IN MOSCOW, a writer disappeared, though nobody noticed for a long time that he was missing. His readers assumed he was working on a new novel. His fellow writers, a more cynical lot, felt sorry for him: Obviously, he had taken to lunching on vodka.

The writer himself wasn't aware for a while that he was missing. Then one day on the street he bumped into a critic who asked him in amazement, "But didn't you die last year?"

"Not as far as I know," the writer said.

"Then why have I been ordered to eliminate your name from my critical anaylsis of this year's prose?"

A little while after that, the writer received a phone call from a librarian he knew, a kindly woman who had organized at least 50 discussion sessions between him and his readers. "I'm calling from a phone booth," she said. "Please don't mention me by name. An order came to remove all your books and burn them. So . . . well, nu . . . I decided to divide them up and give them to a few of our old-time readers. But tell me -- what on earth is going on?"

The writer's books disappeared from the bookshops. His byline vanished from magazines and newspapers. His voice, which had sounded regularly in a radio program for parents about the problems of their children, grew silent. A short time later he heard his own name spoken out loud in the foyer of the Central House of Writers. An unfamiliar individual was saying, "You heard what happened, of course. He's living in Israel already . . . and there goes one more!"

The writer himself didn't know he was living in Israel. So he paid a visit to his dental clinic in Moscow to see about a tooth that was bothering him. But the head of the clinic said he had received instructions not to treat him anymore. Not him, and not any member of his family.

"You want me to lose all my teeth?"

"It's not what I want, it's what I don't want. I don't want any trouble."

Strange incidents continued to occur. The writer's newest book was already in type at the publishing house Sovetskaya Rossiya. It was a children's book about the adventures of a monkey who comes to live with a human family and almost becomes human herself. Without warning, the book was taken off the press. The writer was told, in whispers, that this step had been taken after a phone call from the organizational secretary of the Moscow branch of the Union of Soviet Writers.

Two more books in different stages of production also disappeared mysteriously from other publishing houses. Then a friend who flew in from Astrakhan described an incident he had witnessed in that city at the mouth of the River Volga. One morning, he said, he noticed two women dressed in black work smocks walking along the embankment where the theater posters were displayed. They took out long knives and scraped the writer's name and the title of his comedy, "Teacher in Love," off the theater boards.

By now the writer was beginning to question his own existence. He knew for sure that he was not living in Israel; and yet he didn't seem to be living in Moscow. Where was he, then? The word "liquidated" was too crude to apply to his situation; moreover, it recalled a dismal past one would prefer to forget. Perhaps he should think of himself as . . . canceled?

The nonexistent character was once a popular theme of 19th century Russian literature. One of Gogol's heroes works up a profitable little business by traveling through Russia and buying up "dead souls." Tolstoy even put a "living corpse" on the stage.

The writer had always regarded this sort of thing as an outmoded literary device. But now it appeared that he himself had become a dead soul and a living corpse. As a writer he had been annulled in toto; as a human being he went on existing in part.

But the odd thing was that the Soviet Writers' Union had never sent him any notification of expulsion. In fact, the last letter he had received from them commended him for outstanding civic participation in community literary activity. What to do now? He decided to take the bull by the horns. He wrote a letter to Georgi Markov, first secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers, and another to its organizational secretary. Was he expelled or not? If he was expelled, what were the legal grounds? If not, why was he being deprived of his right to work at his profession?

There was no answer. The Union had probably already filed his number away as canceled, and therefore he no longer existed. So he went in person to try to straighten out the whole matter. The reception clerks at the entrance recognized him at once and refused to let him into the building.

"But why not?"

"We were told to tell you that you can guess for yourself why not."

He did guess. When all is said and done, it is just a touch uncomfortable -- even for a bureaucrat -- to cancel a writer out of existence. (And not even because of "inadmissible" writings or convictions -- he hadn't as yet expressed any -- but for four simple words conveyed to the Soviet emigration office: I want to leave.)

The list of writers expelled from the Soviet Writers' Union since its formation in 1934 includes some of the most distinguished names in literature. Cynics have even remarked that membership in the Union was conceived for the precise purpose of creating the fear of expulsion.

But in the good old days, expulsions were carried out officially. Expelled writers were notified. Now a new category had been created for the canceled writer: the Closet Expellee. The Union had become so secret an organization that a member was not allowed to know whether he was or was not a member.

Thanks to the friendship of an "unknown soldier" (the current Soviet expression for people one doesn't mention by name), the writer was told about the discussion of his case. The secretary of the Communist Party Committee of the Writers' Union's Moscow branch had asserted that the writer had "started down the road to treason against his people." An accusation of treason, let me tell you, is no joke. Under the Soviet Criminal Code, treason is punishable by death.

The writer pondered his crime.By what bazarre logic could emigration be equated with treason? Precisely which people was he accused of betraying? He had always considered himself a Russian writer. He loved the Russian language, its literature and its culture. But his Soviet passport did not identify him as a Russian. It identified him as a Jew.

"Let me tell you something in the strictest confidence," a Union bigwig finally told me during an unofficial conversation outside on the street, while he kept looking around uneasily. "Upstairs, they don't like what's going on. The culture leak, the brain drain, whatever you want to call it. Musicians playing 'The Flight of the Bumblebee.' Writers getting up and taking a walk. My heartfelt advice to you is: Sit tight and keep quiet till they decide to let you go."

"I've been sitting tight for three years now," I said. "When will the day come?"

"Someday the day will come. Be a smart fellow. Use you head."

"I'm trying. I'm Top Secret. Every word I put on paper is unpublishable. So tell me, then -- if I'm not allowed to publish children's stories officially, what's left for me to do -- write them for samizdat?"

"Sh-h-h! You're only harming yourself with that kind of talk. The most sensible thing you can do is to keep quiet."

In the quaintly naive 19th century, it was believed that a Russian writer was a person dedicated to revealing the truth as he saw it. Now the Union delivers its latest directive to writers: Keep quiet.

The basic principle is elementary. A writer who leaves the country or wants to leave the country has never existed. He is erased not only from the present but also from the past. A coded message, consisting of one word, goes out to all the publishing houses: ". . . too."

Here's a real live example of how the system works. Two or three years ago, a distinguished historian and writer emigrated (he's now a professor at an American university). We'll call him Andrew Nerev because that isn't his name. A prestigious Moscow publishing house then received a phone call with the message, "Nerev, too!"

This was the code signifying that Nerev had left the country and must be dematerialized.

The editor-in-chief called the senior editor into his office and said to him, "Nerev, too!" The senior editor nodded his head sagely, returned to his own office and called in the junior editor. "nerev, too!" The junior editor started to heave a sigh and then wisely suppressed it. He was the one, you see, who got to do the work.

The work of erasing a writer from literary existence boggles the mind. Books have to be removed from circulation, citations, footnotes, endnotes, critical commentary and reviews must be eliminated. I can't help sympathizing with my Writers' Union colleagues (or are they still my colleagues?) who are faced with this drudgery. Some of them even work without getting paid, out of a sense of civic duty. They spend precious creative hours turning out negative reports on the work of their fellow writers.

I think about the now-famous "Metropol" affair. It may have initiated a new phase in our literary history. Twenty-three Soviet writers, of varying degrees of prominence and widely diverse styles and viewpoints, collaborated on a literary anthology. They asked for permission to publish it without censorship. Permission was denied, as might have been expected. But that was not all. The official response singled out for punitive action the two least known and most vulnerable members of the group. They were "suspended" from the Writers' Union (automatically losing their right to publish).

In the old days that probably would have been the end of the affair. But this time events took a different turn. Other members of the group refused to acquiesce in the sacrifice of the two scapegoats. At least four of them, all well known and published abroad, put their own careers on the line. They told the Writers' Union that they themselves would resign from the Union unless the two others were reinstated.

Then help came from another quarter. Five distinguished American authors, who believe that the concept of "fellow writer" does not stop at national boundaries, sent a cable of protest to the Writers' Union.

According to reports, Union officials have now promised to discontinue retaliatory acts against the "Metropol" group as a whole and to reinstate the two members who had been "suspended." If it had not been for the courage of the "Metropol" leaders and the support of their American colleagues -- John Updike, William Styron, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Kurt Vonnegut -- this reversal might never have occurred.

Try to imagine a comparable situation in the United States. Suppose the Authors Guild makes a decision with which Updike and Vonnegut strongly disagree. As a result, Updike's books are removed from libaries all over American and burned. Vonnegut is expelled from the Guild in a secret vote. The Guild goes into action. Phone calls go out to publishers all down the line, and Vonnegut's name is put on the blacklist. The manuscript of his new book, an illustrated children's story, is shredded.

Arthur Miller gets himself involved in defending a young man convicted of murder. Even worse, he takes a trip to China and writes a book about it. Result: his play, "The Price," which had a successful Broadway run this season, is withdrawn without notice.

At chic literary cocktail parties, people are whispering that PEN American Center's new president, Bernard Malamud, has gone off on a two-week tour to Israel. He is then forbidden to return to the United States. A joint conclave of Democrats and Republicans (all of PEN) hold a secret caucus, and Malamud is accused of betraying his people.

Do you understand? You think you do, but you don't. And you can't. Not unless you try an experiment. Reverse the direction of emigration and come live in everyday, ordinary Moscow. There, as everyone knows, such things don't happen.