MOSCOW -- What a strange vision on Soviet television last Monday night: Alexander Yakovlev, Mikhail Gorbachev's most trusted colleague on the Soviet presidential council, reading a long statement of repentence in memory of the names "of the lost." Explaining Gorbachev's recent decision to "rehabilitate" the murdered and the exiled, everyone from the peasants of the Ukraine to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Yakovlev spoke of restoring "the moral law within us."

"We are not somehow forgiving them for the sins of the past -- that would reek of hypocrisy," he said. "We are instead forgiving ourselves, for it is we who are to blame that they were forced to live with lies and were trampled underfoot. They wanted to make a world more kind, a free place to live. And the state answered with the evil of prisons and camps."

By returning citizenship to Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Voinovich, Lev Kopelev, Vassily Aksyonov, Irina Ratushinskaya and many others, Gorbachev also means to atone, by decree, for one of the most brutal assaults of the Bolshevik period: the assault on the Russian language and independent thought.

The legacies of the Soviet attack on agriculture, pluralist politics, civil liberties and the natural sciences are all well known -- especially now as the Soviet Union struggles to enter the modern world of democratic institutions and a market economy. The more the Soviet Union tries to create a civil society and meets yet another barrier, the more it is forced to understand a history of labor camps, collectivization and slaughter.

But how to understand the life of a language? What is the legacy left behind by a war on the word? The questions are anything but academic. The Bolshevik war on one of history's great literary languages was a sustained attempt to leech Russian -- and the Russian people themselves -- of liberty, to make sheep of 280 million men and women.

A few years ago, as preparation for my assignment to The Post's Moscow bureau, I took a course at George Washington University in what is known as "political" or "newspaper" Russian. Really, it was a course in the cliches, the block phrases of totalitarian habit and mind. In "1984," George Orwell called it Newspeak. In 1990, Russians call it "Novoyaz."

We memorized long lists of stock phrases from the lexicon of the Communist Party. For example, this sentence, from the 1981 Soviet textbook "Reading Newspapers": "Socialism has added nearly 40 years of life, on the average, to every man and woman in the Soviet Union." Or, from a slightly earlier era, this in the government newspaper Izvestia: "Academician Sakharov's libels against the Soviet state are an attempt to betray a peace-loving people." It was the anti-language that Orwell's Winston Smith read on signs emblazoned above the gates of the Ministry of Truth:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

Through it all I kept thinking how Stalin's homicidal KGB chief Lavrenti Beria called his interrogation cells "sincerity rooms."

The ferocity of the Stalinist abuse of language has at least one equal in the 20th century. Nearly 15 years after World War II, George Steiner published an essay called "The Hollow Miracle" contending that the language of Hitler and Himmler had nearly killed German -- a language "used to run hell, getting the habits of hell into its syntax."

"Languages have great reserves of life. They can also absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy, and cheapness," Steiner wrote. "But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during twelve years of calculated beastiality. Something will happen to it.

"Something of the lies and sadism will settle on the marrow of the language. Imperceptibly at first, like the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone. But the cancer will begin, and the deep-set destruction. The language will no longer grow and freshen. It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace. In an anguished note in his diary for 1940 Klaus Mann observed that he could no longer read new German books: 'Can it be that Hitler has polluted the language of Nietzsche and Holderlin?' It can."

The Bolshevik pollution of Russian began long before -- say with Lenin's order to execute the poet Nikolai Gumilyev in 1921 -- and lasted until just a few years ago. The current liberalization, perestroika, is not the first time the Soviet leadership has allowed the physicians of a language, its writers, to try to heal Russian and individual thought. The "thaw" in the early years of the Khrushchev regime, which saw the publication of Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," Maximov's "A Man Survives" and other essential works, gave first voice to the silenced of the Gulag. But once more the wall came down, and most writers -- genuine writers -- were arrested, sent into exile, were silenced once more.

The Stalinist assault on language, led by commissars of culture, ideology chiefs and newspaper editors, was as unforgiving as his war on private farmers or "rootless cosmopolitans." To run Bolshevik hell, Stalin developed a grandiloquent public language that seemed at times like an abomination of the stock phrases and holy formulae of the Russian Orthodox Church. A former seminarian whose first language was Georgian, Stalin initiated a kind of holy Bolshevik liturgy that allowed no deviations and was meant to narrow the range of permissable thought.

Editors of Pravda, who had direct access to all Politburo meetings, were the monkish scriveners of Stalinist Newspeak. Each day they set down the party line in the approved vocabulary. Even today on the desk of Pravda editor (and Politburo member) Ivan Frolov there is a cream-colored telephone, a direct line with no dial that says on it, "Gorbachev."

To succeed -- to survive -- in public life, party members substituted genuine knowledge and argument for the provided script, this abstracted, artificial language. Dimitri Simes, who emigrated in the 1970s and is now a scholar at Washington's Carnegie Endowment, remembers going to Young Communist League meetings as a young man long after Stalin's death and feeling the power of the Bolshevik liturgy.

"You not only had to agree with the ideas and policies being expressed in that morning's Pravda, you also had to use the exact same phrases to express your unfailing agreement," Simes said. "Because, after all, if you used your own language and logic, then maybe your agreement with the Party line was merely a matter of coincidence. And this could not be tolerated.

"Just as dangerous, you always had to pay attention to any changes in party line and language. If, on a Thursday, you were still mouthing the language of Tuesday's Pravda without bothering to check if the script had changed, you were running a tremendous risk."

Sovietized Russian tried to render meaningless such words as "liberty," "democracy," "freedom." Read the Soviet constitution of the Stalin era and you would think you were reading the words of John Stuart Mill and not the hangman.

Sovietized Russian tried as well to erase history, the connection with the past. It reversed reality and glorified the new ideology. Suddenly streets named for Lithuanian knights and Russian gardens became Lenin Avenue, Dzerzhinsky Street, Prospect Marx. Children were named for Politburo members. Andrei Sinyavsky, a novelist living now in Paris, remembers knowing children in the '30s named Traktor, to honor the glories of collectivization, and Elektrifikatsia, to commemorate the Leninist slogan, "Socialism equals Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country." Here in Moscow, the writer Len Karpinski's first name comes from Lenin, not Leonard; the journalist Vil Dorofeyev's first name is the acronym of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The Communist Party not only developed an anti-Russian of its own, it also shot, imprisoned, exiled and censored the lifeblood of Russian, its writers. The 19th-century liberal, Alexander Herzen, once said that Russian literature was an uninterrupted indictment of Russian reality. The Bolsheviks would not permit indictment. Their means of censorship were far more brutal than anything ever imagined by even the most reactionary czars.

How to calculate the loss of Osip Mandelstam? Of Isaac Babel? The analogy is meager, but at least try, as a beginning, to imagine 20th century American culture if the government had executed Frost, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner, exiled Bellow, Lowell, Bishop and Ellison, censored Eliot, Stevens, Updike and Roth. Imagine the bookstores and libraries stocked with pulp, political tracts and engineering textbooks. Imagine a political rhetoric so hollow that Leonid Brezhnev could (as he once did at a congress in Baku) read the same page of a speech twice with almost no one noticing. There were moments in the Soviet assault on the word that became literature, a tragic comedy. Listen to just one moment in the trial for "parasitism" in 1964 of the poet Josef Brodsky before he was sentenced to five years of internal exile. Frida Vigdorova's transcription of the trial became one of the first examples of samizdat, or underground, literature of the Khrushchev era and reads like an addendum to Gogol's "The Inspector General":

Judge: And what is your occupation?

Brodsky: Poet, poet-translator.

Judge: And who recognized you to be a poet. Who put you in the ranks of the poets?

Brodsky: No one. And who put me in the ranks of humanity?

Judge: Did you study it?

Brodsky: What?

Judge: How to be a poet? Did you attempt to finish an institute of higher learning where they would prepare you?

Brodsky: I don't think it is given to one by education.

Judge: By what then?

Brodsky: I think it is . . . from God.

Just before Brodsky emigrated to the west, a party official in Leningrad went after another literary dissident: this time a young man named Revolt Pimenov.

"If you think we will ever allow people to say and write everything they want, I tell you, it will never happen," the official told Pimenov. "Of course, it is not in our powers to make everybody think the same. But we do have enough power to prevent people from making things that are damaging to us."

Today, the official who helped send Pimenov to jail, Vadim Medvedev, is a member of Gorbachev's presidential council. This spring, Pimenov was elected a deputy to the parliament of the Russian Republic. Russian and Russian literature survived, despite the best efforts of the state. Spoken Russian proved resilient to the demands of ideology. In a society where private life grew alienated from the public, the language of the kitchen table grew as distant from the syntax of Pravda as Spanish is from German. People even resisted the most basic terms of Sovietized Russian, so much so that they have always had trouble addressing strangers -- unable to stomach the ideologized "comrade," but hesitating as well before the pre-revolutionary "mister" or "sir."

Russian literary art survived, first of all, abroad. Brodsky, a winner of the Nobel Prize and probably the greatest living poet in the langauge, now lives in Greenwich Village, an exile. In fact with Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov, Kopelev, Sasha Sokolov, Voinovich, Yuz Aleshkovsky, Sergei Dovlatov, Vladimir Maximov, Andrei Sinyavsky also living in exile, there is little doubt that contemporary Russian literature is strongest outside Soviet borders.

Especially following the rise of the dissident movement in the 1960s, much of the exile literature made its way back to the Soviet Union through samizdat -- underground manuscripts passed hand to hand. European emigre publishing houses, often funded by western intelligence agencies, also helped support modern Russian literature. Ardis, an independent publishing house run out of a basement in Ann Arbor, Mich., published more exceptional Russian literature in the Brezhnev era than the entire Soviet publishing industry.

Although in the Soviet Union sycophantic hacks tended to dominate the journals and writers unions, not all the writers who remained in the Soviet Union were suffocated and co-opted by the system. Some found a "third way," literary styles and gestures that managed at once to avoid compromise and the censors. Fazil Iskander, a hilarious and daring writer from the Caucasian region of Abkhazia, used allegory, the grotesque and regional myths in "Sandro of Chegem" to write aaout Stalinism. Andrei Bitov, in "Seven Journeys," criticized Russian culture by writing about smaller peoples within the Soviet Union.

But even Iskander and Bitov could not publish most of their work until the glasnost era. Bitov's novel "Pushkin House," a multi-generational novel that also pays homage to all the 18th- and 19th-century forebears of Russian literature, was for years available only in smuggled foreign editions. The average reader, one without the connections necessary to get hold of a samizdat or emigre book, simply had to do without.

"We have our exiles and heroes and that helped sustain us, but for the most part we have had no literature, only the myth of a literature," said Natalya Ivanova, one of Moscow's leading critics. "A language cannot survive on the 'art' supplied by sycophants and non-talents for very long. It becomes a diseased language, a diseased culture."

Which is why Gorbachev's order, over time, to end censorship and return honor to the writers who kept the language alive will prove, in its way, as important to the Soviet Union and its future as the establishment of an elected legislature and economic restructuring. The road to a Western-style free press since March 1985 has been full of fits and starts, petty reversions to the old ways. Gorbachev has growled at various editors. The style of argument even in the most progressive newspapers is still full of intolerance, illogic, jargon and Aesopian language.

But the progress has been stunning -- far quicker than anything seen in the economic realm certainly -- and Gorbachev suprised even his own team, the "perestroika army," with the latitude he was willing to show.

When Vitaly Korotich was brought to Moscow from Kiev four years ago to take over the editorship of the weekly magazine Ogonyok, he discovered the only instructions that his predecessor had left to him were a complete list of the birthdays of the members of the Politburo. In the past, editors of Ogonyok (a particularly wooden journal) knew they had to honor somehow these men on their birthdays; the only question was how? with a color portrait? with a congratulatory annoucement framed in red? The imagination reeled.

For Korotich, the birthday of an especially odious Politburo member, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, was fast approaching. Korotich decided to discover the limits of glasnost. He called Alexander Yakovlev, for advice. None was forthcoming. There was the signal. Korotich let Kunaev's birthday pass without congratulation. There was no reaction. "For me, that was the signal to begin," Korotich said. Ogonyok quickly became a centerpiece of glasnost.

In 1988 and 1989 especially, the "return of necessary things," as Ivanova has titled a collection of her essays, made for a period of cultural jubilation. When such long-suppressed works as "Dr. Zhivago" and "1984" were finally serialized in the journal Novy Mir, subway cars were packed with commuters reading intently from the pale blue monthly.

But those who expected that glasnost would also reveal quickly an enormously talented cast of suppressed writers in the Soviet Union were badly disappointed. Vladimir Duduntsev's "White Robes" and Anatoli Rybakov's "Children of the Arbat" caused a sensation for their journalistic explorations of the Stalin era, but as novels, as works of language, they were dull -- James Michener in Russian. Younger prose writers such as Viktor Yerofeyev and Tatyana Tolstaya, and a long-neglected playwright named Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, are great discoveries, but they do not yet make for anything approaching a rennaissance. The appearance of genuine individual genius in literature happens when it happens.

For now, the real rennaissance is in the press. Even official newspapers such as Izvestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya disregard or mock the Stalinist language. Old stock phrases such as "our bright, shining future" are only used as irony, a split with Newspeak. The same is true in political discourse. Many of the deputies at the Congress of People's Deputies speak with a penetration that mocks the blandness and posturing of American legislators.

Language is also at the center of nationalist politics in most of the Soviet republics. The attempt to make Soviet Russian the primary national language was an insult to both Lithuanian and Lithuanians, Georgian and Georgians. In nearly every republic, the issue that first galvanized nationalist support, and eventually led to declarations of sovreignty, was the issue of language. Language is community, self-regard, the carrier of a civilization; once that had been regained the future cracked open.

After seven decades, the damage to the Russian language and culture is incalculable. You can hear it even in the speeches of Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who has moved to restore normal conditions to language and literature. As he shifts back and forth between party cliches and a more honest, Russian speech, he seems at times like an a patient waking from the effects of general anasthesia, struggling for a real, clean sentence. But he has done a great thing; Gorbachev has recognized that language is older than the state, and without a language of truth, the state cannot live.

David Remnick is the Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post.