The building is an immense pile of gloomy, red-brown stone sprawling in a peculiar W-shape along the Moscow River a few blocks east of the Kremlin. Heavy wire-mesh awnings reach out over the main entrances to guard pedestrains from chunks of stone the harsh winters pry from the facade and send tumbling down. High above, a heavy spire squats atop the building's central core, reaching incongruously into the night sky.

This is the Kotelnickeskaya apartment house, where some of the capital's richest, brightest and most prominent families live in high-ceilinged privilege amid parquet floors, ornate woodwork and smoothly operating elevators. Designed to Stalin's personal whim, the vast building is among the best examples of fascist-Gothic architecture to be found anywhere east of Berlin and west of Peking. Most of them are in Moscow.

We have visitged this huge dom many times in recent years and the scene is almost always the same. Within the wings of the W, the inner courtyard is quiet, an immense canyon of darkness through which a few Muscovites move soundlessly, burdened with bags, to disappear homeward through dimly lit entrances. In a far corner, a battered bread truck is parked at the rear entrance of a ground flour bulochnaya (bread store) and a worker in fur hat and dirty smock throws empty wooden bread trays into it, while a store attendant with an impressive girth and a small white hat pinned into her hair grouses at him. The homey aroma of warm loaves that wafts out the door softens but can't quite dispel the false pomp of the building.

The fact that the couple we used to visit here has fled to the United States after months of confrontation with the authorities has not altered the external reality of the place one iota.

This would be true anywhere, but the difference between external appearances as deliberately constructed by the state and the interior truths of peoples' lives is perhaps greater in the Soviet Union than in any other country on earth. The surface is deceptive blandness and dull uniformity, faintly unsettling, perhaps even threatening, to the western eye. So let the Stalin dom, with its overblown proportions aimed at creating a hulking visual intimidation, stand as the perfect physical metaphor for this basic component of Soviet psychology.

Now, a journey into the interior. It will touch on the present and the past, as every journey here must. Fittingly, the event that offers these glimpses at life beyond the surface is the work of the past -- the departure last July of five people from the Soviet Union, most of whom will never come back to their native land. But the fact that they left so long ago by western stardards hardly matters in the densely woven fabric of Soviet existence, where events of decades ago can pulse with passionate force even today.

Our destination is Apartment 121, the former home of Maya Karmen Aksyonovna and her husband, Vasili, one of the best-known and most widely read authors of contemporary Soviet life. His books and short stories circulated here by the millions in the 1960s. He was acclaimed, reproved, pardoned and acclaimed again in a stormy career that mirrored the ups and downs of the literary world here from the Khrushchev thaw of two decades ago to the situation of today when the party has seemingly greater control than any time since Stalin. Aksyonov's works have been cleaned from the sheleves of most stores and libraries.

He abandoned his life here months ago to settle in America, where he is already thriving, with his excellent English, humorous imagination and his thirst to know more of the world and to write about it.

The flat he and his wife left behind remains in her possession, unoccupied, but looked after by close friends. It is a sumptuous place by anyone's reckoning -- a spacious hall that functions as a foyer, two big rooms full of imposing furniture, a large cozy kitchen paneled in wood. In the dining room, Aksyonov's collection of mugs, picked up during travels abroad when he was in good standing with the party and its writers union, sits on a shelf along one wall. A short-wave radio, digital clock, color television and a portrait of Karl Marx with an Order of Lenin pinned to his chest complete the decor.

So little has changed here that it looks as if Akayonov and his wife had gone out for a walk.

In the study, the publicity photos of Maya's second husband, famed Soviet cinematographer Roman Karmen, still line the wall over the desk. Karmen was awarded many decorations in his long life and the photos show why. There are shots of Karmen with Averell Harriman, Jawaharial Nehru, Ho Chi Minh, Marshall Georgi Zhukov. There is one of Karmen in uniform, bandaged, at the Brandenburg Gate with the victorious Red Army. He was a globetrotting and well-known documentarian and his successes brought him privilege and recognition at the highest levels.

The photos show it. There is Karmen with Nikita Khrushchev, Karmen with Alexei Kosygin. And finally, Karmen with Leonid Brezhnev. They are shaking hands across a conference table and the leader of the Soviet Union has a vodka glass in his left hand and a big grin on his broad face, a politician's smile, vivacious and winning.

When the decree came down some time later which deprived May's husband, Vasily Aksyonov, of his Soviet citizenship and thus barred him from ever returning here, the order carried on it the signature of Brezhvev.

For the past decade, about 30,000 Soviet citizens each year have left their homeland to settle abroad. Most are Jews, ethnic Germans and Armenians seeking to join relatives living outside the closed borders of the U.S.S.R. Most never return.

Aksyonov, himself part-jewish through his mother (Russians call this polukrove -- "half-blooded"), decided early in 1980 to apply for exit permission in the aftermath of a losing battle to have a collection of prose, poetry and criticism form more than 20 authors, entitled "Metropol," legally published here without censorship.

The early decision and long intervening wait for visas he was sure would come gave him plenty of time to say goodbye, and, like most Soviet citizens, he needed every minute of it. He spent the time at the downtown apartment or at a recently purchased dacha at 17B Gorki Lane, in Peredelkino, the historic retreat of Moscow's writers and artists in the countryside about 10 miles west of the Kremlin.

A visit there one Sunday last spring suggested why it can take so long to say goodbye, and why it can be so painful.

Among the guests that day was a white-haired woman of 70 who lives on a jpension of 50 rubles a month and works as a night guard at a Moscow mueseum for another 60 rubles a month. She works to eat. This woman, who shall remain nameless, had an interesting history.

In 1937, when she was 27, she disappeared into Stalin's concentration camps, the Gulag. When she emerged, she was 45. Her family had disappeared. There are survivors like this everywhere in the Soviet Union and for every one of them, there frequently are one or two others still living who were their accusers. In some cases, accuser and rehabilitated victim live across the same hallway from each other as they did in 1937, when the Great Purge began.

One of the people this woman met during a three-week train ride with 75 other young women packed into a cattle car from the Butyrka Isolator in Moscow to camps in the Far East was Aksyonov's mother, Evgenia Gainsburg. She was the wife of the Communist mayor of Kazan, a major provincial city on the Volga River in the heart of Tartaria, 450 miles east of Moscow.

In 1937, ignoring pleas of friends that she escape what was coming by fleeing with her children into the countryside and losing her identity, Evgenia Ginsburg went one day to answer the inevitable knock on her front door. Vasili was 4 and his older brother, Alexei, was 10. She had just disciplined the younger boy for some childish transgression. The memory of his tears tortured her for years afterward. He was 15 before she saw him again.

The older son, Alexei, went to live with relatives in Leningrad and was trapped there when the Wehrmacht besieged the city in the autumn of 1941. It took the Russians 900 days to lift the siege, one day too long for Alexei Aksyonov. He was loaded aboard in the first trainload of surviving children evacuated by the Red Army when they finally broke through, and there he died, a the age of 16.

"My mother never forgot his face," said Vasili, who named his own son Alexei.

In 1955, Vasili was a young postgraduate medical student, on a visit from Leningrad to Kazan to see relatives. As he recalls it, he was asleep one morning on a convertible sofa-bed, nursing a hangover. There was a knock at the door and his aunt answered it. "She cried in horror, joy, surprise."

The man at the door was his father, Pavel Aksyonov, the former mayor of Kazan. He had been arrested shortly after his wife was taken, and also had disappeared into the Gulag. When he was released in Khrushchev's de-Stalinization, he went home to Kazan without notifying anyone ahead. "He had forgotten he could send a telegram."

Aksyonov's father is now 82, with a clear mind and the enthusiasms and hammy instincts of a revivalist preacher, which is an old Bolshevik he more or less was. After his release, he settled into retirement in Kazan. The state never asked him to work again. "Youk know, it was a great pity and mistake that Khrushchev never again used these people," Vasili said. "They could have made a real contribution to the building of the state. Many were still willing despite what had happened."

Pavel Aksyonov spent part of the summer with his son at the Peredelkino dacha , and he was there the day a visiting foreigner brought to the dacha a Russian language edition of a recent American biography of Nikolai Bukharin, the leading liberal theorist of the Bolshevik Revolution, a man whom Lenin called "the darling of the party." Bring, sophisticated and ruthless, Bukharin nevertheless made a mistake. He sided with Stalin to defeat Trotsky after Lenin's death. Within a few years, Stalin had pushed to the top and a few years after that, Bukharin found himself the defendant at his own trial for treason, the centerpiece of the Great Purge. Stalin had him executed.

Pavel Aksyonov grabbed the Bukharin book in his strong, gnarled hands, and intensively studied the section of photographs at the front of the book. He stopped at one of them. "I knew him," he said, pointing at the picture of someone leaning close to Stalin.

The old man's finger rested on a photo of Nikolai Yezhov, the commissar of internal affairs who carried out the Great Purge for Stalin. Yezhov did his work so well that the Russian nickname for the purge, even today, is Yezhovschina . In time, Yezhov himself was devoured by it.

"He wasn't such a bad guy," said Pavel Aksyonov, whose own life had been shatterd by the Vezhovschina . "He knew a lot about people and how to talk with them." Indeed.

It was wet part of last summer in Moscow and we would sit on the deck at 17B Gorki Lane under unbroken layers of sullen clouds, while mosquitos sallied out of the dense foliage of woods around the house to draw blood. Departure was fast approaching and the stream of guests was practically unbroken.

One time, I found Maya alone and the house relatively quiet. We sat on the deck, sipping fresh coffee.

Her mind was on a play, "The House on the Embankment," adapted from the complex 1976 novella of the same name by Yuri Trifonov, whichdeals with moral choice during the time of Stalin's terror in the 1930s and '40s.

The play had premiered a few weeks before at the Taganka Theater of Yuri Lyubimov, to rave reveiws, and many of Moscow's intellectual elite had seen either the full preview rehersal, as I had, or the premiere.

Glebov, an older, successful Moscow professor, accidentally happens onto a drunken and dissheveled wreck of a man whom he suddenly recognizes as a child friend from the house on the embankment. Appalled, he calls out, "Lev!" but the laborer ignores him, spits on the street and passes by. In horror, Glebov realizes that the other man still has not forgiven him for a betrayal Glebov has been struggling to forget all his life.

Thus, Glebov's past comes to life before the audience in a series of interlocking scenes that skip powerfully back and forth between present and future. Played before an ingenious wall of glass windows that separates the acators, and using bizarre lighting effects, a children's chorus of young pioneers singing Stalinist-era songs and muffled microphones that carry voices out through the glass wall with strangled, disembodied effect, "The House on the Embankment" is the most exciting and compelling exploration of Soviet reality seen here in years.

"Why blame me for what happened?" shouts the young Glebov, who has just betrayed his cherished professor to the secret police to save himself. "Don't blame me -- blame the times!"

"This is the way it was, certainly," Maya ruminated. "Many, many people were caught in things like this . . .It is very difficult to imagine, but it did happen . . ." Later, more than a dozen people gathered at the house for a superb feast of chicken, greens, potatoes, casserole, pickles, wine and vodka, dessert and tea. They drifted in and out of the two rooms of the dacha to sit on the deck and discuss the play, which had stunned them and penetrated their lives.

Inside, the feasting, toasting and random conversation continued under the indifferent, yellow gaze of a large tomcat who lay on a windowsill near the table. The cat, an elderly animal with thick fur and quiet ways, lived part of the time under the dacha and part of the time with a neighboring family.

"It's really a homeless being," said Maya. "It looks after itself, has survived 20 years already and always eats fully whatever it finds. It is a familiar approach to life, this eating everything now because you don't know what tomorrow might bring. It is distinctive. The cat has the personality of a zek."

Prisoners of the Gulag were called zeks. Survivors still call each other that in moments of communion obscure to westerners. The cat and Vasili's father stayed behind when the family left the Soviet Union.

"Come visit us in the United States," his son once said.

"No, I'm an old man. I won't," said the father.

He is an honored citizen of Kazan, where he lives, and people who see him in the streets there, walking with his beret pulled evenly down on his head in the no-nonsense Russian style, tip their hats in respect, according to the son.

Some time ago, the father received a commemorative scroll from the party, to which he still belongs, commending him for his many years' constructive service in building the Motherland. Nowhere among the fine words did the scroll mention his 18 years of imprisonment. These scrolls never do.

Evgenia Ginsburg wrote two volumes of memoirs of her life in the camps, neither of which has ever been published here. The first, entitled "Into the Whirlwind," appeared in England some years ago and has been followed recently by a second volume. Devoid of polemics, they tell in stark simplicity how the terrifying cat-and-mouse game with her interrogators began and how it ended, with her confined to prison as an "enemy of the people" for having failed to denounce a superior. And it tells how, years later, she discovered the camps had swallowed the very people who were her original tormentors.

As with so many families that passed through the camps, the marriage did not survive the ordeal and she and her husband lived separate lives after they emerged from imprisonment. Evgenia Ginsburg spent her last years in Moscow, and there were a few photographs of her to be found at the dacha, showing a dark-eyed, dark-haired woman with strong features, tighly hugging a cherubic little boy -- her grandson, Alexei.

She died three years ago and is buried in a cemetery on the eastern fringes of Moscow. One rainy day in July, her son made his last visit there to say farewell.

Nearby, he said later, he noticed another Soviet family gathered around a freshly dug grave. They were interring their son, a soldier in the Red Army. The marker over the grave said the young man had "died in the performance of his internationalist duties."

"He died in the war?" asked Aksyonov.

"No," said a family member. "In Afghanistan."

When the "Metropol" controversy broke here two years ago and the authorities of the writers' union began haranguing the 23 contributors who joined together to produce it, the officials complained that Aksyonov had helped organize the censorship challenge "to avenge his mother."

Like the facade of the Stalin dom where Aksyonov lived, this is a carefully constructed intimidation. It is just as misleading.