Not long ago, a Soviet writer describing a scene on a rainy day couldn't say, ``A wet flag was hanging from the flagpole over the city council.'' ``A wet flag is a dishonor to the Soviet Union,'' explained novelist Daniil Aleksandrovich Granin during a recent visit to the United States. ``Apparently the flag flying in the rain must be dry.''
Mr. Granin, a 68-year-old Russian with wavy gray hair and bushy eyebrows, sipped coffee from a white china mug and took a bite of his bagel with cream cheese.
``It went to those absurdities,'' he said. ``Every writer had to keep all of these precautionary factors in his mind.''
In particular, criticism of Stalinist purges and repression was not seen in Soviet literature. ``One couldn't write about 1937, the terror, the trials, the people being sent to concentration camps. One couldn't write about emigrants going to the US or Israel. You could write a whole book about things that couldn't be written about. There was a censorship terror.''
Then things changed, says Granin, who was chosen secretary of the Soviet Writers' Union last January. ``One fine day after [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev came to power, censorship was abolished. It's the first time in the history of Russia, not only the Soviet Union.''
Granin, who came to the US a day before Mr. Gorbachev arrived for his Washington summit, was one of six Soviet writers invited by the PEN American Center, a chapter of the international writers' organization. As a member of the Soviet literary establishment, his views take on importance and reflect the cultural impact of Gorbachev's policies.
Granin represents liberal communists, not dissidents. ``I don't know much about the dissidents,'' he said. ``Some of them I think did good work. What they said then is what we're writing about now.''
That is not completely true. The decision to relax censorship, which Granin says was made by the Communist Party Central Committee, does not mean everything can really be published.
``I'm not talking about attacks on the Soviet Union, of course,'' Granin said. ``But we're dealing with urgent issues in a way we never could before.''
``Repentance,'' now being released in US cities, is an example. It is a surrealistic Soviet film about a brutal mayor, representing dictator Joseph Stalin, who is dug up from his grave by one of his victims. She refuses to let him be buried and lie peacefully but forces his progeny to confront him and dispose of him without honor. The film has been cheered by audiences in the Soviet Union.
``I saw it three times,'' Granin said. ``One of the themes of the movie is that we can't get away from Stalin. He died 35 years ago, and we somehow can't get rid of his corpse. It is rotting away in the middle of Soviet society. We're still breathing that poison air.
``Don't forget, we have a new generation in power now, but I would say that not everybody wants to dispose of Stalin. There's a lot of sabotage underground, undermining efforts going on today in literature and the theater. We're trying to get rid of Stalinism, the Stalinist spirit,'' he said.
Granin noted that the younger generation couldn't understand the film, because Soviet young people have learned so little of the Stalinist period in school. ``We're always rewriting our history texts, adapting them to new circumstances,'' he explained.
Granin joined the Communist Party during World War II. ``I was at the front, and I thought it was necessary in the war against Fascism to do everything I possibly could,'' he explained. ``It was an interesting psychological moment in the history of the Russian people, 1941 to '42. The population was completely on the side of the authorities. Neither before nor after has that been the case until today.''
Granin says he was able to rise in the Writers' Union because ``it was assumed it would have a certain proportion of liberals and creative people in it.'' He was chosen for the leadership by the organization's party group.
``A group of my friends decided we could do some good,'' he said. ``We decided it was our obligation to help with perestroika,'' Gorbachev's policy of restructuring.
But perestroika does not mean Western-style democracy: There was no opposing candidate in the Writers' Union election, and members could only vote yes or no. ``The decision of who will be the candidate is where the struggle goes on,'' he said. ``There was and still is major opposition inside the Writers' Union to my being elected.''
As if to underline that, Dmitri Urnov, one of the members of his delegation, declared forcefully at a PEN reception that he was an ``orthodox Marxist-Leninist and against Gorbachev and perestroika.''
Nevertheless, Granin said, ``We are living in a very fortunate time, a time we hoped would happen all our lives.'' ``We're not at all certain that Gorbachev will emerge victorious from this process,'' Granin cautioned, ``but I have decided to stick with him to the end. Many other writers have decided the same thing, because we don't see any alternative.''