IMAGINE a stately house made of stone, whose classic 18th-century lines are clean and pure. Its elegant moldings are painted white, but the paint is peeling. Its gentle wash of pastel green is splotched with dark patches of decay. Around a corner, chunks of plaster and wooden boards lie scattered on the ground: One whole wing has been demolished to make room for a subway entrance. But the site has been silent for several days; demolition has not gone forward, and work on the subway is at a halt. A group of young men and women stopped it by cordoning off the house. Now they rotate the watches of a 24-hour patrol to make sure work does not start up again. This house is in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad. It belonged to Andrei Delvig, a good friend of the poet Pushkin. The demonstrators sing ballads to pass the time and recite poems using microphones donated by the Communist Youth League.
In Moscow, plans for a vast encircling highway, like the Beltway in Washington, threatened a whole historic neighborhood. About 30 houses built between the 15th and 19th centuries were to be destroyed - old buildings even more precious in Moscow than in Leningrad, whose center is largely preserved.
Then, the night before wrecking was scheduled to begin, citizens from around the city gathered at the first house on the list. They put up a fence and hung it with poetry and articles from Pravda. When the bulldozers came crawling in at dawn, the people literally stood in their path. The bulldozers ground to a halt.
Until now, picketing was absolutely unheard of in the Soviet Union. Only given a really new atmosphere could a group of Muscovites even think about staging such a startling protest of government policy. Its initial success was equally surprising. Later, as the movement gathered momentum, its leaders challenged the chief architect of the State Commission for the Preservation of Historical Monuments to a debate (and got it televised). By all accounts, he did not appear in very good light, showing neither a flair for long-term strategy nor expertise in the details of construction techniques. In the meantime, plans for the highway have returned to the drawing board, and for the moment at least, the historic buildings are safe.
I heard about this from someone who was on the picket lines: the young man detailed by the National Academy of Sciences to accompany me in Moscow. I mentioned his story to another Academy guide, Grigory, who met my train in Leningrad. We were sitting on top of the Hotel Moscow in the gray dawn, waiting for Leningrad to come to life.
``I know about that group,'' he said. ``I am part of the same movement here.''
Grigory is a chemical engineer, but apparently by accident. He is much more interested in ``humanitarian subjects,'' which he pursues on the side. I asked him whether the changes of the Gorbachev regime had affected him. ``Oh, enormously,'' he said.
For several years he has been making his own study of the cultural and architectural history of his city - call it Leningrad or Petrograd or St. Petersburg, as you please. He spent hours riding around on his bicycle locating buildings and taking photographs; befriending librarians who could produce any document he wanted from the polished walnut cases arrayed along gilt corridors; winning the confidence of a priest of the Old Believers, for example, a group that has been persecuted since the 16th-century reform of Russian Orthodox rite. (He touched him by bringing pictures of five of the eight Old Believer churches that were functioning at the time of the Revolution.)
Grigory is particularly interested in Leningrad churches, only a fraction of which are now functioning. Most have been abandoned and are falling to ruin, or else have been incorporated into administrative installations and serve as headquarters for some bureau or func-tionary.
GRIGORY is compiling a list of all of them: their founders and parishioners, the date they fell into disuse, and their current functions and conditions, with photographs and plans. He hopes to induce the government to relinquish control of them so that as many as possible can be reconverted into places of worship. Those unable to support a congregation, like the monastery on the outskirts of town that was founded in thanksgiving for Alex-ander Nevsky's victory over the Tatars, should be made into museums or used for other cultural purposes, he says.
Grigory has written several articles on the history of Leningrad - articles that lay in his desk drawer at home until last year. Now they are published in the Leningrad papers. He is asked to give lectures and slide shows at civic organizations and in the assembly halls of industrial plants. In spite of the still-rigid controls on publishing, he has started a typescript magazine. If it is not yet allowed to benefit from a printing press or even a photocopy machine for its dissemination, it is at least now registered with the National Copyright Office. This is no underground affair. The five or 10 copies of every issue circulate rapidly across a whole network of Leningraders who share an avid interest in their city and devote an enormous amount of energy to maintaining it. Every Saturday afternoon they meet in the auditorium of a hydroelectric plant, under the auspices of the Center for Creative Initiative, to hear lectures and plan strategy.
The action to save Delvig's house from the subway coalesced this group in its wake. Next they protected the house where Dostoyevsky wrote the ``White Nights'' stories by staging two events. One was a tour of Dostoyevsky's St. Petersburg, leaving from the threatened house. It was led by a professor of Russian literature at Leningrad University who is lovingly familiar with the broad avenues, apartments, churches, and street corners that figured in Dosto-yevsky's life and in the lives of the characters he created. The second event was an exhibition of avant-garde art displayed in the courtyard of the ``White Nights'' house. Interested people from around the city came in 10-degree weather to look at the paintings, and neighboring residents served tea.
Despite their success so far, Grigory's group is anything but complacent. They are not satisfied, for example, with their handling of the press. The Muscovites did better. Although the Leningrad tour was televised and its organizer interviewed, the report did not mention his affiliation to any organized movement. He was identified only as an employee of the Leningrad museum.
THE Leningrad version of the televised debate with state architects was not so decisive as its Moscow prototype, either. Therefore, the group's aims now include publicizing its activities more effectively; also increased participation by factories and other industrial organizations, which have already donated assembly halls, spare construction materials, and the expertise of their employees. Tactics up to now have exploited the relaxed and exciting atmosphere of recent months. The group has written letters to the editors of newspapers criticizing various government agencies; members have met and argued with the directors of state and city Commissions for the Preservation of Historical Monuments; they have collected parishioners' names on a petition begging for permission to reconsecrate a neighborhood church. They have even sent letters and telegrams of protest to General Secretary Gorbachev.
Grigory and his friends look toward a new Soviet Union, where actions like these will not seem so extraordinary. Yet their aspirations are not simplistic: Several motifs are intertwined. This new Soviet Union, they say, cannot move forward divorced from its Russian past. What they most resent about the post-Revolutionary ferver of the '20s and '30s is its need to exorcise the past, to destroy, utterly, before creating. By contrast, they hope to restore while creating. So they search out churches and revere old poets, while writing rock-and-roll music and exhibiting avant-garde art.
They are not impervious to the words of older Soviets and Western wags: ``We have seen promise before. How long will it last this time?'' They know about short-lived reform. What they are trying to do, they say, is carry the changes to the point where some of them, anyway, will be irrevocable. They are trying to plant something that cannot be torn up.
Perhaps little is ever irrevocable in the Soviet Union; perhaps reform is always just cosmetic. Nevertheless, there is something impressive in this movement that unites a strategic analyst from Moscow and a chemical engineer from Leningrad in their passionate concern to recover their past for the future - to root their young plant in Russian culture and heritage. As I stood that night in the door of a Leningrad church, I was struck by the building's cool baroque exterior contrasted with its almost Byzantine interior; bronze plaques shaped like suns blazed from every pillar; votive candles illuminated every icon. A few rows of people were praying to the rich medieval harmony of a hidden chorus.