``In a Russian village in 1933, a local Communist Party official, Dybenko, is confronted by a dispossessed peasant who lies dying of hunger in the main street of the village. `Before I die, tell me why did you do this to me? Was it really because I owned two horses?' the human skeleton asks. [The horses were enough to make him a rich peasant, or kulak.] `It was,' Dybenko answered calmly and coldly.'' This passage comes from a short story by the writer Vladimir Tendryakov, recently published in the country's most prestigious journal, Novy Mir. The story portrays the human cost of what Soviet leaders still say was one of socialism's great achievements - Joseph Stalin's collectivization of agriculture (1929-33).
The official version of collectivization - the drive to abolish private farms and force peasants to join agricultural collectives - is coming under increasing challenge here. It is a debate which some Soviet intellectuals believe will play a pivotal role in defining the Soviet Union's political and economic future.
Leading the criticism of collectivization are some of the country's most prominent writers and academics, most of them supporters of radical political and economic reform.
The outcome of this debate will indicate how far the leadership is prepared to go in reassessing its past and dismantling its authoritarian legacy. It may also influence the degree to which Soviet agriculture is reformed.
The first steps in this direction were made early this month, when the Soviet leadership endorsed a limited measure of grass-roots initiative for farmers.
No official accounting of the cost of collectivization has ever been issued, but most estimates cite millions of deaths through starvation, deprivation, or execution.
So far top Soviet leaders show little inclination to revise the official view of collectivization. In his speech on the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution last October, Soviet party leader Mikhail Gorbachev asserted that collectivization was a turning point of ``fundamental significance'' in the building of socialism. He balanced this with criticism of the program's excesses.
Speaking more recently, the second-ranking leader, Yegor Ligachev - under pressure for his suspected support of conservative opponents to reform - saw no need to qualify his approval of collectivization.
One of the major achievements of the Soviet state, he stated bluntly at a meeting, was the creation of a ``mighty industrial-kolkhoz [collective farm] power.''
Similar views have been voiced by Viktor Chebrikov, the head of the KGB (Soviet secret police), another influential and relatively conservative leader.
By contrast Yuri Chernichenko, a critic of collectivization, writing last week in the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, described it as a catastrophe of ``planetary'' proportions.
Alongside collectivization, he wrote, the depredations of the Mongol-Tatar leader Mamay (whose Golden Horde devastated Russia in the 14th century) seemed ``pale'' by comparison.
Describing the disruption caused by collectivization, the author Vasily Belov told the Communist Party daily Pravda on April 15 that people were still dying of malnutrition in northern Russian in 1946.
Many critics of collectivization stress that Vladimir Lenin,the founder of the Soviet state, had envisaged a more gradual, voluntary approach to collectivization. Lenin died in 1924, five years before Stalin launched collectivization.
But Gavriil Popov, an economist and prominent supporter of reform, was quoted in a party journal last week as noting that mistakes in policy toward the peasantry during Lenin's lifetime had a major impact on the future of the country.
In alliance with the peasantry, the Bolsheviks in 1917 consolidated their hold on the countryside in a few weeks, he said. By 1918 the revolutionaries had lost two-thirds of the country ``because we turned a significant part of the peasantry against us'' by wanting to move quickly to socialism.
In private, at least some intellectuals are going even further. They say the kulaks, or rich peasants - the main theoretical target of collectivization - should not have been dispossessed at all.
``They were doing well because they were good farmers,'' a well-known writer commented recently. ``Our agriculture has never recovered from their destruction.''
One prominent group of authors, the mostly Siberian ``village writers'' have long expressed doubts about collectivization. But under Mr. Gorbachev the questioning has become more direct, and more far reaching.
Criticism of collectivization began to develop momentum in 1986, when the novelist Vasily Bykov stated that the brutality of collectivization in his native Byelorussia had made local people more inclined to collaborate with the Nazi invaders in World War II.
In mid-1987 the economist Nikolai Shmelov disclosed that 5 million peasants had been deported during collectivization.
Then came a remarkable series of literary works which had mostly been suppressed for 20 or more years. The most striking of these was Andrei Platonov's ``The Foundation Pit,'' which drew an eerie picture of the Khmer Rouge-like utopian communism during the years of collectivization. The story had been written in 1930 and immediately suppressed.
Platonov's work and many of the other sharpest attacks on collectivization have appeared in the journal Novy Mir, which has a circulation of 1.15 million. Its editor, Sergei Zalygin, is the author of one of the earliest depictions of the cost of collectivization. The novel, ``On the Irtysh,'' was published in 1964, during the last period of political liberalization.
The critical view of collectivization concludes that it was not only a national nightmare, but an agricultural failure. Collectivization, says the novelist Anatoly Pristavkin, himself of peasant background, destroyed the ties that bound the peasant to the land. People who stayed on the land after collectivization had neither the incentive, nor in many cases the skill to work it.
``The word kolkhoz is compromised,'' Mr. Pristavkin said in a recent interview. ``People associate it with repression and hunger. The only reason it has kept going is that some people have been too lazy to leave it.''