MOSCOW -- In a scene from a new historical play about to be published here, Vladimir Lenin, looking back on his life, admits his guilt "before the workers of Russia" for failing to get rid of Joseph Stalin.

In another scene, one of Stalin's old comrades in arms accuses the Soviet dictator of ordering the murder of "hundreds of thousands" of people. A sneering Stalin answers by threatening to exterminate Grigori Ordzhonikidze's whole family.

And in a startling speech even by the new standards of "openness," the German Communist Party martyr Rosa Luxemburg takes the stage to warn the Bolsheviks against sacrificing freedom of speech and assembly in the name of "temporary necessity."

"Freedom only for the active supporters of the government, only for the members of the party, however many they may be, that is not freedom," Luxemburg says in a rousing monologue that, in the play, is hailed by Lenin. "Freedom -- the one and only, for now and forever -- is freedom for those who think differently."

The play, "On ... On ... and On," by the well-known playwright Mikhail Shatrov, looks at the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 through the eyes of its participants, but from different periods of history: on the eve of the event, at the end of their lives and today, during the Soviet Union's new "revolution" -- as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself has dubbed his reforms.

Scheduled to be published this month in the magazine Znamya and to be produced on the stage of the Moscow Art Theater next May, the play takes the ongoing debate over Soviet history far beyond its current boundaries and poses questions that are now before the Soviet leadership.

"Someone," said Shatrov in a recent interview, "described it as a conversation between Lenin and Gorbachev."

Appearing not long after the dismissal of Moscow party boss Boris Yeltsin, which deeply unsettled the liberal intelligentsia here, the Shatrov play is seen as a confirmation that glasnost in the arts has not yet reached its limits. It also indicates that the cautious reassessment of Soviet history given by Gorbachev in a major speech on Nov. 2 is by no means the last word on the subject.

"The process is continuing. That is the most important thing here," said Shatrov, who went to Washington as a member of Gorbachev's entourage at the summit. "The play goes significantly further than the Nov. 2 speech. And that is the difference with the past. Before, everyone would have blindly repeated what was in {the leader's} speech and that would have been all."

In "On ... On ... and On," Shatrov pulls back several veils that have shrouded the vicious intraparty struggle for power that followed Lenin's death in 1924, focusing mostly on the brutal character of Stalin. Stalin is shown insulting Lenin's wife; he is accused of murdering both Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov in 1934 and Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940; and he is seen cynically assuring Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev, who would be among the first killed in the purges, that they would not face the death sentence. All of this is new material for Soviet audiences.

Over his long career, Shatrov has written several plays that have been at the cutting edge of Soviet politics and historical interpretation. Several key works lay on the censors' shelves for years: One, called "The Peace at Brest" -- about the peace treaty Lenin signed with Germany in 1918 to give the young Soviet state "breathing space" -- opened for the first time in Moscow two weeks ago, 25 years after it was written.

Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were at the opening on Nov. 30, a week before the Washington summit, which was widely viewed here as the beginning of a new "breathing space" in Soviet external affairs. According to people present that evening, Gorbachev said then there was much in common between the two events and noted he was glad he saw the play before leaving for America.

"On ... On ... and On," which Shatrov began writing last spring, starts on the eve of the 1917 revolution and for the first time in a Soviet production, portrays the revolution's full cast of characters -- from Bolsheviks to Mensheviks, from czarist generals to social revolutionaries -- with a minimum of ideological stereotyping.

Thus Alexander Kerensky, for nine months the head of Russia's provisional government after the abdication of the czar in February 1917, is no longer a simple-minded, weak-kneed coward -- as he is usually portrayed in Soviet films. Through the curious time warp that Shatrov has constructed in the play, Kerensky -- who died in New York in 1970 -- turns on the Bolsheviks and accuses them of snuffing out democracy with the ouster in 1970 of Alexander Tvardovsky, the famous editor of the literary magazine Novy Mir. "Is that another sign of the dawn of your democracy?" asks Kerensky.

The play was originally scheduled to be released by the anniversary of the 1917 revolution this November, but Shatrov, an author whose productions have enjoyed back-to-back runs in Moscow for the past few years, did not finish it in time. He now hopes it will be staged before the critical party conference next June.

The play's sharp polemical tone, its harsh, unforgiving portrait of Stalin's character and its historical revelations also made it risky property even at a time when Soviet newspapers and journals are filling up with chilling accounts of the Stalin era.

According to Vladimir Lackshin, assistant editor of Znamya, the play was read by a group of five Soviet historians, some of whom registered strong objections. But the fact that even some gave the play their stamp of approval was enough to go ahead with publication, he said.

The publication of the play is expected to create a shock wave here. "There will be strong supporters, strong opponents," said Lackshin. "I don't expect anyone to stay indifferent."

Yet after the recent spate of historical articles and Gorbachev's own speech on Soviet history on Nov. 2, the effect will be less dramatic than might have been expected several months ago. "If we had not read Gorbachev's report, it would have been a sensation. As it is, it is a remarkable step," said Lackshin.

Lackshin stressed that the play deals not just with history, but also with today's situation in the Soviet Union. "It is a look at the process of perestroika (restructuring)," he said. "It is a statement that it is impossible to stop at any given point, that we have to move forward all the time."

Shatrov himself has frequently stated that until Soviet society exposes its painful past to the light, the "cancerous cell" of Stalinism will never be eradicated.

Shatrov and Moscow Art Theater director Oleg Yefremov have collaborated twice before: on "The Bolsheviks" in 1967 and "Thus We Shall Win" in the early 1980s.

Until this year, Lackshin and Shatrov's collaboration was less lucky. In 1969, when Lackshin was a deputy editor at Novy Mir, he edited Shatrov's play "The Peace at Brest." Within a year, the play was banned and Lackshin was fired from the magazine's editorial board as part of the crackdown on liberal opinion in the post-Khrushchev period.

Lackshin noted that the publication of Shatrov's latest play also was not automatically assured. "We do not publish such things every day," he said.