Even a year ago, the novel ``Children of the Arbat,'' published yesterday in Moscow, would have caused a sensation, with its depiction of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as pathologically suspicious and politically obtuse. Today it is one more piece of proof that political changes under Mikhail Gorbachev are going further and faster than previous attempts to reform the Soviet system.
The novel, by Anatoly Rybakov, has long been known in literary circles here, where it has become a sort of litmus test of cultural and political liberalism. In 1966, then again in 1978, two of the country's main literary journals announced their intention to print the story. Both attempts failed.
``Children of the Arbat'' will probably become better known in the West than many of the anti-Stalinist works that have appeared here recently. It has received considerable advance publicity in the West, and it is due to be published in the United States later this year.
In Moscow, the book is part of what, for the time being at least, is the cultural mainstream. Another event that would have caused a sensation months ago, the publishing of letters by Boris Pasternak, passed last week with minimal publicity.
Soviet editors are competing with each other to be the first to publish long-suppressed works. One such work, an anti-Stalinist poem by Alexander Tvardovsky, was published twice this year. Tvardovsky, who died in 1971, had tried unsuccessfully to print ``Children of the Arbat'' in 1966. The weekly Ogonyok announced plans to print Anna Akhmatova's poem ``Requiem'' earlier this year, but was beaten to it by the monthly literary journal Oktyabr.
Meanwhile, the political leadership is calling for an end to the ``blank spaces'' in Soviet history - the silence on such subjects as the Stalinist purges or the downfall of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Militant historians are debating with their more cautious superiors in the Academy of Sciences. The playwright Mikhail Shatrov has pushed the ideological debate over Stalin one step further with his play ``The Brest Peace,'' written in 1962, but published this month.
Rybakov's work will probably broaden rather than deepen the debate over Stalin. It will bring Stalin's purge years alive to a wider, less literary, and less political audience than the people who will go to see Mr. Shatrov's plays. Rybakov is not a Communist Party member, and says somewhat hesitantly that he is ``generally speaking'' a Marxist. He is a story teller in the style of Herman Wouk or Jeffrey Archer.
``Children of the Arbat'' follows the lives of a group of young people who grow up in the Arbat district of central Moscow in the mid-1930s. One is an engineer, another a soldier, a third joins the NKVD (as the secret police was then known). The book is partly Rybakov's own story, and the first 133-page installment just published ends with one of the main characters, Sasha Pankratov, being taken off to exile. Pankratov is probably Rybakov, who spent three years in exile in eastern Siberia in the mid-'30s.
The first installment does not reach one of the central themes of the novel, the murder in 1934 of Sergei Kirov, the party chief of Leningrad. Kirov's murder was used at the time by Stalin as a pretext for the intensification of purges. Some writers, including the dissident Soviet historian Roy Medvedev, have since suggested that Stalin himself murdered Kirov.
Judging from the first extract, Rybakov tends toward the latter version. In a long passage that ``re-creates'' the dictator's thoughts, Stalin is shown suspecting Kirov of political disloyalty because of his simple life style and popularity in Leningrad - behavior that Stalin interprets as a challenge to himself. In the same monologue, Rybakov depicts a Stalin who is obsessed with attaining absolute power, and who describes himself in very un-Marxist terms as ``predestined to lead the country.''
He also shows Stalin making disastrous judgments in foreign affairs. In one scene, a Soviet diplomat warns Stalin of the potential threat posed by Germany, which is in the throes of rebuilding its military power.
Stalin shrugs this off. ``England and France will never allow a strong Germany,'' he says. ``On the contrary, we are interested in a strong Germany as a counterweight to England and France.''