At the top of a marble staircase a few blocks from the Kremlin, Soviet authorities have deposited a cherished gift for Soviet artists: their own past. For decades, the officially imposed esthetic doctrine of "socialist realism" has almost completely buried the memory --and offending canvases -- of abstract and impressionist Russian painters who helped propel European art into the 20th century.
But now a creature called detente, which most of us have trouble defining and some say is near extinction, has helped produce the first major exhibition here in years of an officially forgotten species calles Russian modernits. This appears a culmination of smaller, isolated showings of some modernist work here in recent years.
The show, called "Moscow-Paris 1900- 1930" is the flip side of a nearly identical "Paris-Moscow" exhibition held in the French capital two years ago. It is to run through early October. The idea is to trace cultural links between the Russian (later Soviet) state and france through the first three decades of this century.
The effect in the Soviet capital has been at least some measure of rehabilitation for a band of great Russian artists who had become virtual nonpersons. How far this process will go, or how long it will last, is impossible to say.
But the determinedly scruffy young art students milling through the crowded exhibition hall in downtown Moscow, notebooks or cameras in hand, seem too busy to ask.
"This exhibition," a would-be artist with a blond moustache begins cautiously , "is, shall we say, highly welcome." A few moments later, he gushes: "It is high time that we should show these paintings."
"These paintings" are works by Kasimir Malyevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Wassily Kandinsky. There is also Marc chagall, the Russian-born master who left for France five years after the Bolshevik revolution.
They were, in a sense, the artistic side of the Russian revolution, bold innovators ultimately quashed by Stalin's ideas of art.
"Socialist realism," still dormally the artistic law of the land, decrees that painters matter much less than what they paint. And they paint workers, communist, factories, advertisements for a Soviet utopia.
If you mount the main staircase of Moscow's Pushkin Museum to the exhibition area, look neither left nor right, and push onward, you will, indeed, march into socialist realism, including a famous portrait of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
This, says a review in the official newspaper Soviet Culture, is the anatomical "head" of the exhibition, its "ideological, spiritual, historical,and social epicenter."
But of the hundreds of visitors packing the exhibition area when this reporter showed up June 9, few seemed to spend much time in the epicenter.
In more crowded rooms a few dozen foot- steps away hung Picassoesque works by Kandinsky, impressionistic canvases by Tatlin, abstracts by Malyevich.
A Muscovite friend who is usually vehement in her praise of the Soviet state stood devouring a Chagall canvas of a country village. The subject matter would be eminently fit for socialist realism. But the treatment included an incongrously hot-red house and, in the sky above, intertwined, a brightly clad man and woman.
"This is a very, very impressive exhibit," my friend mumbled aloud. Scribbling notes on a small piece of paper, she explained, "There is no catalog."
At least, it's hard to find. The Soviets are unveiling their artistic past with evident caution. Official accounts of the exhibition have been heavy on socialist realism, devoid of praise for other Russian works.
Although tickets -- at the modest price of about $2.85 -- theoretically can be had at various theater box offices around town, one salesman suggested there were very few of these. "In any case, we immediately sold out for June."
A saleswoman at the museum book shop said only 20 copies of the two-volume catalog for the exhibition had gone on sale there. soviet officials said 27,000 copies had been printed, but even the French co-organizers of the show have had trouble getting copies. Several other reporters and I were loaned a copy obtained by a French representatives at the official opening.
The French also grumble that two Russian abstract canvases slated for inclusion in the show aren't there; that two Chagalls were surreptitiously swapped for two others; that several catalog references to the discredited Trotsky were cut by Soviet editors; and that other biographical material on Russian artists was changed.
But to most Muscovites, particularly to artist or would-be artists, this is all trivia. The exhibition is happening. With a little patience and imagination, tickets aren't that difficult to get. And artists, particularly the "nonconformists" who have been sparring gently with officialdom recently, don't need a biography to know who Malyevich was.
The fact that these nonconformists can occasionally exhibit their work openly -- and attempt in 1974 met with bulldozers -- seems part of cautious, piecemeal, and by no means definitive loosening of cultural controls here recently. The nonconformists hope "Moscow-Paris" is part of this.
They are a lonely and intense lot who, maybe partly because they are russians and partly because they are artists, seem to thrive on being lonely and intense.
A Moscow radio commentator, speaking after a recent nonconformist showing, said these painters were getting "more mature," but they still didn't seem to be producing much of lasting import.
That is not unfair. There is a primitive, almost adolescent, feeling about many of their canvases. It is as if they were trying to pretend they are Malyevich, Kandinsky, Tatlin. One cannot help feeling that the occasional religious image is painted in mostly for the sake of rebellion.
Over a scalding cup of tea in his cramped studio, one of the painters agrees. "We have a way to go," he conceded.
"But you must remember. We start from a void, chopped off from many years of our artistic past. . . . We are starting anew, discovering late, because of that gap.