EVEN in these days of thaw and glasnost, some of the lapel pins on display bring a disbelieving shake of the head. ``I'm an agent of the KGB,'' reads one. Or even more outrageous: ``I'm an agent of the Mossad (Israeli CIA).''
This is the ``Vernissage'' at Moscow's Izmailovsky Park, an art market that draws thousands every weekend with wares that range from fine art to daring political statements to unconscionable kitsch. In sunny weather and rainy, in winter and in summer, the artists and craftsmen come to set out their air-gunned fantasy portraits, hand-knit potholders, and painted cutting boards in one of the city's liveliest shows of the greater Soviet economic freedoms.
In the past, Soviet artists who lacked official approval held private exhibits in their apartments and ran the risk of arrest. In one extreme example in the late 1970s, authorities actually bulldozed an illegal outdoor exhibit into the ground. Now, artists have little worry of being harassed as they sell their works in Izmailovsky Park or at the capital's other main, unofficial display case: the Arbat pedestrian mall in central Moscow.
Grigory Avanesov, head of the Moscow Brotherhood of Artists that organizes the market, says although authorities keep their hands off, the Izmailovsky exhibit is still ``a fragile thing.''
The artists have no real legal right to sell there, no permits or licenses, he says, and sometimes financial inspectors come around to artists and ``demand documents - which of course we don't have.''
Originally, the artists escaped to the woods of Izmailovsky in 1986, when police began to crack down on painters selling their pictures in the city's center. Now, authorities' distance from the market also has its disadvantages, Avanesov says, because it leaves the field open for racketeers and speculators. Some have begun to stake out spots along the tree-lined alley at night and demand that artists pay for space, he says.
And others squeeze protection money from vendors of pricey lacquer boxes. ``Today they're demanding 1,000 rubles ($1,600) for a spot, tomorrow they could demand 10,000 ($16,000) - there could be murder, who knows,'' Avanesov says.
The originality of the art at Izmailovsky Park has also suffered somewhat from the economic uncertainty that prevails under President Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. ``An artist who is unsure about tomorrow thinks he needs to earn as much money as possible now,'' Avanesov says. ``He starts to paint the same thing over and over.'' Sasha, a young artist selling landscapes on a recent Sunday, confirms this. ``I'm here to make money,'' he says. ``It's that simple.''
At the Vernissage, which means the opening day of an exhibit, prices range from 50 kopeks (about 80 cents) for hammer-and-sickle stud earrings to thousands of rubles for oil paintings.
Political daring, it seems, is also a moneymaker. Two years ago, the most striking political symbols at Izmailovsky were little dolls of former leader Leonid Brezhnev and pins promoting perestroika, Gorbachev's program of reforms.
Now, the pins include reproaches to a member of the ruling Politburo, conservative Yegor Ligachev. A primitive painting shows a baby labeled perestroika suckling a fat peasant woman. And an oil masterpiece depicts a pensive Gorbachev sitting on a giant pool table, surrounded by mammoth white balls.
The Vernissage alley, hundreds of yards long and accommodating up to 1,500 artists, also offers increasing numbers of religious items, in keeping with the Kremlin's relaxed attitude toward religious activity in this officially atheist country.
On sale are both old icons and new imitations, carved and molded-metal crosses meant to be hung on walls, smaller crosses for wearing, old books and modern paintings of the Crucifixion.
In contrast, the country's easing moral atmosphere has also unleashed a wave of public ``eroticism,'' as disapproving Soviets call it, and that, too, is reflected at Izmailovsky. Vendors sell soft-porn photos the size of playing cards, and here and there, a painting of a nude is clearly meant more to excite than to uplift.
Another growing change at Izmailovsky is the tendency toward selling objets d'art rather than just art itself. Most are pre-revolutionary treasures that show the fine workmanship of czarist times: lamps, bottles, brass door handles, military medals.
The antique items can bring hundreds or thousands of rubles, and their prices have risen steadily as Gorbachev's reforms have added to the money in many Soviets' pockets, without putting more products on the shelves.
The Vernissage's most common offerings, however, are newly minted: soft landscapes depicting the classic Russian birches, bouquets of flowers, or quiet river scenes. Is it kitsch or is it art? It's hard to tell after a while.
Those little plaster cupids, though - those are definitely kitsch. Editor's note: Visitors to Moscow should be aware that hefty customs duties may be imposed on paintings at the border, and export of icons and other genuine antiques is generally not permitted.