MOSCOW -- For decades on Petrovka Street there was a mammoth display labeled, in foot-high metal letters, "Leading Workers of Sverdlovsk District." The proud unsmiling portraits of the dozen heroes of labor of the month gazed out at passers-by in inspiring example.
In the absence of more mercenary inducements to show up at work sober and on time, citizens of this central Moscow neighborhood were supposed to be motivated by the hope that one day, they, too, might have their photos on the honor board.
Today the Leading Workers are gone, their portraits swept away in the giant housecleaning that followed last month's final, spectacularly incompetent convulsion of the old order. The revolution -- was it a revolution? -- toppled many a rotten institution and left this city at once hopeful and nervous, more certain ofwhere it wants to go and less certain of how to get there.
The glass cases where the Leading Workers' photos were displayed are empty, the marble-tiled pedestal crumbling. With the metal letters still intact, the effect is honest but not encouraging: There are no leading workers here anymore.
"After the euphoria, there are questions," said Yuri A. Levada, a sociologist and pollster who started to gauge the support for the coup in anonymous telephone interviews hours after the short-lived junta seized power. Now he is probing people's views on what comes next.
"Where are the democratic institutions? Where are the democratic parties? When are the democratic elections?" he demanded. "The answers are not reassuring."
Polls suggest that there is little public faith in any institutions, he said. The old ones, and even some fairly new ones, such as the Soviet parliament, are disbanded or discredited. The new ones are tiny, like the new political parties, or unformed, like the governmental bodies to come with the planned Union of Sovereign States. The sole constant is the enormous popularity of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
"There is just the leader, Yeltsin, and the people, with nothing in between," Mr. Levada said. "That's not a situation you expect in a stable democracy.
"I think disappointment could come by spring. Yeltsin has to do something to improve people's lives and to clarify authority. If he can't do something in the next few months, he could find himself in deep crisis."
Surreal is a word that crops up frequently in the conversation of Muscovites trying to make sense of their new world. What else can they say?
Down Petrovka Street on a mild autumn day struts a Cossack in high boots and traditional battle garb, presumably off to lobby for the rediscovered cause of Cossack rights. Passing him is a striking blond teen-age girl in a sweat shirt with a KGB logo and the title of a play satirizing the secret police.
At news kiosks and souvenir stands around town, postcards of naked women compete for space with postcards of Russian Orthodox icons and saints: Religion and sex, both frowned upon by the Communists, are making a strong comeback. A big hit is a satirical newspaper called Balda, meaning buffoon, bearing a cover picture of former Prime Minister and coup conspirator, now jailbird, Valentin S. Pavlov. The layout and typeface precisely match those of Pravda.
Fancy billboards advertise Mars bars and M&Ms; and Crest toothpaste and weed trimmers -- but try to find them.
Television advertisements offer "courses for brokers" in New York, Paris and Athens, and seats on the newly proliferating commodities exchanges for 200,000 rubles apiece, but for most people a more immediate piece of economic information is, where can I buy food?
News segues seamlessly into history. A ruble and 58 kopecks will buy you a button identifying you as a Defender of the White House, the resistance headquarters, or another showing a democratic fist smashing the GKChP, the initials of one of history's shortest-lived juntas.
Though it is only September, the August Revolution has already taken its place in Moscow's Museum of the Revolution -- named, of course, for that other revolution in October 1917.
Out front, a crumpled red trolley bus from last month's barricades squares off against a green cannon that shelled White Russian guards 74 years ago. Inside, the forces of Bolshevism and anti-Bolshevism occupy different rooms -- the latter gradually gaining territory. The museum's enterprising employees may be hoping that their instant exhibit
on the defeat of the coup will help protect their jobs.
Cadres decide everything
The ex-Communists now running the country have not forgotten V. I. Lenin's dictum: "Cadres decide everything." In nothing is the post-perestroika order more original than in its personnel policy.
The Moscow police headquarters has always been known by its address, Petrovka 38. The mere mention of it was once enough to hush conversation and send shivers down spines. Its just-appointed chief, Arkady N. Murashyov, is a boyish reformist parliamentarian whose prior training and experience was in high-temperature physics.
By his own cheerful admission, Mr. Murashyov doesn't know anything about police work, and many Muscovites reacted to word of the appointment the way Americans might have if Mister Rogers had been put in charge of the FBI. But in the brave new world of the post-Soviet union, inexperience is a big plus on a resume.
Viewers of the 9 p.m. national television news program "Vremya" (Time) got a shock last week when Mark Deich popped up as co-host, saying he was sorry if he looked nervous, but this was his first time on TV.
True, "Vremya" has been trying to shed its image as a boring, prevaricating mouthpiece for the Communist regime. But Mr. Deich has been for two years one of the most active Moscow correspondents for Radio Liberty, the aggressively anti-Communist short-wave station financed by the U.S. government. Soviet television ran a documentary just a few months ago alleging that the CIA still ran Radio Liberty and suggesting that Soviet citizens like Mr. Deich who worked for it were committing treason.
Now Mr. Deich's problem is likely to be his old anti-Communist colleagues. For some of them, appearing on "Vremya," even its new improved version, is, well, treason.
Eyebrows were undoubtedly raised among the clean-cut crowd in the Moscow KGB's cafeteria about two weeks ago when a scruffy collection of radical historians and dissidents turned up for lunch.
"Our commission looks a little exotic there," said Nita Petrov, 34, a bearded, long-haired chemist whose hobby of researching the Soviet secret police has become a vocation.
He is a member of a team appointed by Moscow's mayor to study and help decide the fate of the city's KGB and Communist Party archives. He was himself interrogated by the KGB when a dissident friend was jailed in 1985, and his books and files were confiscated. One of his partners in archive work, historian Arseny Roginksy, was imprisoned for four years by the KGB for his political activities.
Being let at the voluminous archives of the secret police is a pleasure Mr. Petrov had never dared dreamed would be his: "I'm a specialist, and for me, an order from the 1930s on the kind of uniform they wore in the NKVD [predecessor to the KGB] is music to my ears."
The Leading Workers used to look across the street at the chunky yellow building from which the neighborhood was run: the Sverdlovsk District Committee of the Communist Party.
A couple of weeks after the August coup collapsed, the old sign was pried off and a new one bolted in its place. Now it is the Committee for the Privatization of Municipal Property. Inside, a whole new bureaucracy has been born to put into reverse the old Bolshevik slogan: Expropriate the expropriators!
But scribbled on a posted scrap of paper last week was a reminder that the revolution has not done away with all venerable Soviet traditions: "For technical reasons, the committee is not working Sept. 16, 17, 18."