"I don't know what's supposed to happen," says Russian composer Vyacheslav Artyomov, a man engulfed in uncertainties but headed, he thinks, in the right direction. He is talking specifically about his latest assignment -- to be a composer in residence ("what that means, exactly, I don't know") at an American university. But his remark has broader overtones. Like his music.

When he doesn't have to write movie soundtracks to make a living, Artyomov, 50, writes music about his soul -- what he calls "the profundity of existence ... the deepest, innermost events" -- but he finds that, unintentionally, he also has been writing about the soul of the Soviet Union. The "hero" of his latest symphony, he says, "like his native country, Russia, has lost his God and is trying to find Him again."

There may be a good omen, for Artyomov and for Russia, in this work, Part 2 of a massive tetralogy, which had its world premiere Thursday night in the Kennedy Center with Mstislav Rostropovich (who commissioned it) conducting the National Symphony Orchestra. The symphony is called "On the Threshold of a Bright World," and Artyomov, who has already been through his dark night of the soul, hopes that's where he is -- along with the Soviet Union, which he will not be seeing for the rest of the year.

He will be in residence at the University of Nevada, and he hopes his three months on the Las Vegas campus will give him a chance to complete the third part of his four-part work in progress: "Symphony of the Way." Asked which of the many possible meanings of "way" he intended, Artyomov plunges into a kind of mysticism that began in the East but has many followers in the West: "It means a way of spiritual improvement; the way of your inner life. There is a very good book {the Chinese 'Tao Te Ching'} called in English 'The Way and Its Power.' I use this word also in the same sense." It is intended to be spiritual, philosophical, contemplative, he agrees, but he stops short of calling it "mystical" or "religious." "It includes some mystical moments, and you might say it is religious in relation to thinking and understanding but not in relation to ritual."

It does not sound like the kind of music that can be written in three months in Las Vegas, but the first installment of "The Way," titled "Way to Olympus," was written under even less promising conditions. This 33-minute piece took him six years to finish, but they were the pre-perestroika years, 1978 to 1984, when he was doing hack work on movie soundtracks to stay alive and couldn't get official permission to have his serious works performed. Part 2 is longer (about 42 minutes) but, written in more benign circumstances, took only nine months to compose. "If I could get started soon, say by October 1, I could finish Part 3 very quickly," Artyomov says.

In a recent article, a Soviet magazine estimated Artyomov's earnings for the last 10 years "and found that they averaged 79 rubles per month," he says. "The government now recognizes 78 rubles per month as the official poverty level. But, of course, they couldn't count my income from abroad." That income went mostly to the Soviet copyright office, which took 70 to 90 percent, he says, but with the meager income from movie soundtracks it helped him to survive. He has just freed himself of the Soviet copyright bureaucracy, signing a contract for world rights to his music with the prestigious German publisher Peters in Frankfurt, a firm that dates back to Beethoven's lifetime. "Concerts do not earn you any money," he says. "For the performance of 'Path to Olympus,' I got six rubles and 41 kopecks... . For six rubles and 41 kopecks, you could buy six, maybe 10 packs of cigarettes."

Artyomov is in Washington, and en route to Las Vegas, with his wife, poet Valeria Liubetsky, who will give a reading of her works (philosophical-religious poetry, including a translation of Rilke's "Sonnets to Orpheus") tomorrow at Astraea, the 24-hour bookstore at Pennsylvania Avenue and 13th Street NW. It is just 10 years since they met and Artyomov says "we've never been parted since."

That statement brings back memories of two people finding common interests and inspiration and facing together the Soviet arts bureaucracy in the hard years after he was denounced by the Composers' Union for participating in a festival in Cologne. "A lot of my creativity arises from my collaboration with Valeria," he says. "In '81, we did our first concert; she read her poems between performances of my music. The arrangement was made privately between us and the management of the concert hall; we were afraid even to speak of what was going to be done ... because somehow things could be damaged. Only a couple of days before the concert, when it was clearly too late to do anything to stop it, did we start talking.

"Then we had to withstand all the slime that came flying at us afterward. It's hard to imagine that situation now, but only someone who was a Party member -- an apparatchik in the Composers' Union -- could count on having a performance of his own music. The Composers' Union was very upset that I had arranged my own concert. They had a clearly established schedule of who was allowed to have performances and who was not. A second concert was also given secretly, and we had the best musicians playing; all the indignation came after the concert. The concert hall was right next to the Composers' Union building, and they thought that was a definite slap at them... .

"The third concert was in 1985; perestroika had begun, we were able to publicize the concert and we had a full house."

Those first concerts "helped to destroy the old system, step by step," he says proudly. "That's what I call musical perestroika."

In a way, Artyomov says, "The Symphony of the Way" is "part of my biography; it is an ongoing process... . But, particularly in this symphony, I think this work has also become a reflection of life in the Soviet Union -- in Russia. This is completely unexpected; it was not one of my goals."

Does he know how it will end?

"More or less. I'm only guessing, of course; I can't say exactly. From a certain moment, the music starts to develop on its own. It doesn't listen to me anymore. I know the main mood of each consecutive movement, and I have the material for each movement, but their interaction -- how it will develop -- I cannot predict. That only becomes clear at the moment when you actually work on it."

Will his epic, when it reaches its full length of probably two hours or more, have a happy or a tragic ending? Artyomov prefers to leave that question unanswered. "I know now the titles of each piece," he says, "because I know their spirit." But he politely avoids telling what those names might be.