MOSCOW -- People who wonder why Soviet reform seems stalled and why conservatives again seem on the offensive might well consider the experience at a classic Soviet industrial fortress such as Moscow's giant ZIL truck plant -- the letters stand for Factory Named for Likhachyov, one of its first directors.
If Soviet politics were a prizefight, this would be the matchup:
In one corner, the reigning champion: the Communist Party. Has virtually run the plant for 73 of its 75 years. Has 10,000 members among the 60,000 ZIL workers, its own three-story headquarters and a paid staff of 38 people.
And in the other, the challenger: the anti-Communist reform coalition called Democratic Russia. Held its first organizational meeting at the plant Feb. 28, drawing about 40 nervous workers to a sidewalk huddle under the hostile glare of plant officials. About 10 people agreed to participate actively. No staff. No office. No money.
The surprising thing, its organizers say, is not the mismatch in size and strength -- but the fact that a non-Communist political group has managed to appear publicly at this mammoth, conservative industrial conglomerate. Furious officials did all they could to dissuade the initial meeting's organizers and intimidate its attendees.
"When a mosquito bites an elephant, the elephant gets mad and stomps his feet and says, 'I'll get you,' " said Gennady F. Timofeyev, 22, an electrician and one of the Democratic Russia organizers at ZIL. "That's more or less the way they reacted to us."
Last month, the flea and the elephant met again, on a larger playing field. Democratic Russia defied a ban on demonstrations ordered by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov and staged a mass rally in support of Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin, who is under attack from the Communist Party.
The faceoff dramatized the increasingly polarized, volatile state of Russian politics.
Polls show that the Communists are largely discredited among the public, but they still hold nearly all the instruments of power. The Democratic Russia activists and their patron saint, Mr. Yeltsin, enjoy broad public support, but they control little of the economic, bureaucratic, military and police power of the state.
One year ago, in what seemed at the time a watershed in Soviet history, the Communist Party's monopoly on political power was dropped from the Soviet Constitution.
Before, Article 6 had named the Communist Party "the leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system, of all state and public organizations." Now it says simply: "The Communist Party and other political parties . . . participate in the working out of the policy of the Soviet state."
To the West, it looked like a revolution. "So Long, Lenin," smirked the cover of Britain's Economist.
A year later, such headlines look naive. Consider the situation at ZIL. There is no doubt that Democratic Russia enjoys far more support than the Communist Party among ZIL workers, who produce 200,000 trucks and 160,000 refrigerators a year, as well as such exotica as microwave ovens, food processors and the hand-tooled black limousines of the Kremlin elite. But their views are not yet reflected in the political structures at the plant.
Just before last summer's long-awaited 28th Communist Party Congress, Vladimir N. Lysenko, a leader of the party's reformist Democratic Platform, spoke to ZIL's party activists.
"Half of them reacted very positively, and the other half, the older generation, yelled and stomped their feet and yelled 'Splitters!' and 'Reactionaries!' " Mr. Lysenko recalled.
"There were great hopes that we'd manage to divide the party at the congress. But in reality, it turned out to be much more solid and stronger than we expected."
If President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had quit as party general secretary, as aides say he strongly considered doing, the schism into opposing conservative and progressive parties probably would have occurred, Mr. Lysenko said.
But with the ambiguous, dominant figure of Mr. Gorbachev still at the party's head, only a small number of bold reformers walked out -- notably Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin, Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov and Leningrad Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak.
"The Democrats said there would be a flood of people leaving the party after Yeltsin, Popov and Sobchak quit. But it didn't happen," said a satisfied Vladimir B. Nosov, 45, head of ZIL's Communist Party organization.
True, Mr. Nosov said, 1,729 ZIL employees quit the party last year, and only 104 joined -- a decline of about 15 percent overall, roughly the same proportion as in the party as a whole, which now has about 16.5 million members.
But he asserted that the exodus has diminished to a trickle and that the organization is stronger for the loss of the 15 percent who left.
"There's a better atmosphere," Mr. Nosov said. "Fewer demagogues."