THE WIDOWS OF RUSSIA And Other Writings By Carl R. Proffer Ardis. 159 pp. $25

THIS FASCINATING book gives us much more than its slightly gloomy title promises. The "widows of Russia" occupy two thirds of the volume, and not every widow seems to have had an engrossing or unusual life. But three of them are unforgettable. Carl Proffer, co-founder of Ardis Publishers, scholar, editor-cum-friend, knew them all personally. Nearly 50 pages are given to Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980) whom Proffer befriended in her old age. She was the widow of Osip Mandelstam, one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, who died a gruesome death in a concentration camp in Siberia. Her two books of reminiscences were published in English and Russian outside the Soviet Union.

In the last years of her life she still was a lively, highly intelligent, resilient, whimsical old lady ("a mean old thing" in her own words) who used "dirty" words, was sometimes rude, and struggled to remain independent. Having survived the horrors of the '30s and lost her husband in the grimmest circumstances, she struggled for years for a place to live and a piece of bread. Eventually she found both by giving English lessons, which permitted her to read books of her choice and find friends among those who did not turn against her after reading the second volume of her memoirs (Hope Abandoned) in which she was outspoken about her "friends" and "enemies."

Two other women did not have the same tragic experience as the widow of Mandelstam. One was the widow of the Soviet writer V. Ivanov (1895-1963). He was a prolific writer, mainly writing about the civil war (1918-1922) in Siberia (Armoured Train 14-69, by Stalin's standards a classic) who nevertheless at one time ran into trouble with the authorities. His widow, Tamara, a former actress, had, as we now know, an affair with Isaac Babel (1894-1941) who died in a camp and has been since rehabilitated. Great was Proffer's surprise (and it will be a surprise for many others) when he saw "a chubby young boy" breakfasting in the dining room of the Ivanovs. This was Babel's grandson. Proffer comments: "Babel left {Tamara} in the care of Ivanov when she was already pregnant."

We believe Proffer when he tells us that "Tamara's memoirs can be printed only abroad." They apparently are devastating to one of the other "Soviet classics," Valentin Kataev, who played a major role in "the Pasternak attack" at the time of Doctor Zhivago, along with the very respected critic Korney Tchukovsky who argued that "we all have to join together in a public denunciation of Pasternak."

The third widow was the thrice married Lily Brik (Brik, Primakov, Katanyan). Her first husband, born in 1888, was a scholar, a "formalist" of the modern school, one of the prominent members of the Russian "new criticism" (1913-1930). The whole group was suppressed, which means black-listed and silenced but not sent to Siberia. The second was a member of the group of Soviet generals around General Tukhachevsky -- they all were shot by Stalin's henchmen in the late '30s. The third was a scholar of the Russian avant-garde or, to put it more accurately, of the work of Mayakovsky (who committed suicide in 1930).

But really it was Mayakovsky who had been Lily's "husband" from 1915 to 1930. The memorabilia which Proffer had the chance to see in Lily's "salon" (where he was given caviar and a special "export vodka") were stunning. Lily, as he remarks, "had no jealousy about any of the women discussed, and seemed, rather, to have a sense of community with them." In this, as on many other topics, Lily, Tamara and Nadezhda were quite open and discussed their affairs without any fear of any "scandal." They were generous in offering details: living in their own century, not in the previous one. This might bring us to the conclusion that some of the Russian women born after 1890 (which means growing up before 1914) were already "liberated," whereas the majority of those of the generation of Anna Akhmatova (born in 1888) still clung to the old Victorian standards.

THE FINAL THIRD of the book contains a couple of long-awaited answers to some tragic and some rather comic riddles. Not only the academic Slavicists but any reader interested in things literary will be intrigued. The unknown details surrounding the publication of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago and how the manuscript was smuggled into the United States are priceless. For American readers it will be news to know that the Soviet censors not only look at the content of the manuscript but also scrutinize its form, as socialist realism is the only style which is permitted. (The fewer metaphors and other "devices" the better!).

One wonders with Proffer if it is at all possible to become a great Russian writer in our time without having read asy books by one's contemporaries? Of course, no Proust, no D.H. Lawrence, no Joyce, no Kafka, no Bloomsburyites are read. And if this is so, do we have to establish double standards? A kind man, Proffer confesses: "a small library . . . will convince the reader that much of the Soviet Literature is simple minded, provincial, aimed essentially at children on the level of Little Men and Boy's Life."

At the very end Proffer becomes slightly skeptical about the future of Soviet letters (it is 1984, the year of his death). He is asking himself if those of the Soviet writers who "chose freedom" and came to the West could really appreciate the unconventional English language writers of our time (in translation, of course). How long did this question haunt him? He does not give any answer.

But, as I have already said, Carl Proffer was a kind man: he went to Vienna to meet those who finally came out from under Moscow's tutelage, he flew to Kennedy airport to pick some of them up and bring them to Ann Arbor. They had no knowledge of English but were given the title of "writers in residence." This book is not an "academic achievement" (it was never meant to be), Professor Proffer did not write it to be read by other professors. He wrote it because of his dedication to a country, its language, and its past. If he overpraised it one should not condemn him too severely.

Proffer died in September 1984 and could not foresee what would happen exactly two years later, in September 1986: the first rehabilitation which was of the poet Nikolai Gumilev (husband of Anna Akhmatova), shot by a firing squad in August 1921 as an "enemy of the people and the Government of Lenin and Trotsky," with 61 other members of the intelligentsia (among them 16 women).

And so the ball started to roll . . .

But all of this was foretold long ago. Didn't Shakespeare predict it? "If you can look into the seeds of time/ And say which grain will grow and which will not,/ Speak then to me . . ." said Banquo. (Macbeth, I, iii).

Nina Berberova is professor emeritus of Russian at Princeton University.