VALENTIN RASPUTIN'S story ``The Fire'' was the first literary work of the Gorbachev era. Its harsh picture of a Siberian village in a state of social collapse anticipated the new leadership's call for a more frank appraisal of the country's problems, and made it into print only after a brush with the censors. In the two years since its publication, Mr. Rasputin has turned away temporarily from fiction. He has spent much of his time fighting to protect the environment in his native Siberia, particularly Lake Baikal, one of the world's largest freshwater lakes.
But he has not changed his tone: His attacks on ``predatory'' ministries, official deceit, and ``half-hearted'' government measures to preserve the environment are blunt, even in today's atmosphere of criticism.
Despite this, he received two of the country's highest awards last week - the Hero of Socialist Labor and an Order of Lenin - on his 50th birthday, an unusually young age for such honors. The citation noted both his services to literature and his social activism. Yet Rasputin is not a member of the Communist Party.
Throughout history, he said in a recent interview on the shores of Lake Baikal, Siberians have reacted to all governments in the same way: ``with caution.'' He apparently shares this attitude. He is, however, guardedly optimistic about the changes under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
At the moment, he says, ``there are quite good grounds for optimism. The situation in the past two years has changed, and hopes have increased. But after all, we've been fired up with hope so many times before, and so many times have had to turn back. This experience has led to lingering doubts about whether it [the present tendency toward reform] will last. But two years have already passed and there is movement forward, so this gives rise to additional optimism.''
Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranking member of the ruling Politburo, seems particularly receptive to the views of Rasputin and other authors who, because of their subject matter, are often called ``the village writers.'' Rasputin denies that the group has special access to Mr. Ligachev, who is himself from Siberia. But he notes that Ligachev did express considerable interest in his articles on the state of Lake Baikal.
Shortly after one of these, Rasputin says, a government commission was formed to examine the state of the lake. Many readers apparently interpreted ``The Fire'' as an allegory of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union.
Rasputin's explanation is simpler: ``I didn't have to make anything up,'' he says. ``I simply looked at what was being done around me, in my native village.''
``The Fire'' describes how a massive logging concern destroys not just the forests, but the traditional village way of life in Siberia. Gangs of seasonal workers from the logging camp terrorize a village; the locals do nothing, or try to pretend it is not happening. The decay of the village is shown when a fire breaks out in the warehouse, and the villagers join the seasonal workers in looting it. One of the few positive characters is murdered during the fire, and the story ends on an ambiguous note. The seasonal workers seem to have won.
His writings chart the disappearance of the old way of life in Siberia. Sometimes the disappearance is physical, as in ``Farewell to Matera,'' which describes the submerging of his native village to make way for a hydroelectric project. The story deeply irritated the party leadership when it was published in 1976.
Sometimes it is the moral values of Siberia that are disappearing, as in ``The Fire,'' which picks up the story of the village in its new location. Rasputin's stories lack the heroic, positive message of many approved works of Soviet literature. The local authorities and the local party officials make rare appearances in his stories. When they do appear, they are often viewed by the villagers as rather irrelevant, and sometimes treated with disdain.
Despite his relative optimism about the changes in his country, Rasputin still feels that the old Siberia is dying fast. The Siberians were ``special people,'' he says - people who settled there 300 years ago had to be physically tough to survive.
They were special in other ways, he adds. Some were political exiles, others were Cossacks. Many ``were seeking freedom. Some did not like life in the west [of Russia]. Some were hiding from the law or were seeking religious freedom.''
Spiritual and moral values of the past are dying with the villages, he feels, and the value system that has replaced them is considerably lower.
Rasputin finds the attitude of the government toward Siberia to be equally disturbing.
``Many ministries and departments are simply predatory in their attitude to Siberia,'' he says. He names the ministries of energy, wood and paper products, and nonferrous metals. ``The main thing for them is to rip as much as possible out of here for as little cost [as possible].''
In the more remote parts of Siberia, there are still people who live by hunting, fishing, or trapping, he says. ``They are not all old. It's interesting that some young men have gone up there. They don't consider it stupid. They don't feel they have to live like a modern man and lay concrete or build dams. They feel that the air is cleaner there, their children will be healthier.''
Rasputin himself was born in a village on the Angara River in Siberia. His father was a postal worker and his mother worked in the village savings bank.
``My father fought in the war - not badly, judging by his medals. Then, a little time after the war, he spent seven years in the [labor] camps. He was not a political prisoner. He was a drinker, to put it mildly. And one day he was robbed when he was going to pay out remittances. In those days, they weren't shy about giving people long sentences, and he ended up on the Kolyma River'' in the harshest part of northern Russia.
Some of the village writers have been accused of romanticizing the rural past, but for Rasputin the commune, with its tradition of mutual support, worked. ``I was the first kid from the village to go to middle school. My father was already dead. The whole village helped. People would come to town and leave food for me, without saying where it had come from.''
The village writers are not trying to save the old village, he says, but to document its values. ``If we can do that, it will have been worth it.''