A NOVEL THAT tells secrets about the drug trade and its cancerous effect on society. A short story about an overprotected, overeducated klutz who just can't fit in. A novella about the destruction of the environment and the vicious government corruption that fuels it.

These are some of the hot books in Moscow this season, and to Russian readers, they are a harbinger of spring.

An unmistakable thaw is underway in Soviet cultural life, an opening unknown since the heady days of de-Stalinization. Bold new books are published, critical plays are staged and articles examining heretofore taboo subjects are finding their way into print. Films questioning Stalinist values are released.

The pace and scope of this cultural relaxation are dramatic, providing both a frank look at the problems of contemporary Soviet society and some insights into the attempts of Mikhail Gorbachev to reform it. Officially, the policy to revive cultural and social life is known as glasnost or "openness."

The reason for this Moscow spring is simple: As Gorbachev contemplates a broad program of economic and political reform, he needs the support of the educated classes, the intelligentsia, more than ever. Writers whose works have traditionally served as the country's conscience can help mobilize public support for many of his initiatives centering on elimination of corruption, decentralization of authority and independent problem-solving.

So far, the reforms most visible to the West are the top personnel changes that have rocked cultural circles. First, Gorbachev toppled Viktor Grishin, Moscow party chief and self-appointed cultural czar (described as "an orangutan without a cage" by Soviet emigre Yury Lyubimov, a former director of Moscow's Taganka Theater.) Next to be dumped was the minister of culture, Pyotr Demichev, kicked upstairs to the lesser post of first deputy chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet

Below the top, the shakeup is no less interesting. The inmates took over the asylum, so to speak, at the Union of Cinema Workers meeting in May, ousting conservative Lev Kulidjanov as first secretary and electing director Elem Klimov, whose work had been harshly censored. And at the all-powerful Writers Union, which has 10,000 members and accounts for the ideological purity of most literary works produced in the Soviet Union, a Brezhnev-era hack has been replaced by Vladimir Karpov, editor-in-chief of the leading literary journal Novy Mir.

Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko summed up the role Soviet writers must play in a June address to the Writers Union. "Some of us warn that democracy allegedly leads inevitably to anarchy and the shaking of the ship of state," he said. "But it all depends on who is steering the ship, and the helm is now in reliable hands. Our writers' hands must also be on this helm since, under socialist democracy, captaincy is a matter for the entire people."

The first clear example of the writers' hands "on the helm" of society was the Politburo's decision in August to drop a controversial project to divert powerful Siberian rivers to feed Russia's sunparched central Asia.

The decision cited "broad discussions" -- meaning pressure from the intellectual elite -- as the reason for scrapping the plan. Writers and scientists had warned that diverting rivers would destroy the delicate ecological balance in the north.

One of these authors, Valentin Rasputin, has long written on environmental issues and the destructive effects of breakneck industrialization. Rasputin is now cautiously attacking the Soviet economic system itself.

In "The Fire," a powerful expose of tragedy and corruption that take place in a Siberian logging town, Rasputin suggests outright the Russians should abandon their five-year plans.

"You talk about a plan? Plan? It would be better to live without it. It would be better to create another plan, not one measured in cubic meters, but in souls!" comments Rasputin's bedraggled peasant protagonist, Yegorov, in this 1986 novella.

This is where Gorbachev's plans for economic reform and his cultural thaw intersect. Not only does the new independence granted writers, film and theater directors mirror the autonomy Gorbachev is trying to introduce into the economy, but Gorbachev is now promoting cultural figures who explicitly support his economic views.

Sergei Zalygin, a non-party member who replaced Karpov as editor of Novy Mir, wrote an entire novel -- "After the Storm" -- about the brief period of economic freedom introduced by Lenin after the civil war. Known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), it revived a market economy and allowed limited private enterprise to get a shattered Soviet society back on its feet. Zalygin endorses an NEP approach for today's Soviet economy.

Writers and directors are even disregarding the dictates of "socialist realism" and its insistence on "positive" Communist heroes. Recently published works, and some recently released films, often have central characters that are "negative," an astonishing phenomenon in a society where art has long been conceived of as a tool of the party. These heroes are the downtrodden, the cynical, the misfits or simply those who are too honest.

The trailblazers include Tatyana Tolstaya, whose stories are now published in prestigious Soviet journals. In one short story, a pathetic mama's boy, by virtue of being unattractive and overeducated, can't snag a girl. He becomes a modern Oblomov figure, sleep-walking through life.

The hottest book in Moscow now may be Kirghizian writer Chingiz Aitmatov's new novel "Plakha," or "The Executioner's Block." A straight investigative thriller, it describes in detail the production of hashish in Soviet Central Asia. Until recently, mention of this problem was banned outright by Soviet censors.

Perhaps most important is that the Soviet Union is now starting to address its grimmest time -- the Stalin period.

A sensation was created when the authorities recently released Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze's 1984 film "Repentance." The film, which depicts the terror of life under Stalin, has been compared in its impact to the publication in 1962 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's prison camp novella "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."

But the most telling sign that a thorough examination of the Stalin period is on its way was last month's decision to publish Anatoly Rybakov's novel "Children of the Arbat." The decision was reportedly taken at the "highest levels of the Kremlin." Set in 1934, the book offers what Rybakov calls "a group portrait" of the generation that grew up under Stalin.

Side by side with such positive developments, however, are signs of a considerable opposition to cultural thaw. For example, some of Gorbachev's calls for openness and reform delivered in public have disappeared from subsequent newspaper accounts of these speeches. And it is no secret that elements of the military and KGB are very uncomfortable with such a rapid loosening of cultural controls.

Some who remain pessimistic about long-range reform say a true thaw cannot occur without a frank look at history. "An appraisal of the past, that's what a thaw is," said literary historian Andrei Sinyavksy in an interview last summer. "From there you get dissidents and an opposition." Now that Russia's intellectual elite is beginning to reopen the Stalin period, a first step has been taken.

Elizabeth Tucker is a Washington Post reporter who writes occasionally about Soviet cultural affairs.