
Today's glasnost can, of course, be a means of distancing the Soviet system from Stalinism and other abuses, rather than of facing up to them. As Western journalists have found out, glasnost is certainly practiced selectively. Besides, changes like those in the Cinema Union can be a safety valve to decrease pressure for more-substantive change.
What does Mr. Gorbachev have in mind? Even if he doesn't want to overhaul the Soviet economic system, he clearly wants it to work better than it does, and that will be a major change. His exhortations to Soviet newspapers to report abuses more aggressively, because the Soviet Union lacks a multiparty system to confront public issues through the political process, are an acknowledgment that political change might be desirable. Gorbachev does seem to be finding his way - which one hopes will lead Soviet society to a more lasting thaw.