The recent firing of Yuri Lyubimov as artistic director of the Taganka Theater is probably the single biggest blow to Moscow's cultural life since the defection in 1981 of Maksim Shostakovich, a leading conductor.
At the Taganka itself, reaction to the news that Lyubimov was dismissed has been swift and strong. Lyubimov founded and ran the Taganka for 20 years, and created its experimental style and the bulk of the repertoire.
Actors were summoned to a meeting March 6 with Moscow's senior cultural official, Vladimir Shadrin, to hear the news. Indignant, they immediately told a Danish correspondent well connected with the theater about the firing, and from there the news spread to the world press and Lyubimov himself in London.
Lyubimov, who skirted the edges of Soviet cultural constraints, left Moscow for London last summer to direct a critically acclaimed performance of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's ''Crime and Punishment.'' He refused to return until given more creative leeway at the theater. He also criticized the Kremlin through the news media for stifling Soviet theater and accused it of plotting to abduct him and bring him back to Moscow.
Soviet officials, evidently tired of Lyubimov's calls for greater artistic freedom, then leaked that Anatoly V. Efros would succeed Lyubimov. Efros is a former director of the Lenin Komsomol (Communist Youth League) theater. He is now at Malaya Bronnaya Theater and an occasional guest director at the Taganka.
The choice set off fresh controversy in the crowded kitchens and living rooms that are Moscow's salons. Some intellectuals who had predicted since Lyubimov left for London last summer that he would not be back, accepted the choice foisted on the theater by the authorities.
''It is not very nice if Efros accepts,'' said one artist. ''It is Lyubimov's theater. But maybe this is the best one can do in the situation.''
The ''situation'' at present is less than rosy for venturesome artistic spirits. While very few Soviets or Westerners familiar with Moscow's cultural scene have linked Lyubimov's dismissal directly to the ascendancy of Konstantin Chernenko, most recall that Chernenko initiated firmer control of Western leanings in the arts at a Communist Party meeting last June. The resultant watchfulness is does not bode well for the style the Taganka pioneered under Lyubimov.
Perhaps because of the furor created by Lyubimov's dismissal, Efros apparently declined to take over until the sacked director was formally expelled from the Communist Party last week.
On Tuesday, the newcomer then held a sour two-hour meeting with almost all the Taganka's 90 actors.
Theater sources told Radio Denmark correspondent Samuel Rachlin that several actors voiced evident unwillingness to work with Efros. The session concluded with what was described as a ''very ironic'' speech by actor Venyamin Smekhov, who mocked Efros for taking over without Lyubimov's permission and failing to discuss the move with the company.
The theater acrimony will do nothing to ease Efros's task. It will take him several years to build his own repertoire at the theater, which will have to rely on productions inspired almost entirely by an exiled Lyubimov.
If Soviet authorities take matters to the brink, the theater could close - not by order of Moscow censors, but by stripping Lyubimov of his Soviet citizenship. This would make it impossible for the Taganka to perform the works of an outlaw.
Few intellectuals expect even hard-line censors to take such a step. But they also have little doubt that ''the Taganka as we knew it is dead. It is very sad.''
One Taganka actress is said to have told Efros when he met the troupe: ''This is not a day of celebration, this is a funeral for our theater.''
The furor over Lyubimov's dismissal reveals some very Soviet traits. The first is the whimsical and powerful nature of censorship, which allows independence to flourish for a while in some places - within limits - while similar art by another man or woman is suppressed.
The second is the tremendous attachment of Soviet, particularly Russian, theater groups to a leader, who frequently lends his or her name to the troupe and for whom the band is a vehicle for glory as well as creativity. While few would deny Lyubimov's great contribution to Soviet theater, there is undoubtedly an element of this emotional attachment in the anger at Efros's appointment.
All this will make life more difficult for the new leader of the Taganka. Some have even speculated that Efros, who has had tussles with censors in the past, has been deliberately handed an impossible task so that authorities can stifle his career, too.
Meanwhile, in the north of Moscow, away from the hubbub of intellectual indignation, authorities have taken another step to smother a dissenting voice.
Roy Medvedev, the Marxist historian whose views have troubled Communist authorities as long as Lyubimov's, had had at least two police guards posted at his front door for almost a month, barring entry to foreigners.
Mr. Medvedev, who frequently met with Western correspondents, has continued to do so. In the process, he runs a gamut of guards and tails who track his movements. He says he can think of no reason for the police guard.
Western journalists themselves note that he saw some two dozen foreign correspondents around the time of Chernenko's succession. Comments he had printed in Western newspapers made plain that he thought little of the Kremlin's new leader. No one can say it with certainty yet, but the cases of Lyubimov and Medvedev suggest Chernenko is going to make life no easier for those who deviate from Soviet norms.