MIKHAIL GORBACHEV's 33 months in power have produced one lasting achievement: a literary and cultural revival that many Soviet observers feel has no precedent in the last 60 years of Soviet rule. The literary revival has been accompanied by a new tolerance with regard to political and economic discussion. This has, for example, allowed an economist to express doubt that any reforms would make the present system work better, and a political observer to justify what official ideologists consider the unjustifiable - opposition within a socialist state.
The revival is part of a conscious effort by the Soviet leaders to mobilize intellectuals behind reform. So far, Mr. Gorbachev has been successful.
In the first stage of perestroika (restructuring), intellectuals have set the pace in the reform debate. They have led the attack on corrupt, incompetent, and conservative Communist Party officials. They have urged the reexamination of the most controversial periods of Soviet history, such as agricultural collectivization and Joseph Stalin's purges.
But in some areas they have pushed further than the leadership is prepared to go. In the next stage of reform, the leadership will need intellectuals, but for a different task: achieving the technological breakthrough that will make the Soviet Union a leading industrial power. But during that period - a complex and possibly confused time of key economic and social changes - the Kremlin may feel the need to stress unity over diversity. Already some intellectuals say they feel a chill in the intellectual atmosphere, partly from a relatively low-key Gorbachev speech on Nov. 2 which assessed Soviet history, partly from the dismissal of Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin on Nov. 11.
Despite this, the changes that have taken place in poetry and prose over the last two years are so great that, as literary specialist Nikolai Anastasyev says, ``we will have to completely revise our concept of Soviet literature.''
Works by the some the century's finest writers - Andrei Platonov, Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Bulgakov - have been published for the first time after delays of up to 60 years. Other disgraced or ignored writers - satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, poets Osip Mandelshtam (who died in a labor camp in 1938), Marina Tsvetayeva (who committed suicide in 1941), and Nikolai Gumilev (accused of plotting against the regime, and shot in 1921), for example - have been republished.
'Emigr'e writers like Vladimir Nabokov and 1987 Nobel prize winner Joseph Brodsky are being published and praised. The past two years have seen a flood of long-suppressed works by living authors and filmmakers. And in art, Marc Chagall finally received official recognition with a major exhibit in Moscow this fall.
Radical intellectuals say, however, that the attitudes of top Soviet leaders to cultural changes are beginning to diverge sharply. A year ago several prominent writers agreed that Gorbachev and second-ranking leader Yegor Ligachev were working together on cultural policy. Today the same people view Mr. Ligachev and Viktor Chebrikov, the chief of the KGB (Soviet secret police), as distinctly more conservative than Gorbachev. Ligachev has expressed concern on the debate over history: Recent articles on the Stalinist era have made the 1930s (the period of collectivization and purges) even more confused than it used to be, he complained in August. And while leading writers like Anatoly Pristavkin want to discuss the social damage of the Leonid Brezhnev era (1964-82), Ligachev has spoken out passionately in defense of the achievements of the 1970s.
The changing attitude of the leadership has been mirrored in the literary world. Some of the first public warnings of an impending social crisis came in literature. Valentin Rasputin's ``The Fire'' was published in July 1985, just four months after Gorbachev was elected party leader. Viktor Astafyev's ``The Sad Detective'' appeared in January 1986. Both works depict communities on the verge of social disintegration. Both men are on the conservative end of the spectrum of Russian writers. They are associated with a loose group of authors known as the ``village writers,'' some of whom have had contacts with Ligachev. Both Mr. Rasputin and Mr. Astafyev have since become critical of the direction perestroika is taking.
The reaction of other conservative writers has been virulent. One, Peter Proskurin, has called publication of the works of long-dead writers ``necrophilia.'' His comments were published in the Communist Party daily Pravda. Much of the conservatives' wrath has been directed against the major literary journals.
These have been the driving force in creating a new atmosphere of openness. Three stand out - the monthlies Novy Mir and Znamya, and the weekly mass-circulation Ogonyok.
The nomination of new editors to these three journals was ``the most significant achievement of perestroika so far,'' says Yuri Arakcheyev, a prominent writer. Sergei Zalygin, who is not a party member, became head of Novy Mir. Grigory Baklanov took over Znamya. And Vitaly Korotich was named editor of Ogonyok, a lowbrow and nearly moribund weekly.
Novy Mir and Znamya have between them changed the face of contemporary Russian literature. Among the works published for the first time this year are Andrei Platonov's ``The Foundation Pit,'' written in 1930 and suppressed here ever since (Novy Mir, June), and Mikhail Bulgakov's ``Heart of a Dog,'' written in 1925 (Znamya, June). Next year, Yevgeny Zamyatin's devastating attack on totalitarianism, ``We,'' is scheduled to be published by Znamya. Written in 1921, it is described in Soviet reference works as an expression of hostility toward socialism. Novy Mir has announced the publication of Boris Pasternak's ``Doctor Zhivago.'' It has also published a series of major works by living writers like Mr. Pristavkin, Mr. Arakcheyev, and Andrei Bitov.
Ogonyok's role has been unique. Novy Mir and Znamya have circulations of 495,000 and 280,000, respectively. Ogonyok, with a 1.5 million circulation, has been in the forefront of discussing Stalin. It has carried some of the most striking - and grim - reporting on the Soviets' war in Afghanistan.
At times it has infuriated the leadership. Ligachev has criticized it several times, and for a brief period earlier this year the armed forces reportedly canceled their subscriptions.
Ogonyok's ``outreach evenings'' - meetings between the paper's writers and the public - have produced some of the most lively political discussion ever seen in the Soviet Union. More than a dozen such evenings have been held in Moscow, Leningrad, and smaller cities. They have also been organized for the staff of the Moscow air defense command, the space-control center, and the Foreign Ministry.
Another weekly, Moscow News, has also frequently run afoul of the political leadership. But the paper is published mainly in foreign languages and is largely inaccessible to Soviet readers. Yegor Yakovlev, its editor, is often reportedly at loggerheads with Valentin Falin, his immediate superior. Mr. Falin is a candidate (nonvoting) member of the party Central Committee and an adviser to Gorbachev.
The work of the journals has been made easier by relaxations in censorship. Mr. Korotich and other editors say that the role of the censor's office has now been reduced to its official function, preventing the publication of military secrets. But the journals at times exercise self-censorship. (A joke about Stalin and a cow, for example, was cut from a piece that appeared this year in Znamya.) Articles due to be printed in Ogonyok have at times simply failed to appear.
Political leaders stress that perestroika is irreversible. Writers and other intellectuals tend to be more cautious.
``Perestroika is reversible,'' says the outspoken economic commentator Vasily Selyunin. ``It's holding on, thanks to an enthusiastic group [of leaders] at the top. But it is as brittle as the life of one man.''
Pristavkin echoes these sentiments: ``God grant [Gorbachev] good health.''
It is clear that if any Soviet leader ever decided to clamp down on political or literary debate, he could do so. But the cost - in the form of social alienation that the leadership is struggling with so intently now - would be enormous.
Sowing seeds of discontent
Potentially one of the most subversive ideas to surface in print over the last two years has been the end of unquestioning obedience to political leadership.
In ``A Sad Parable,'' a short story published in Znamya in October, Margaret Aligher sketched the career of writer Yuri Olesha. She described how, with great difficulty, Olesha spoke out in support of Joseph Stalin's vicious attack on the composer Dmitri Shostakovich in 1936. He did so, Ms. Aligher recalls his saying, because he had to believe that ``the party is right in everything.''
Reviewing Olesha's subsequent career, Aligher writes, ``I realized that from that tragic night on, Olesha wrote nothing significant or substantial.'' Olesha died in 1960. ``Art does not forgive betrayals,'' she concludes.
A similar idea was developed in a remarkable essay by Yuri Burtin, who worked for the journal Novy Mir in the late 1960s, under the editorship of Alexander Tvardovsky. Many literary figures, including the journal's present editor, Sergei Zalygin, view Mr. Tvardovsky as Novy Mir's finest editor.
Writing in August in Oktyabr, another of the major literary journals, Mr. Burtin offers a theoretical justification for what Marxists usually consider a cardinal sin: opposition to the Communist Party leadership.
Leonid Brezhnev's accession to power in the late '60s marked a sharp break with the Khrushchev years, Burtin notes. The Brezhnev era saw the ``moral rehabilitation'' of Stalin. The late '60s was a time of ``struggle between two tendencies in socialism: the bureaucratic-conservative and the democratic.'' Brezhnev represented the first tendency. Democrats remained faithful to the de-Stalinizing line of Nikita Khrushchev's 20th party congress in 1956. Opposition was therefore inevitable, Burtin says.
``The transformation of a part - and, we stress, the best part - of the democratic movement of the time into an opposition movement, and of the energy of positive social reform into the energy of protest, is a sad and dramatic page in our history.'' Some lost faith in socialism, some emigrated, others were punished ``with the full vigor of the law,'' he writes.
Under these circumstances, Burtin asserts, Tvardovsky's Novy Mir was, objectively speaking, an ``opposition journal.''
Official ideologists hold that there is no justification for opposition movements in the Soviet Union. ``After the victory of socialism and the attainment of class monolithicity in society, the objective reasons for opposition in communist parties cease to exist,'' says the big Soviet Encyclopedia's entry on opposition.
Burtin concludes differently: ``There are moments when the social activist, if he is a real citizen and patriot, has to go against the current, against the majority.''