EDINBURGH -- Glasnost has come to Edinburgh.

The biggest Soviet cultural delegation ever to visit the West is taking part in this prestigious annual arts festival.

At public forums, and after the Soviets' performances, there has been lively discussion about what Moscow's era of openness (glasnost) under Mikhail Gorbachev is doing for Soviet society and East-West cultural relations.

Closely watched by accompanying Soviet "observers," the delegation has given performances in arts including poetry, music, opera and theater -- both paying their dues to works that conform to mainstream Soviet ideology and experimenting with ideas they say would have been unacceptable before Gorbachev.

In keeping with Lenin's remarks that "cinema is the most important art" for the Soviet Union (which today has 58 percent of the world's movie theaters), the glasnost "revolution" has been most apparent in the Soviet films at the festival.

Although some of the 11 films being shown were made before Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985, many were banned until recently and several are being seen in the West for the first time.

Konstantin Lopushansky's "Letters From a Dead Man," a harrowing apocalyptic film about life after a world nuclear catastrophe, was banned in the Soviet Union until last year.

Set in a deliberately unnamed European country after a nuclear holocaust caused by computer error, it departs from the stereotype of past nuclear war films in which the United States is the aggressor, the Soviet Union the helpless victim of invasion, and the army full of brave soldiers trying to save the Homeland.

Instead, the army is a kind of futile watchdog, unable to do anything about the inevitable gradual decay of human life.

"Its message is that we must stop nuclear madness because, quite apart from the intentional policies of East and West, there's the possibility of an unintentional holocaust," says Nancy Condee, a Soviet expert who helped bring the films to Edinburgh.

Condee, a U.S. professor in Soviet affairs who has worked and studied in the Soviet Union on and off for 20 years, says the film also relies heavily on religious motifs to emphasize broader humanitarian values, which would have been impossible before Gorbachev.

Juris Podniek's 1987 documentary "It's Not Easy to Be Young" is an obvious product of glasnost, ironically exploring the problems among Soviet youth for which Gorbachev is often blamed.

The filmmakers interviewed a cross section of youths -- from punk rockers and metallisty (people dressed up in metal regalia) who ask why Soviet society questions their existence when it produced them, to young men who return bewildered from fighting in Afghanistan and are asked by people on the street where they bought their medals.

"Podniek's film addresses the experiences of the young as they occur in stable, peacetime conditions, in a society that, according to official expectations, should offer its youth the greatest opportunity for healthy transition from childhood to adulthood," says Condee.

But some Soviet viewers attribute the anger, desperation and indifference of the youths to western decadent influences taking control under Gorbachev, she says. Others question the point of reforms in the arts when lines for consumer goods are just as long as they were before 1985, she says.

Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko told a public seminar at the festival that the publication last year of the novel "Children of Arbat," which deals with the exorcism of Stalinism, was a triumph of glasnost.

"It may be a major triumph for the intellectuals, but I recall talking to a man in a Soviet bathhouse who said, 'What is this "Children of Arbat"? Is it a film, a novel? I've never heard of it,' " says Condee. Some Soviet writers questioned the extent of new literary freedom. Others said it made work for playwrights more difficult.

"For many playwrights in the past, success depended on how to write the truth between the lines ... The difference today is that the truth is now printed in the newspapers. Now another level is required for playwrights -- the artistic level," Genrikh Borovik, secretary of the Writers Union, told one seminar.

At another, Vitaly Korovich, editor of the 1.5 million-circulation magazine Ogonyok, looked bemused when Vladimir Karpov, the first secretary of the Writers Union and the head of the Soviet delegation, told the western audience, "He {Korovich} can print anything he wants." Out of view at the other end of the table, Korovich smiled and slowly shook his head