Intellectuals are in the forefront of change in Mikhail Gorbachev's plans to reshape the Soviet Union. Journalists are being encouraged to harass incompetent, conservative, or corrupt bureaucrats. Writers are jolting an inert Communist Party and apathetic public with their depictions of a stagnant and unhappy society. Dramatists and filmmakers are chipping away the selective historical memory fostered by past leaders.
Not all intellectuals are enthusiastically involved. Academics and government experts are often described as part of the problem rather than the solution.
The new policy on intellectuals seems to be the work of Soviet leader Gorbachev, Yegor Ligachev, the ruling Politburo's No. 2 man, and Alexander Yakovlev, probably Gorbachev's closest adviser. The fact that Mr. Ligachev and Gorbachev seem to agree on an issue as delicate as culture and propaganda suggests reports of a split between them are exaggerated.
The initial objective of the policy is to get people to think and speak out: Economic development, Gorbachev supporters say, depends on intellectual development. The new frankness in the news media and in culture is intended as a signal that people can discuss and criticize sensitive subjects without risking their profession or their freedom.
The next stage is much more ambitious. Gorbachev supporters say that they want to develop public opinion into a political force - a ``fourth estate'' that will act as a check against party or government abuse, and a channel for feedback on policies. Unlike the West, however, the system of checks and balances will not include a multiparty system, and unlike China, the party intends to keep democratization under careful control.
One tendency among Soviet writers, such as playwright Mikhail Shatrov and film director Tengiz Abuladze, is a feeling that there can be little progress in Soviet society without a willingness to overcome the mental block of Stalinism.
``[Former dictator Joseph] Stalin physically annihilated millions of people, but he spiritually and intellectually annihilated millions more,'' says a writer deeply involved in anti-Stalinist themes. The present leadership seems more disposed toward this viewpoint, though some party officials say they view it as the first step in a ``balanced assessment'' of Stalin, which should also take into consideration his ``positive elements.'' Mr. Abuladze's film ``Repentance'' opens to general distribution on Thursday. More anti-Stalinist works are expected to be released soon.
Many intellectuals feel that the release from internal exile last month of dissident Andrei Sakharov was one of the leadership's most powerful gestures to Soviet intellectuals. ``It had enormous significance,'' a playwright says. ``It shows that [Gorbachev] would act, not just talk.'' The fact that Dr. Sakharov still voices his old opinions, the playwright adds, reinforces the impact of Sakharov's return.
Fyodor Burlatsky, a political analyst, says Sakharov's return was a signal directed as much to Soviet intellectuals as to the outside world. The move was in part a response to intellectual opinion here, he adds.
``There's no doubt that the return of Sakharov to Moscow was 90 percent a personal decision by Gorbachev, although he obviously discussed it with the Politburo,'' Burlatsky says. ``But public opinion definitely played its part.''
Public opinion in this case took the form mainly of informal ``notes'' sent by academics, writers, or others to the leadership. A hallmark of the Gorbachev style, Mr. Burlatsky says, is the tendency of the leadership to reach beyond the official structures for ideas and feedback. The leadership approaches journalists and academics for ``think pieces.''
``If they are very interested, the leaders call you in for a talk,'' says Burlatsky, who has recently worked as such a consultant, though he would not reveal in what capacity. ``If they are particularly interested, they may have you help draw up resolutions. If it's not very interesting, they'll phone and say, `Thank you very much, we'll think about it.'''
Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and the party Central Committee seem to be among the prime consumers of think pieces.
The most striking changes in intellectual life so far, however, have come in the literary world. Some examples:
The recent publication of controversial works of Valentin Rasputin, Viktor Astafyev, and Chingiz Aitmatov. Mr. Rasputin's latest novella, ``The Fire,'' depicts a Siberian village where power has passed by default into the hands of a gang of brutal seasonal laborers. Mr. Astafyev's novel ``The Sad Detective'' portrays something closer to societal breakdown: a provincial town beset with violent crime, alcoholism, and corruption. Mr. Aitmatov's ``The Execution Block'' discusses a number of previous taboos, including drugs and religion.
Despite their controversial nature, the books have been favorably mentioned by party leaders. Rasputin and Astafyev are part of a group of writers, mostly Siberian, known as the rural or village writers. Some of the group are known to have good relations with another Siberian, Yegor Ligachev. When Gorbachev was asked by Indian journalists last November what books he was reading, he named ``The Execution Block.''
The literary journal Novy Mir and its new editor, Sergei Zalygin, who is not a Communist Party member. (Most if not all previous editors have been senior party members.) Publication of Zalygin's latest novel, ``After the Storm,'' was held up for several years. It was finally published in 1985, after Gorbachev rose to power. The novel deals with Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP), which Zalygin calls unique in Soviet history; under it, three forms of economy - state controlled, cooperative, and private enterprise - coexisted. The NEP experience, Zalygin says, is relevant to developments in the Soviet Union today, and should be ``deeply'' studied.
In the latest edition of Novy Mir, Zalygin attacks at length ``Soviet socialist conservatism'' - the government's addiction to gigantic development projects and its insensitivity to popular opinion. The bureaucracy, he concludes, is essentially out of control. The April edition will carry a lengthy and, Zalygin feels, equally controversial article on economic policy.
The plays of Mikhail Shatrov, who calls for ``realistic history - where you look straight at the facts, not cut people out because you don't agree with them.'' Two key figures in his next play, which opens this spring, are Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, both nonpersons since the late '20s. Mr. Shatrov started writing the play in 1962, but has been unable to stage it until now. Ligachev is known to have played a role in getting the writer's earlier controversial works staged.