Though the temperatures have been brutally low here recently, the first settling snow was more than a month late. A full day's snowfall two weeks ago left the air crisp and the streets covered with dry, sparkling snow. It also brought families out for a walk in the moonlight along the boulevard ring - a thin belt of park which encircles the middle of Moscow and which has changed little since the last century.
Parents pulled their smaller children along on sleds, one of the few bargains left in Moscow at about 5 rubles ($7) each. In one case, we saw the family dog doing the pulling. The boulevard ring is dotted with small playgrounds that take on a special attraction for children with sleds: Frozen wooden slides make a short but exciting toboggan run.
Earlier that day, we had gone for a walk in Peredelkino, a village just outside of Moscow best-known as a writers' colony. Boris Pasternak lived there until his death in 1960, and the poets Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko are among its present residents.
Three adults and four children, we strolled over a big frozen pond, then headed for the village graveyard to look for Pasternak's grave. This proved hard to find, and eventually one of us asked an elderly gentleman if he could direct us.
He could indeed. He was the self-appointed guardian of the grave. He was obviously in retirement and was reticent about himself. ``I have no profession, I just love poetry,'' he said.
He came two or three times a week to clean the place and show anyone around, he said. He considers Pasternak one of the two greatest Russian poets of the century. The other, he said, is Marina Tsvetayeva, a poet and literary critic hostile to the Soviet regime who lived abroad until 1939, then returned home and committed suicide two years later. (This correspondent's defense of Anna Akhmatova was politely brushed aside.)
He had memorized 200 of Pasternak's 600 poems, he said. He gave a brief lecture on Pasternak's early years and then, having ascertained our nationality, gave another short talk about Pasternak's translations from Shakespeare and other English writers.
He was also very well-versed in the recent debates over Pasternak and other writers who have been in partial or total disgrace up to now.
He recalled the congress of the Writers' Union six months ago, when a number of prominent figures called for Pasternak's house to be turned into a museum.
Was anything happening with the house, we asked. Workers had been there for the last 12 months, he said. It was not clear what they were doing. But there was a sign outside that read: ``museum under restoration.'' The sign was not literate, he noted with slight irritation: ``They can't be restoring a museum, because they haven't had a museum there yet.''
But it was a promising development, he conceded.
An article in a recent issue of Ogonek, the rough equivalent of Life magazine, gave a sharply different picture of Peredelkino. The author of the article describes a gang fight he witnessed there. It ended with one youth being run over by a train as he fled from the opposing gang. This incident was just the introduction to a long discussion on the problems of youth. Some of the explanations he puts forward for delinquency and other youth problems are quite remarkable.
The alienation and stagnation of recent years was not just a political or an economic phenomenon, the author believes. ``Hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness,'' the constant contrast between high ideals and the more depressing reality, develops in the adolescent a ``cynical and almost open flouting of all the laws of morality.'' A few years ago, as foreign journalists here say about almost everything they read these days, such an article would have been unthinkable.
Finally back to poetry. Alexander Gradsky, one of the enfants terribles of the music scene, recently gave a concert here. Mr. Gradsky, who has shoulder-length hair and several chins, was introduced by Mr. Vozensensky as ``one of the founders of indigenous rock.'' His music relied largely on the synthesizer, and it was performed slightly above the threshold of pain.
Like many other performers, Gradsky is benefiting from the new liberalization in culture.
``I would now like to perform a song I wrote in 1980 and which was authorized for performance [by the Soviet authorities] three days ago,'' he told the audience at one point. His problems stemmed from his lyrics: Most were from modern poets.
His favorite poet, he told the audience, was Vladimir Nabokov.
Nabokov lived much of his life in the West, and until this year was bitterly denounced by the Soviet leadership (he felt the same about them). The gradual publication of some of his works here is one of the minor sensations of a very unusual time.