THE post-Brezhnev era has revealed what leading Soviet writers say is a spiritual crisis in Soviet society. The pages of the country's literary journals have been flooded with writing depicting the moral degradation of the Soviet people, almost 70 years after the Russian Revolution.
Vasily Bykov, Viktor Astafyev, and Chinghiz Aytmatov, the most popular contemporary Soviet writers, have led this wave. They see the roots of this decline in the destruction of religion, and its revival as the only way out. Bykov, an officially recognized literary master and the winner of every imaginable award, has declared that there cannot be morality without faith.
``What happened to us?'' asked Astafyev, a widely published writer, in a recent article. ``Who hurled us into the depths of evil and misfortune, and why? Who extinguished the light of goodness in our soul? Who blew out the lamp of our conscience, toppled it into a dark, deep pit in which we are groping, trying to find the bottom, a support and some kind of guiding light to the future?
``What use have we for that light which leads to the fires of hell?...
``We lived with a light in our soul [religion], acquired long before us by the creators of heroic feats and lighted for us so that we would not wander in the darkness, run into trees, or into one another in the world, scratch out each other's eyes, or break our neighbor's bones....
``They [the communists] stole it from us and did not give anything in return, giving rise to unbelief, an all-encompassing unbelief....
``To whom should we pray? From whom should we ask for forgiveness?''
Astafyev's piece appeared in the May issue of Our Contemporary, a popular Moscow literary magazine. He has won many government awards and literary prizes and is one of the most outspoken contemporary Slavophiles. Nostalgic themes are clearly pronounced in his works, and his leaning toward Christianity can be expected.
But it is surprising that Aytmatov, an ethnic Muslim and an equally popular and officially recognized writer, has praised Christ and Christianity. When asked why he had chosen a Christian seminary student as the main character in his latest work, published in May in the leading Soviet literary journal, Novy Mir (New World), he replied: ``Christianity has created a very strong impulse in the figure of Christ. Islam, to which I belong by virtue of my ethnic origin, does not have such a figure. Muhammad was not a martyr. He had difficult days when he suffered, but to be crucified for an idea and forgive it -- that Islam does not have.''
The wave of criticism in the pages of Soviet literature, which appears to be out of control, began in 1982, soon after the death of Communist Party ideologue Mikhail Suslov, the ``grand inquisitor'' who over a quarter of a century killed all vital signs in the spiritual life of Soviet society.
In Suslov's day, the ideological leadership would have brought retribution, and the heretics would have been crushed with an iron fist.
Today that leadership is indecisive. Pravda, Izvestia, and Kommunist, the chief party ideological journal, have greeted the calls for a revival of religion with silence. The traditionally liberal (by Soviet standards) Literaturnaya Gazeta has published an interview with Aytmatov in which he was allowed to express his seditious views without any critical commentary, though the interviewer was clearly sympathetic. Traditionally orthodox Komsomolskaya Pravda has criticized religious inclinations of distinguished writers, but only in a mild way.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his No. 2 in the Kremlin, party ideologue Yegor Ligachev, face a difficult problem. How should they respond to the open calls for religious renaissance?
A press campaign criticizing the most prominent writers could push them toward further dissent. It is one thing for Pravda to criticize economists favoring free-market reform. A campaign against writers who are revered as spiritual authorities by millions of Soviet readers would be different. Such an action would signal that nothing has changed since Suslov's days and would be so disillusioning as to alienate the people -- especially the intelligentsia -- from Mr. Gorbachev.
Gorbachev's greatest enthusiasts are in the cultural sphere. The arrival of the new Kremlin leadership brought a slight loosening of the harsh ideological constraints governing Soviet literature. In the past several months, new leaders have been appointed to key posts in the arts: for example, Sergey Zalygin, the first among Soviet writers to describe Joseph Stalin's liquidation of peasants in the 1930s, as editor in chief of Novy Mir, and Grigory Baklanov, the first Soviet writer to give the real picture of the Soviet military's retreat during the first months of World War II, as editor in chief of Znamya, a leading Moscow literary journal.
Most of the brilliant writers in Russia have expressed the mood and aspirations of the progressive members of the population. It is hard to overestimate the spiritual influence of such writers as Astafyev, Aytmatov, and Bykov on the educated part of Soviet society. More and more, such writers appear to be following in the footsteps of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. These writers believe that restoring traditional religious values is the only way to solve the current spiritual crisis. They have not suggested a specific plan to accomplish this. But for people disappointed by communist ideology, they provide desperately needed hope.
Gorbachev could not have expected this turn of events, and yet unwittingly he may have helped to further it. The Soviet leader's encouragement of the cultural field to be more sharp in its criticism of society has spawned even more writing on the country's spiritual crisis. This call for more vigilance in the arts may come back and hit him like a boomerang.
Boris Rumer is a research associate at Harvard University's Russian Research Center.