MOSCOW -- The following essay was written last month, before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev delivered his Nov. 2 speech criticizing Stalinism and rehabilitating some of Stalin's critics. The essay analyzes the spread of anti-Stalinism within the Soviet Union -- and the continuing limits on it. Roy Medvedev is a dissident Soviet historian whose samizdat works have appeared regularly in the West. His essay was translated by The Post's Elizabeth Tucker.

As recently as last year, condemnations of Stalin or Stalinism were more frequently found in hints or an indirect form than in straight talk.

A decisive turn in ideology and culture only began in January 1987 when Tengiz Abuladze's film "Repentence" came to our country's screens. Employing methods of realism, surealism, grotesque, the absurd, and satire, the film deals Stalinism, and tyranny in general, a blow of great emotional force.

Between April and June of this year, the journal Druzhba Narodov published A. Rybakov's novel "Children of the Arbat," which became not only the overriding literary even of the year but an event in the country's public political life. For the first time in Soviet literature, Stalin appears not just as an episodic figure but as the central character of a novel. Rybakov paints a very accurate psychological and historical picture of Stalin in 1933 and 1934, when he was already plotting a series of crafty provocations to destroy all potential opponents, create a new ruling apparatus, and consolidate the totalitarian power of the "leader."

The offensive against Stalinism begun in novels, poems and films continued through this summer and fall in scores of articles, in reviews and in hundreds of letters from readers and film goers. Many associate the current criticism of Stalin with the anti-Stalin campaign of the 1961-1964 period. There are similarities, but also one critical difference.

At the start of the 1960s, the artistic intelligentsia wasn't yet entirely ready to support Khrushchev. Moreover, the party apparatus was clearly sabotaging the {anti-Stalinist} decisions of the 22nd party congress held in 1961. But today's anti-Stalinist campaign is proceeding on a broader front and undoubtedly has the support of not only Gorbachev but many other influential members of the Politburo and the Central Committee.

In many instances the same questions are being raised that were examined at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s: the terror of 1937-1938, the extermination of the commanding officers of the Red Army, Stalin's mistaken assessment of Hitler's plans in 1941 and defeats in the first years of the war, the atmosphere of terror, mistrust, and suspicion propogated by the "Father of the Peoples," and Stalin's ruinous meddling in the social and natural sciences. Once again we can read lengthy essays about major figures of the party and government that fell victim to Stalin's arbitrary rule.

But by early 1987, issues arose that never got enough attention in the 1960s. These include the expediency of Stalin's agrarian policies in 1927-1928, his renunciation of the New Economic Policy, and his policy of collectivization and liquidation of the kulaks. The writers V. Belov in the novel "The Last Days," and B. Mozhaev in his novel "Peasant Men and Peasant Women" show the senseless destruction of productive forces in the countryside, the annihilation of the more productive farms, the growth of poverty and arbitrary rule, and the mass ruin and starvation of the peasantry.

Today we can also read some appraisals of Stalin by Marshal Zhukov that were excluded from his published memoirs. (e.g., "Stalin was terrifying. People were in horror of going to see him.") A new series of documents and memoirs is being published, as well as new materials about the crimes of Stalin's time. There has been wide public response to the campaign, begun by Izvestia, to end lingering suspicions about the fate of millions of Soviet soldiers missing or taken prisoner in World War II. Strange as it may seem to foreign readers, millions of people who fell anonymously on the battlefields or who died in captivity beyond Soviet borders are not counted in the official figures of Soviet losses during the war.

The anti-Stalin campaign of recent months is gathering in breadth, depth, and intensity, as did the campaign at the beginning of the 1960s. But the public response to the criticism of Stalin's crimes today is not so resonant as it was 25 or 30 years ago. This is understandable. Most people who survived Stalin's terror, defeat in war, and violence done to culture, have already departed this life. Millions of children of "enemies of the people" have also grown old and died. For Soviet citizens in their 20s, 30s and 40s, "The Stalin Era" represents not their youth, but only history.

Few remain among the living who helped create the arbitrary rule of the 1930s and 1940s. Tens of millions of people whose political outlook was formed in the last twenty years simply know nothing of Stalin's crimes. That is why one should not be surprised that many young people walk out on the movie Repentance. These people don't understand the film. They don't have the essential historical and aesthetic culture. This explains, I think, the fact that resistance to the new criticism of Stalinism is not so considerable as it was in the early 1960s or after the 20th party congress in 1956.

But there is resistance. Nearly every recent major anti-Stalinist work saw the light of day only after a complicated behind-the-scenes fight in which even members of the Politburo had to intercede. The letters streaming into the editorial offices of newspapers and magazines contain no few that maliciously attack anti-Stalin materials and sometimes even carry threats against their authors.

"Come to your senses! Stop injecting confusion into our minds and ideology!" writes K. Kulyamova to the editors of the newspaper Soviet Culture. "Your articles do damage to society, destroy peoples' belief and outlook as citizens. You deprive them of patriotism and pride in their socialist ideals. Don't you have other problems to address besides airing dirty laundry?"

It must be said that the groundswell against Stalinism of recent months was unexpected for the social sciences and particularly for history and historians. Among noted historians, only a few have supported the fight against Stalinism. But these historians were not able to publish their thoughts in professional historical or social science journals.

Confusion reigns among many university and secondary school teachers. Today, all existing textbooks on the history of the USSR are obviously inappropriate for the students, convincingly shown by noted pedagogue V. Svirskii in his article, "History Keeps Silent." These textbooks not only keep silent on many of the most important events of our country's history, they often falsify them.

The major book on the history of the USSR, "Soviet Russia: 1917-1987," which appeared in bookstores this spring, is astonishingly primitive, although practically every single leading historian contributed to it. Now, not only the names of Khrushchev and Stalin, but the names of Brezhnev and Chernenko have disappeared from history. Those most often mentioned are Lenin and Gorbachev.

Of course the new criticism of Stalin and Stalinism has not been continuing long and has not gone deep enough. Many "taboos" and "blank spots" remain. But there are many indications that the criticism of Stalinism won't be hastily derailed (although such a possibility can't be excluded) but rather will widen and deepen. This prospect frightens bureaucrats and demagogues but pleases the majority of honest people in the USSR.