WHERE'S THE COMMIC VISION in Russian writing? No satirist Zoshchenko around; no Mayakovskian bedbugs, no more Master and Margaritas, no more Naked Kings. Except for Vladimir Voinovich's vaudeville Private Chonkin, what's funny? Behind long beards and dancing boots, can a whole nation take itself so seriously?

In the finest book to come from Russia in many years, Lev Kopelev [Lyeff KAW-pyeh-lyeff], scholar and specialist in European literature and prominent supporter of human rights, brilliantly, faithfully explains the gradual corruption of a great nation, the reduction of the idea of self to the lowest common demoninator, and the hegemony of a ruler/slave mentality which creeps, like bad air, into the smallest corners and cracks of relationships. From our lives or from this memoir, we know that in the absence of a shared belief in a moral good, people can't laugh. Individuals are sardonic, sarcastic, ironic, witty at others' expense or even unconsciously: "You can't hide murderers!" shouts the assistant chief of the prison hospital, which is full of them. "After all, there are laws!"

Kopelev comes as close to Rabelais as a man in our time in his place can come, for he embraces in his personal past and in his writing almost all varities of experience, which he presents undistorted by argument, as filled with life as the famous Rabelaisian cake-bakers' wars. The scale of the war was a symptom of its enormity. As the cake-bakers of Lerne under King Picrochole retaliated and laid waste to Grangouser's placid lands, so the Russians pillaged and set fire to all the German towns."The destruction they did was unparalleled," wrote Rabelais, "and they encountered no resistance." Kopelev said the same, equally aware of human ideas and of such virtues as glory, fidelity, patriotism. After all, this was the Great Patriotic War.

Kopelev the writer balances Kopelev the pratagonist perfectly against society. As the narrative figure develops, the author plays with our sympathies, too, turning us this way and that to establish fairness. For example, as a Soviet officer stripped of his rank in a Soviet prison allegedly for treason, Kopelev is thrown into a cell of Germans. Because he beleives he's still an officer, he complains and gets transferred - an act which confirms his ideological correctness and his belief that he didn't belong with the Germans. The book substantiates Kopelev's belief in man's goodness, however strange and slow. As in other great books, the writer's story joins the hero's action to present a grand view of humanity.

In mid-winter 1945, Major Kopelev, aged 33, a candidate-member of the Party and a life-long loyal citizen, was political officer with a Red Army unit advancing in East Prussia. His objections to and interference with looting and rapine by Russian soldiers supplied his envious commanding officer material for a denunciation. Arrested under Article 58, Section 10 for anti-Soviet activity, he was tried three times (once, acquitted!) until, in 1947, he was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, 5 years' exile, and loss of rank. End of book. Because he was accused under the article of treason, all his documents were "to be preserved forever."

The package offered by Lippincott, with gentle foreword by Lillian Hellman who has known Kopelev's wife for more than 30 years, and appreciative afterword by Robert Kaiser, author of Russia and for several years The Washington Post's man in Moscow, is a little more than one-third of the original Khranit' vechno, published by Ardis in 1975 (about 290,000 words cut to a translated 130,000; English runs about 10 per cent to 20 per cent longer than Russian). Kaiser explains that the British and American publishers felt the book "could best find a wide readership . . . if the size and price . . . were moderate." Only anecdotal portraits, minor details have been left out he says. But in fact the book has been heavily reworked. Many passages have been transposed; descriptions have been altered; philosophical reflections and biographical and autobiographical asides have disappeared; most episodes of rape or of sexual dealings with women have been kept; and the cutting is so perasive that I, for one, can't tell what Anthony Austin, the translator and editor of the book, missed, misunderstood or rewrote. As this fair and randomly selected sample shows. Kopelev's book has been editorially streamlined.

Inside was empty. Running a fever. Cold and empty. Only my head a squeezed ball of pain and nausea. This means it was again going to be like the Ezhov era of '37? How often I'd heard that. I'd to tortured? Forced to confess, to be specific. And then I'd die anyway; only basely, slowly. Above my I see a white well cared-for face, the lips scornfully trimmed, gold shoulder boards, a black rubber hose on a white glove . . .

[F.D. Reeve's translation, pages 259-260]

I felt hollow - cold and feverish and hollow.

Were we really back to the Ezhovchina of 1937? Were they going to torture me? They'd make me "confess," inform against others, after which I'd die anyway - a miserable death, and a slow one.

I saw his white, smoothly shaven, contemptuous face above me; the rubber hose in the white glove.

[A. Austin's translation, page 102]

In the rush we miss the fractions of consciousness which, in a brilliant mind like Kopelev's, show exactly how details take on meaning.

So much has happened to Kopelev, scholar, professor of literature, friend of Sartre and Boll, that he has transcended both wrath and mercy. Soviet dissidents from Grigorenko to Galanskov fight valiantly for political justice and for moral decency, but Kopelev, who, with his wife Raisa, first guided One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to editorial consideration and on whom Lev Rubin in The First Circle was modeled, neither protests nor forgives. By nature upright, by experience tested, he is Nikolai Leskov's pravednik, a man whose righteousness is tempered by love.

In To Be Preserved Forever, the good and the wicked are clearly marked but also so clearly motivated that we understand them all, Galya and the Yugoslav officer and Alexander Ivanovich and Belyaev and young cousin Mark Polyak. We see each as a figure in a social fabric and as an aspect of that self-consciousness which defines Lev Kopelev, who, by writing this human comedy, has given life to a nation's inexcusable past.

At the front, Kopelev attacks the Germans, interrogates prisoners, looks for books to read. Mutually attracted to a pretty woman, he makes love. Insulted by a superior, he argues back. In prison he insists on his rights, shares his tobacco and parcels, looks out the window, watches, waits, believes. In what? In the things of this world - woman, vodka, work, sunlight. In Karl Marx's theory; in human goodness. As the crescendo of narrative builds up under the terrifying concentration on self accused, cross-examined, isolated, Kopelev takes on the roles of those he has met. For example, he helped promote Zabashtansky, the officer who denounced him; when Zabashtansky comes back in an nth time to deliver his melodramatic and false testimony at the third trial, he has already been subsumed into Kopelev. We know what Zabashtansky will say and why; we know it is base, that he's a liar; but we also know that he is too small to include - or even to under stand - part of Kopelev. The devils in this book are life-seized men; and the angels - who may look or think like Old Testament prophets - are the same size. Brilliant.

There is at least one wise man who says that, in the history of the last 40 years, though much was lost nothing was wasted. That is the perfect comic vision. It took Odysseus 20 years to get home; it took Kopelev half again as long, but he had more than twice as far to travel.