The Metropol is one of Moscow's few fine old hotels, a fanciful island of turn-of-the-century elegance in a sea of gray socialist concrete and steel. Graceful birdcage elevators climb slowly past heavily carpeted marble staircases; bronze cupids lurk, embarrassed, in the corners where plaster busts of Lenin would reside in newer buildings. The cavernous mirrored restaurant off the lobby, while depressingly down-at-the-heel, is where Moscow's chic set has traditionally met to eat and drink.
All this is by way of introduction to the literary almanac ''Metropol,'' a rich and wonderful collection of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and songs (to name a few), compiled in Moscow in January 1979, and now translated into English. (It was first published in Russian in the United States by Ardis later in 1979.)
''Metropol,'' like its hotel namesake, is fanciful, sophisticated, imaginative, and, in the context of Soviet literature, an anachronism. In putting together their collection, the 23 contributors acted in a blatantly un-Soviet manner: They smuggled the almanac abroad for publication in the West at the same time that they submitted it to Soviet publishing houses. When their unsocialist behavior was discovered, the Soviet cultural bureaucrats acted swiftly. A reception planned in the Metropol restaurant to unveil the almanac to Russian and Western supporters was aborted when the restaurant was inexplicably and suddenly closed down for ''cleaning day.''
In the end, of course, ''Metropol'' - like ''Doctor Zhivago'' and Solzhenitsyn's novels - remained, unpublished in Russia. Most of the contributors, who included an impressive lineup of well-established, previously nondissident writers, suddenly found their Soviet literary careers endangered. Some, like Vasily Aksyonov, one of ''Metropol's'' editors and probably the primary motivating force behind the project, were even forced to leave the USSR permanently. At the moment Aksyonov is living in Washington, D.C.
What he and his collaborators were hoping to accomplish was to challenge the closed Soviet system of publication and to assert their right of self-expression , supposedly guaranteed them in the Soviet Constitution and the Helsinki human rights agreements. By submitting the almanac simultaneously to Soviet and Western publishers, they were attempting to force the hand of the Soviet government with the strength of Western public opinion. The authorities were not amused.
All the political brouhaha surrounding ''Metropol'' would lead one to expect that its contents would be explicitly critical of the Soviet regime and the Soviet way of life. It isn't. The stories, poems, and articles so lovingly assembled here, with a few exceptions, make little direct reference to Soviet ideology or cultural oppression. That is, in a sense, the point that ''Metropol'' tries to make: We are loyal Soviet citizens, the writers say, and we love our country - but we want to be free to write about our lives and surroundings in any style we find appropriate, not just in the manner demanded by the Writers' Union and the cultural bureaucrats.
Accordingly, the genres and writing styles in ''Metropol'' span a wide spectrum, from the realistic, accessible ''Two Diaries,'' by Pyotr Kozhevnikov (a fascinating look at the life of Soviet teen-agers told through the diary entries of a boy and girl gradually discovering and falling in love with each other), to the dense, image-saturated poetic prose of Bella Akhmadulina, the most gifted female poet of her generation, in ''The Many Dogs and the Dog.'' There are poems and songs by Vladimir Vysotsky, who passed on in 1980 after a phenomenally celebrated career as actor, songwriter, and poet; exotic tales of Soviet Central Asia by Fazil Iskander; philosophical musings by Viktor Yerofeyev; and much more.
''Metropol'' is both exhilarating and tragic reading, for it reveals the great diversity of talent among the current generation of Soviet writers and their difficulty in developing it freely. The Soviet cultural bureaucrats might be well advised to heed Leonid Batkin's conclusion in his essay, ''The Uncomfortableness of Culture'': ''Let us not defend culture. Rather, let us try not to hinder it''.