A recent Moscow joke had the Communist Party announcing a contest for members who recruited new people in a last-ditch attempt to bolster its shrinking rolls.
The third-prize winner would not have to pay party dues for a month. Second prize -- no dues for a whole year. And first prize, the joke said, would be an official affidavit from the party's Central Committee stating that the bearer was not now and never had been a member of the Communist Party.
Soviet reality has once again overtaken street humor. The death throes of the Communist Party yesterday were culminating the breathtaking week in Moscow, as Mikhail S. Gorbachev abandoned its helm and urged its leadership to dissolve.
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was at once less and much, much more than a Western-style political party.
It was less because the Marxist-Leninist ideology on which it formally stood lost its credibility with most Communists long ago. Even in the 1970s, Soviet Communists joked in private that the only believing Marxists left were in the West, where they did not have to shop in Marxist stores.
It was much more because "the party" -- until last year there was never any need to say which one -- completely dominated Soviet political, economic and social life to a degree most Americans would find difficult to comprehend.
It was an enormous political machine, controlling appointments to supervisory posts in every walk of life -- from the assistant principal of a school in Tashkent to the personnel chief of a bakery in Kiev. If a cadre was already a party member, he had an edge in promotions. If a non-party member impressed his bosses, he was usually invited to join the party before advancing into management, no matter the institution. Every army officer, KGB officer, ranking police officer and every editor of every publication had to be in the party.
It was a shadow government, duplicating government structures with sprawling party bureaucracies: The deputy minister of the coal industry had only to look over his shoulder to see the prying eye of the party apparatchik whose only job was to second-guess him. In his earlier incarnation as chairman of the Party Control Committee, Boris K. Pugo, the former minister of internal affairs and a key leader of last week's coup, would appear on the evening news, reading out lists of "party warnings," "party reprimands" and even "party expulsions" for government officials held responsible for the latest shortages. The government officials, it went without saying, were always party members.
It was a cult-like religion, complete with its own holy writ to be memorized and quoted incessantly, its own heretics to be persecuted or even executed, and the corpse of its saint, Vladimir I. Lenin, preserved under glass on Red Square. When reformers began a couple of years ago to call for Lenin to be buried -- in accordance with his own wishes, incidentally -- the word most often cried out by outraged guardians of party purity was "Koshunstvo!" -- "Blasphemy!"
It was a giant, national chaperon, ready to dock the pay or slap the hand of anyone who strayed from the path set in Moscow or failed to fulfill "The Plan." A collective farm chairman in rural Chuvashia, a little republic on the Volga River in the Russian heartland, recalled in an interview how a decade ago a party boss in the nearest town, two hours' drive away, gave him a date to begin the potato harvest. He ignored it and began earlier, knowing that the potatoes were in danger of rotting. The potato harvest set a record, the man said -- but he was summoned to the city to receive a formal party reprimand, which meant he would never again have a chance of promotion.
Party indoctrination began early. Toddlers were solemnly drafted into an organization called the Octobrists (for the October Revolution), where they were given little red-star pins bearing the photograph of the infant Lenin. Thence they advanced to the Pioneers, donning red scarfs and special uniforms and, in answer to the shouted command of their adult leader, "Be prepared!" they answered in chorus, "Always prepared!" -- or in long form, "Always prepared for battle for the cause of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!"
Then, when they turned 14, virtually all Soviet youngsters joined the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, which had its own huge bureaucracy across the country -- the bureaucracy in which young Mikhail Gorbachev began his career in the Stavropol province of southern Russia after completing Moscow State University. The most enthusiastic and obedient Komsomoltsy, in their early 20s, were invited to become candidate members, then members, of the Communist Party.
The number of card-carrying Communists in the Soviet Union peaked a few years ago at about 20 million -- less than 10 percent of the adult population. But those 10 percent ran every institution in the country, so they were sufficient in number to exert control over every aspect of Soviet life.
It was true, as Mr. Gorbachev wrote in his book, "Perestroika," in 1987, that "perestroika was begun at the initiative of the Communist Party and goes forward under its leadership." It could hardly have been otherwise; nothing of consequence happened in the Soviet Union except with the party's approval.
But economic reform, thought of when Mr. Gorbachev came to power in 1985 as a cheerleading effort to boost production figures, swiftly stalled. Mr. Gorbachev eventually began to shift his attention to the political system, ordering contested elections for the first time since just after the revolution.
Political competition naturally began to divide the once-monolithic Communist Party into reform and conservative factions, just as a freer media exposed the gruesome facts about Josef V. Stalin's terror and began to scrutinize the body of mythology that had been built around Lenin. Writers lampooned the bumbling, meddling party bureaucrats' interference in economic management, and Mr. Gorbachev declared that the party would stick to politics and stay out of daily economic management.
Between 1988 and 1989, the reform movement launched by the party was hijacked by the people, and the party came under increasingly fierce public attack. Under heavy pressure in February 1990, Mr. Gorbachev coaxed the Central Committee to relinquish voluntarily its constitutional monopoly on political power. In July 1990, at a major party congress, Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin and other key reformist politicians quit the party, joining a steady hemorrhage that has reduced party ranks officially to about 16 million.
But at Moscow's big ZIL truck plant, which like all factories had its own party committee with full-time bureaucrats and its own building, the party chief told a reporter in March that the end of the party's legal monopoly had made no real difference to the plant's 10,000-strong party unit. About 15 percent of its members had quit, he said, but the exodus was slowing. Democratic activists at the plant said the party stayed strong because managers were still afraid, in the spring of 1991, that quitting the party would cost them their jobs.
In other words, the party was far from finished, though it had been wounded. One sign of its weakening is that it appears that key KGB, army and police officials, rather than party leaders, initiated last week's coup. But party officials at all levels largely received news of the coup with enthusiasm, and the fierce public backlash now seems almost certain to be a death warrant.
Now new questions arise. Will the final crumbling of the pervasive party structures contribute to economic chaos? Will the removal of the omnipresent threat of "party discipline" from the military spawn insubordination? Most Russian reformers believe that the opposite is the case: A market economy will begin to function better when party bureaucrats have been declawed once and for all, and the army will become a national army rather than a private army of the Communist ruling class.
More controversial are demands for what Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis called "Bolshevism's Nuremburg" -- a trial of the party, or party members, or party leaders, not only for the coup, but also for what they have done to the country. Not only Mr. Gorbachev, but some non-Communist Russian reformist politicians, have warned against a witch-hunt.
In an interview three years ago, a Russian man of 30, recently released after serving 12 years in a labor camp for murder, recalled how inmates in Soviet camps long have scribbled on walls "Kill cops and Communists." The man said he, like many others, believed that civil war was coming to Russia.
Who would it be between? he was asked.
"Between the people and the Communists," he said.