MOSCOW — Moscow.--IN THE PRE-PERESTROIKA era, when Soviet dissidents were prosecuted for the crime of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda," the maximum penalty was 12 years in a labor camp.
A week ago in Vilnius, when Soviet paratroopers blasted their way through crowds of demonstrators to seize Lithuanian broadcast facilities, 14 Lithuanians paid for the same crime with their lives.
Only one reason has been given by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to justify the assault: republican television and radio, controlled by the elected pro-independence Lithuanian leadership, was broadcasting anti-Soviet propaganda.
After six years of what even Western skeptics have called revolutionary reform, after the Communist Party has given up its legal monopoly on power, when the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Mr. Gorbachev, when the real threat to Soviet progress seemed to be not political reaction but a hapless economy -- people were shot and crushed by tanks to stop free speech. And Mr. Gorbachev, though he allegedly did not approve the action in advance, justified it after the fact.
How could it happen?
One clue may be in a hulking, nondescript factory in the center of Vilnius with plaques in Russian and Lithuanian: "Vilnius Radio Instrument Factory named for the 60th Anniversary of the October Revolution."
One of the few details announced about the Lithuanian National Salvation Committee, the shadowy pro-Moscow group that purportedly asked the army to seize the television and radio facilities, is that it meets at this defense electronics plant.
In Russian, the plant is known as a "post box," because traditionally defense plants were so secret they could be identified only by a post box number. The plant employs about 9,000 workers, mostly Russians and other Slavs, and answers to Moscow ministry. Its director, who has the appropriate name of October (for the revolution) Burdenko, is a leader of Yedinstvo (Unity), the organization of anti-independence non-Lithuanians.
The factory represents the Soviet Union's huge military-industrial complex, which is the core of the state's economic monopoly and the underpinning for Communist Party power.
In every way, the interests of such a plant are threatened by real reform. They are put in severe danger by the Lithuanian independence movement.
A free press threatens to lift the veil of secrecy from the plant and expose it to criticism.
East-West detente threatens to chop the military's huge share of the national income, making the future of the plant uncertain.
Republican demands for economic sovereignty threaten to close most Moscow ministries, giving the plant a new, less indulgent, local master.
A real market economy threatens to subject the plant to competition for the first time, raising the specter of layoffs or bankruptcy. And while the Russian workers fret about future unemployment, they are already being pressured to learn Lithuanian.
In interviews about the Soviet leadership's turn to the right, which culminated in the attack on demonstrators, Soviet observers give a single, simple explanation:
The regime's vital interests are at stake, they say, and it is fighting for survival.
Previous elements of reform, while dramatic by Soviet standards, did not threaten the survival of the totalitarian system, said Viktor Aksyuchits, a member of the Russian parliament and leader of the Russian Christian Democratic Movement.
Dropping the Communist Party's monopoly on power appeared at the time to be the critical breakthrough for reform. But so far it has led only to the creation of tiny, squabbling parties not yet in any way a serious threat to the Communist Party, he said.
Elected parliaments were another breakthrough, but they are mostly dominated by Communists and have yet to achieve real control, especially over the economy. A freer press harasses and annoys the powerful, but it has not changed the power structure.
But the secession of republics, decisively ending central economic control and splitting the empire and its army, would mean the swift end of the regime, he said.
"It had to be the case that the partokratiya [party rule], when its real interests were at stake, would react this way," Mr. Aksyuchits said.
Soviet observers say it is still not clear whether President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is voluntarily putting the brakes on, or is responding to pressure from the military brass, the KGB and the state economic monopolists.
"That is an interesting question, and it matters for Gorbachev personally, but it doesn't affect the result in any way," said historian and parliamentary deputy Yuri N. Afanasyev. "The result is still that we're seeing a reactionary course with Gorbachev at its head."
"It's an attempt to end perestroika, absolutely," said Dr. Sviatoslav N. Fyodorov, a world-famous eye surgeon and businessman who came to the Lithuanian Mission to offer his condolences after the killings. "Maybe it won't work. Maybe the people will force the reforms to go on."