MOSCOW — Mikhail S. Gorbachev will dominate the 27th Communist Party Congress that is to open Tuesday just as he has dominated a year of swift and even startling changes in public life.
The Soviet leader clearly intends to use the congress of 5,000 delegates to dramatize his demands for an economic leap forward at home and a revival of detente abroad.
As a result, the congress may be the most significant such gathering since 1956, when Nikita S. Khrushchev denounced the terror tactics of Josef Stalin.
Gorbachev is scheduled to deliver his report on Tuesday, exactly 30 years to the day since Khrushchev startled the 20th party congress with his famous "secret speech" about Stalin's practices.
Among the delegates will be the elite of the party's 20 million members, as well as a heavy percentage of milkmaids, truck drivers and other ordinary workers from throughout the country.
Bedrock of Rule
Although it is considered little more than rubber stamp for the directives of the leadership, the congress is ostensibly the bedrock of party rule in the Soviet Union. Meeting every five years, the congress approves long-range policies and programs. The 300 or so members of the Central Committee, including all the top leaders, are drawn from the congress' ranks.
The Central Committee meets twice a year to formally approve policies and confirm the selection of members to the two most important organizations in the Soviet power structure: The party Political Bureau, or Politburo, usually composed of about a dozen voting members who generally meet once a week, and the Secretariat which carries out the Politburo's decisions and oversees the various daily operations of the country.
It is Gorbachev's position as general secretary of the party that makes him the first among equals on the Politburo and the most powerful individual in the Soviet Union.
The focus of this year's congress will be on Gorbachev's efforts to get his country moving again.
Western analysts said it is not likely that there will be any radical changes in the heavily centralized Soviet economy. They pointed out that Gorbachev's lieutenants have scoffed at China's moves toward entrepreneurship and market pricing, and belittled similar efforts in Hungary.
Instead, the emphasis is expected to be on making the system work better by eliminating layers of bureaucracy and encouraging more production of fruit, vegetables and livestock on peasants' private plots.
There is no organized opposition to Gorbachev, but according to Western diplomats, he is encountering a kind of passive resistance from some officials who do not share his enthusiasm for new policies.
Shake-up of Party, Government
And his ardent admirers recognize that even Gorbachev's shake-up of the party and government ministries has just begun to have an effect on this nation of 278 million.
With the departure of three members of the Politburo and the ouster of hundreds of lesser officials, Gorbachev has consolidated his political power and at the same time given a signal that far-reaching changes are to be made.
But his drive to root out corruption, inefficiency and waste must still overcome public indifference and an entrenched bureaucracy.
"Stagnation and formalism are being eradicated only with difficulty," the newspaper Soviet Russia said recently.
And according to Pravda, the party newspaper, some industrial managers are not taking the new economic plan seriously.
'Crooks, Swindlers, Embezzlers'
The government's chief prosecutor said last month that corruption was still widespread in party and government ranks, shielding "crooks, swindlers and embezzlers."
Even so, few Soviet or Western observers doubt that the Soviet leader has sparked a major transformation in attitudes since he took over the top party job upon the death of Konstantin U. Chernenko last March.
Gorbachev, who will turn 55 on March 2, has brought his own men into power in increasing numbers, usually middle-aged managers who made their mark in the military-industrial complex as factory directors or chief engineers.
But he has not neglected the party machinery. He has replaced many leaders at the grass-roots level and nearly one of every three district party bosses.
'Sacking Yesterday's Men'
"This entails finding some official reasons for sacking yesterday's men, not necessarily genuine, but ones which disguise the fact that Gorbachev is building his power base by ruthlessly removing long-serving bureaucrats of the Brezhnev era," Soviet Analyst, a British fortnightly, commented not long ago. "A further advantage of this process is that all the evident faults of the system can be blamed on the lax administration of Gorbachev's predecessors."
But a Western analyst in Moscow credits Gorbachev with a sincere desire to improve economic performance to make the Soviet Union more competitive with the West. In seeking to achieve this goal, Gorbachev has concentrated power in Moscow, curtailing the autonomy that provincial chiefs enjoyed under the looser grip of a predecessor, Leonid I. Brezhnev.
The 27th party congress may deliver a verdict on Brezhnev's 18-year rule and, if it does, no one looks for much in the way of praise. Without mentioning any names, Gorbachev has implied that the country started going downhill several years before Brezhnev's death in 1982.
Gorbachev has set ambitious goals, including a doubling of production in the next 15 years and increased supplies of better quality consumer goods.
Expressing the new mood in Moscow, Gorbachev has said, "We firmly insist that shortcomings should be eliminated rather than justified."