Several weeks ago, three Moscow writers were stopped on a downtown street by police who piled out of a black Volga sedan, crying, "One of these guys looks like the robber!"

The agents quickly searched and questioned the men and confiscated their personal papers. The robbery pretext vanished. In the next few days, agents using a different pretext searched other writers' apartments, carting off every typewriter they found, as well as bundles of material that in one case represented the life work -- 15 years -- of a promising young short-story writer. None of this material is likely to be seen again.

The writers are seven young men virtually unknown in the West, who had quietly and without fanfare asked Moscow cultural authorities for permission to set up a small club, to be called Belles Lettres, to publish a limited-circulation magazine of experimental work free of official censorship. The KGB searches were the authorities' ham-handed answer to their request.

Meanwhile, the country's intellectuals were taking immense pleasure from the September edition of the literary journal Novy Mir, and the annual edition of the Day of Poetry, which appeared in October. There, to their delight, they found several long-suppressed poems by Boris Pasternak, who died in official disgrace 20 years ago and whose world-renowned novel, "Doctor Zhivago," has never been officially published here, although it circulates privately in bootleg editions in many languages, including Russian. c

The newly published Pasternak poems include uncensored texts of "Gethsemane," "Mary Magdalene," "Christmas Star," and "Hamlet," from a cycle of 24 religious poems drawn from the final section of "Doctor Zhivago."

To an outsider, such utterly contradictory actions by state cultural watchdogs seem to make little sense. But the simultaneous supression of some writers and the slight rehabilitation of a major Soviet literary figure is perfectly consistent with the manipulation of cultural life achieved during the 16-year-long rule of President Leonid Brezhnev.

The subtlety of this control probably would not exist in this form if Brezhnev had not turned to the West in the 1970s. When he came to power in 1964, one of the new leader's major tasks was to end the cultural ferment touched off by Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization, which the party increasingly feared because it threatened to destroy their claim to moral authority over Soviet masses by revealing widespread complicity in Stalin's crimes.

First, writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were imprisoned for sending their suppressed works abroad for publication. Yet, despite the need to halt the cultural "thaw," Stalinist tactics could not be fully reimposed. Foreign outcry over the Sinyavsky-Daniel affair showed Moscow that the more liberal Khrushchev era had irreversibly altered Western perceptions of Soviet totalitarianism, which the Kremlin could ignore only at cost to its foreign policy interests.

Since that episode, the party has tolerated a certain amount of ferment and unofficial East-West trafficking by adventuresome Soviet authors, stepping in without restraint only in those rare cases when a writer powerfully taps into the country's fundamental -- and unredressed -- moral agonies. This was the case with the persecution and expulsion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Detente has aided this, since it requires Moscow to project a humanitarian image to the West to ease political problems inherent when leaders there must convince skeptical electorates of the acceptability of trade and other important exchanges with a totalitarian superpower.

Soviet cultural authorities thus respond in their own way to Western interests in cultural matters here, in effect legitimizing those concerns from time to time to solve occasional cultural crises.

The favored methods are forced emigration, as with authors Vasili Aksyonov and Lev Kopelev this year, or outright expulsion, as with Solzhenitsyn in 1974. Paradoxically, this compulsive repression of challenging artists generally earns the Kremlin some good marks in the West.

The list of fine Soviet authors who have left in the past decade also includes poet Josif Brodsky, writers Vladimir Maksimov and Viktor Nekrasov and satirist Vladimir Voinovich.

Meanwhile, the process of rediscovery and rehabilitation of Stalinist purge victims continues cautiously under state control. The works of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and other lost luminaries of the brief Silver Age of the arts in the early decades of Soviet power can now be found here in recently issued, if limited editions.

In fact, most of these works of rehabilitated authors can only be readily found on sale in hard-currency stores, almost always barred to ordinary Soviet citizens. The official explanation that the works cannot be found elsewhere because they are in such demand is greeted by intellectuals with derisive laughter.

Similar limitations, mostly hidden from the West, are said to have increased in the 1970s regardless of surface appearances. Some intellectuals point even to such obscure places as the Young Pioneers' magazine, whose pages in recent years are increasingly taken up with overtly political themes.

Some Westerners, impressed by the daring achievements of Yuri Lyubimov, whose Tanganka Theater is in the forefront of pushing out censorship limits, see signs of impressive cultural stirrings here. Indeed, Taganka's productions of "The Master and Marguerita" by Mikhail Bulgakov and "House on the Embankment" by Yuri Trifonov, could not have been produced a decade ago. The Bulgakov play is a chilling, satiric indictment of totalitarianism and Trifonov's deals with Stalinist-era guilt and betrayal.

To be sure, many good and officially accepted authors and poets remain, such as Trifonov, Andrei Voznesensky, Bella Akhmadulina and Valentin Rasputin.

But the departure of overtly politicized and determined writers like Aksyonov, Kopelev and Voinovich, has left younger, unknown writers searching for ways to express themselves honestly and yet attempt to stay within the arid framework of the official censors. This is what inspired the seven writers to propose a private club for themselves and some of their friends. They wanted to model it on the semiofficial Graphics Club that holds exhibitions of experimental painting and sculpture from time to time.

Their request echoed the challenge served to cultural authorities early in 1979 in the Metropol affair, when 23 writers sought uncensored publication of a lengthy collection of their works. The response was harsh, but tempered by the fact that Voznesensky, Aksyonov, and Akhmadulina, all with major reputations here, participated. The authorities picked off the two most vulnerable contributors, Viktor Erefeyev and Evgeny Popov, barring them from admission to the official writers union and thus sharply reducing their chances of gaining literary fame in their own names.

Popov, a bearded, 34-year-old geologist turned writer, is the man who recently lost his entire writings to the KGB. The others involved in the latest effort are Flip Berman, 40, a writer of Jewish themes; Evgeny Kharitonov, 40, playwright; Nikolai Klimontovich, 30, playwright and short-story writer; Vladimir Kormer, 40, author of a novel published in the West, "The Mole of History;" and Dmitri Prigov, 40, whose art criticims also have appeared in the West.

"We offered our open hand and they spat on it," one of these men said in a recent interview shortly after the searches. "I am overwhelmed by this. . . It was the tiniest little request. . . We didn't want a confrontation. We want a new form, a new corner, a new tongue."

He continued: "We are the generation that began writing at the time of the Czech invasion [in 1968], and we know the realities of life here. We've seen too many political games, we don't want any politics. We have no illusions and we want to live here , and not abroad like Aksyonov."

Another Soviet familiar with the effort asserted, "They're driven to despair by the fact that they are not able to have their work published here. This effort came out of their weariness of waiting. . . Time passes for them, and it was an act of despair."

But more than ever before in the 27 years since Stalin's death, conformism grips Soviet literature, as membership figures for the official Moscow Writers Union shows. Party membership, always high in professions that could cause ideological troubles, is now about 50 percent: 925 of the union's 1,910 members belong to the party.

At the same time, reflecting both tightening administrative conservatism and the obvious disenchantment of the self-styled Czech Generation, only eight of these official writers are less than 30 years of age, and only 119 are less than age 40. The bulk, 551, are between ages 51 and 60, and a remarkable 423 are 70 years of age or more, mirroring the gerontocracy leading the country.

Semyon Lipkin, a 69-year-old poet and translator who was a founding member of the union in the heady years when Soviet youth genuinely dreamed of building a new society, said recently, "No one must ever forget that the Writers Union has only two functions: political and ideological. It has no creative function."