New York — To Vasilly Aksyonov, exiled Russian author, the Moscow Book Fair was like an oasis in the desert - one with water that frequently turned bitter. Since its inception in 1977, the Moscow Book Fair has been the subject of intense controversy over who was allowed to attend and which books could be displayed. Some attendants have reported harassment by the KGB, the Soviet secret police. But it had been greeted with great enthusiasm by Western publishers and those members of the Soviet intelligensia who could get in.
This year most of the some 60 American publishers who have regularly attended the fair have decided to stay away in protest of the treatment of writers in the Soviet Union, over 100 of whom are either in prison or forced exile. The publishers will announce their plans next Wednesday.
Mr. Aksyonov has mixed emotions about their decision.
''They were a great source of information for the Russian public,'' Aksyonov, interviewed by telephone from Washington, D.C., recalls of the first two fairs. They gave Soviet writers and intellectuals ''their only access to the Western book world.''
The fairs also gave the Soviet government a propaganda forum of enormous proportions, he adds, charging that this aspect was a bitter pill for repressed Soviet writers.
Despite this fact, a number of Soviet emigre writers support the decision of American publishers to stay away. They say the history of the event speaks for itself.
The first book fair in 1977 had been greeted with great excitement by American publishers, who saw it as a chance to tap an untouched market, and to reach a society thirsting for the free flow of information, especially Soviet authors themselves.
At the second book fair, a group of American publishers threw a party for 50 Soviet authors in a public restaurant. ''The place was mobbed by KGB,'' notes Jeri Laber of the International Freedom to Publish Committee of the Association of American Publishers. ''And two years later, when the time came for the next book fair, most of those who attended were either in exile or imprisoned. ''
By that time, things had become increasingly acrimonious. Western publishers were angry that writers they had published were in prison. Meanwhile, Soviet officials began making things difficult for the publishers, suddenly revoking the visa of Random House chief executive Robert L. Bernstein.
It was Mr. Bernstein, in his role as chairman of the private Fund for Free Expression, and John Macrae III of Holt, Rinehart & Winston, chairman of the AAP's Freedom to Publish Committee, who signed the letter to the press saying that most US publishers had decided to stay away.
Not everyone in the AAP agrees with the decision.
''The Soviets are not the easiest people in the world to deal with,'' says Stan Kendrick, president of Prentice-Hall International, which will attend the fair. ''But we believe the thing to do is to keep the lines of communication open.''
Prentice-Hall does a largely scientific and technical trade with the USSR, as do most publishers who have decided to go this year. It is the publishers of fiction and political and philosophical nonfiction who have most sharply felt the rub of Soviet censorship, and who are responding with a boycott.
Some publishers who are staying away say they are doing so because they felt they got little out of the previous fairs anyway. But others feel uncomfortable with the idea of a boycott.
''It's a very tricky issue,'' acknowledges Mr. Macrae. ''The sort of position we are taking is one I've got a lot of problems with,'' he says, adding that he has always supported efforts to foster communication between the two countries.
''But in the last couple of years the Soviet Union has gotten tougher and tougher on writers there. . . . If they are silenced, can we go on displaying our books, pretending that there is freedom to publish there - even while writers on our lists are exiled or imprisoned?''
But Soviet emigre writers say the move will have little effect on Soviet policy.
''It will not change anything,'' says Sergei Dovlatov, speaking through his daughter as an interpreter, in a telephone interview. ''They don't care about their image. They made the head of the KGB the head of the government. That should tell you what they think about world opinion.''
Mr. Dovlatov and other writers agree, however, that ''it is important to show your principles, even if Soviet authorities ignore your actions.''
When informed by this reporter of the publishers' decision, Vladimir Mikoyan, press officer for the Soviets' cultural attache in Washington, responded with apparent disgust, ''This is an absolutely futile attempt to block the information flow.'' He labeled the move ''a disservice to common sense,'' adding , ''We reserve the right to choose what to publish and what not to.''
The results of the boycott, therefore, remain uncertain. Most observers feel it will darken the prestigious image the Soviets hope to gain from the event.
''I can understand the publishers' feelings,'' Aksyonov muses. ''Those who feel insulted should stay away. but those who are in a position to bring something useful, something enlightening, to Moscow, should come.''