The forces of Satan and darkness are undermining the Soviet Union, Dmitri Vasilyev believes. The dark forces, he says, are Zionists and Freemasons, and they are behind such diverse phenomena as superpower tension and failures in Soviet agriculture. Mr. Vasilyev heads Pamyat (Memory), an informal organization ostensibly devoted to the protection of historic monuments. In fact, the organization seems to have become the focal point for a resurgence of right-wing Russian nationalism.
Vasilyev says it is hard to identify the dark forces. ``You have to know their passwords,'' he explains. But he is willing to name one adversary - Alexander Yakovlev, a candidate (nonvoting) member of the Communist Party Politburo, one of Mikhail Gorbachev's closest advisers, and the man believed to be the ideologist of his reforms.
Though Vasilyev pays lip service to Mr. Gorbachev's reforms, his views make him an excellent rallying point for grass-roots opposition to Gorbachev's changes - people who are disturbed at the loosening of social and political discipline, and the encouragement of some criticism of the regime's past failings.
Following a demonstration by Pamyat in the center of Moscow last month, the organization has been vehemently criticized in the official press: Several publications have likened it to the Black Hundreds, the royalist and anti-Semitic organization responsible for pogroms here in the first decade of this century.
There have been reports that several writers, all supporters of reform, have received threatening letters from Pamyat adherents. One writer, the poet Andrei Voznesensky, said Monday that he recently received an unsigned letter, ``a sort of death threat.'' The letter ``looks like it came from Pamyat,'' he added. Contacted by telephone Tuesday, Vasilyev's son Sergei described the allegations as ``slander.''
Some Soviet officials say they are worried that the country's leadership underestimates the danger Pamyat poses. ``They have a structure, and they can unite the forces opposed to Gorbachev's changes,'' says Vitaly Korotich, the editor of the weekly Ogonyok. The government has so far, however, not moved against them.
Vasilyev indignantly denies that he is anti-Semitic or anticommunist. He is careful to cite Vladimir Lenin and the Soviet Constitution. Slogans at Pamyat's demonstration denounced those who were sabotaging Gorbachev's reforms.
His intellectual inspiration, however, comes from the ``Protocols of the Elders of Zion,'' one of the classics of anti-Semitism. One of his heroes is Russia's last czar, Nicholas II; one of his enemies, other than Mr. Yakovlev, is Peter the Great, Russia's Westernizing emperor.
Vasilyev lives and works in a cluttered apartment on a noisy street in central Moscow. Since the attacks in the Soviet news media, he has kept a low profile. But throughout our 2-hour conversation, his son Sergei was busily recording copies of his father's speeches on cassettes for distribution around the country. Opposite the Japanese tape deck hung icons. On other walls there were pictures of characters from Russian history: the 18th-century general Alexander Suvorov; the reforming czarist prime minister Pyotr Stolypin; Nicholas II.
During the conversation, a Russian Orthodox priest sat in silence, looking intently at Vasilyev. He would say only that he had come ``from afar.'' Alexei Gladko, a Pamyat leader, intervened occasionally with passionate, incoherent speeches on Russian history.
``Have you read the `Protocols of the Elders of Zion'?'' Vasilyev asked. I had not. ``That is very bad,'' he commented reproachfully.
A copy of the book, printed in Russian in Buenos Aires in 1955, sat on his desk. The ``protocols'' purport to be an account of a meeting in 1897 when Zionists and Freemasons plotted to subvert Christian Europe. Western scholars now believe it was probably forged at the end of the last century by the czarist secret police.
The ``protocols,'' Vasilyev says, made him realize that these ``dark forces'' are behind many of the key events in modern Russian history: the corruption in the court of Nicholas II, or Soviet agricultural setbacks. Vasilyev hints that the same dark forces, not the Bolsheviks, killed Nicholas II.
The collectivization of farmland, which began in the late 1920s, was the first blow against Soviet agriculture, Vasilyev says. This and subsequent agricultural failures ``were not just mistakes,'' he says. They were the result of the calculations of ``certain forces.''
Nicholas II, condemned by Soviet historians as corrupt and inept, appears to be one of Vasilyev's favorites.
Vasilyev gives a lurid description of Nicholas' execution, in 1918. ``Was that a political execution or a ritual murder?'' he asks rhetorically.
And though he claims no animosity toward Jews, at one point in our conversation he launched into a diatribe against them. Jews who ask to leave the country complain of conditions here, he said. But Jews ``are everywhere, in all spheres of a spiritual and political life.''
At least one of the country's most prominent writers, Viktor Astafyev, has expressed views similar to Vasilyev's. Mr. Astafyev's novel ``The Sad Detective,'' an unremittingly grim picture of social disintegration in a provincial town, was praised by Gorbachev supporters as a lucid analysis of the Soviet Union's present malaise. Late last year an exchange of letters between Astafyev and a Jewish intellectual began to circulate here. In one of the letters, Astafyev referred to the execution of Nicholas and his family ``by Latvians and Jews, commanded by the inveterate Zionist [Jacob] Yurkovsky.''
Vasilyev's animosity toward Alexander Yakovlev is based on Yakovlev's long attack on Russian nationalism, published in the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta in late 1972. The article is believed to have earned him 10 years' diplomatic exile as ambassador to Canada.