Joseph Brodsky began his career as a poet in Leningrad, a precocious master of the language who lived with his parents in "one room and a half" and spent countless nights at kitchen tables around the city arguing literature and politics long after the vodka had been drained and the last cigarette snuffed.

Yesterday, around a conference table at the offices of The New Republic, Brodsky, now an American citizen and this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, talked with some of the poets and novelists he left behind when the Soviet government hounded him into exile 15 years ago. As he listened to several writers laud Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to allow greater freedom to the intelligentsia, Brodsky wore a weary, skeptical expression. He grimaced a bit as Fazil Iskander, author of "Sandro of Chegem," praised Gorbachev and the role of writers in perestroika, the government's economic and social restructuring program.

"You know, all that I'm hearing has a peculiar effect on my humble self," Brodsky said -- first in English, then in Russian. "Literature is a far more ancient and viable thing than any social formation or state. And just as the state interferes in literature, literature has the right to interfere in the affairs of state.

"Writers seem mesmerized by the state -- the temporal entity. The word perestroika is impressed somehow on our minds. But that is not the duty of a writer. A writer should care about one thing -- the language. To write well -- that is his duty. That is his only duty. The rest is an attempt to subordinate the writer to some statesman's purpose."

"Agreed," whispered the Leningrad poet Alexsandr Kushner. "I agree."

"I do not," said Iskander, whose early work was often suppressed by the government. "I don't agree, exactly."

"Probably not," Brodsky said in Russian.

"What goes on in literature is a struggle between good and evil, though sometimes it is concealed," Iskander said. "We're not restructuring ourselves. We're just trying to make our writing more available to the people and the government."

"I must tell you," Brodsky said, "it all reminds me of a two-liner from Marina Tsvetaeva's poems: 'To your mad world, the answer is "No." ' "

Brodsky, who was sent by the Soviets for 18 months to a work camp above the Arctic Circle for "parasitism," has worked on behalf of some e'migre' writers and political causes, but his activism is individual and quirky, his comments startling and blunt. He said the most significant change in the Soviet Union has been the increase in private farming. The author he'd like to see published there is the 19th-century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. And when someone asked the inevitable question -- "Would you ever consider returning to the Soviet Union?" -- Brodsky said:

"Only for a visit. And then only if all my books and those of my fellow e'migre' writers were published. I wouldn't want to return on a white horse. I'd want to visit only as a private man."

Yesterday's lunch and last night's reading at the Folger Library by Iskander, Kushner, novelist Daniel Granin and poet Yunna Morits were the final stops on a one-week tour organized jointly by the Writers' Union of the U.S.S.R. and the PEN American Center. Since Gorbachev came to power nearly three years ago, many Soviet writers who had never been to the United States have been allowed to read, lecture and meet with e'migre' friends in the United States such as Brodsky and novelist Vassily Aksyonov.

At many of these events even an American can sense the hesitation in the visitors' words. When poet Bella Akhmadulina was here earlier this year she spoke in guarded terms about e'migre' friends and the pace of reform in the Soviet Union. Yesterday the conversation -- pronounced "very much on the record" by The New Republic's literary editor, Leon Weiseltier -- had a completely open quality. Some made comments that in years past might have gotten them in trouble.

"I want to pay homage to the dissidents who made {glasnost} possible," Morits said. "There are now at least 20 magazines that are publishing things more critical of the Soviet Union than anything the dissidents ever wrote or said, and yet some of those people are still in jail."

All the writers present experienced Khrushchev's "thaw" in the early 1960s, when it seemed possible that the government would allow an ever-increasing amount of cultural freedom. Then the "thaw" hardened, becoming merely a brief chapter in both Russian and Soviet history -- a history in which long periods of rigidity and repression are occasionally relieved by periods of reform. Gorbachev, however, has insisted his reform program is "irreversible."

"The phenomenon of perestroika is not a miracle that dropped from heaven," Kushner said. "It has roots in the past. It's tragic that people like Yuri Trifonov, who fought for such reform, did not live to see this."

"We tried during the Khrushchev era and we failed," Morits said. "We've been fighting for these glasnost concepts for our whole history. The struggle for democratization in the 1960s was defeated by fears that were too strong to overcome. Many people in our country simply lack democratic instincts. It's only natural.

"You see, everybody now says they are for reform. But really the population is divided into those who want democratization and those who want it so it will suit their purposes," Morits said. "There are those who are using perestroika and glasnost for their own purposes.

"In our political structure there are only a minority who want to prevent reform but they can prevail over those who want it. I know of plenty of poets who published terrible poems and now they are dredging up work they claim they wrote about Stalin. They claim they suffered for their art, too. These people lived well during Stalin, but now they pull out Stalin as a punching bag and exercise with it every day."

No one pulled punches. Morits even spoke out against the Writers' Union, the all-embracing organization that can make or break a writer in the Soviet Union. "We haven't had a tradition of democratization in the Writers' Union. Our younger poets are trying to find new forms of writing because the old forms were used by older writers for lying. So what happens? The younger poets are now accused of 'formalism.' The union is still a retrograde, stagnated organization."

Even while they criticized the cultural establishment, none of the writers took issue with Gorbachev himself. Emigre's as varied as Brodsky, Aksyonov and Jewish activist Natan Shcharansky may see glasnost as merely a new set of rules, but the Soviet writers here yesterday looked to him as a historic opportunity. Perhaps, the last opportunity.

"Gorbachev is the first leader we've had that we're not ashamed of," Granin said. "He's the first one who has a considerable amount of respect for the intelligentsia."

"If Gorbachev is letting us publish books that are critical of the system, then I don't really mind if he's exploiting me," Iskander said. "Remember one thing. If this doesn't work out, it will be the writers who will be the first ones to get it in the neck."