Mikhail Gorbachev's new broom, which seems to sweep through some corner of the vast Soviet bureaucracy almost daily, has not ventured into the cultural arena, leaving Moscow's intelligentsia uncertain whether the new leader wants to loosen controls on artistic expression or tighten them.
The few hints of a Gorbachev cultural policy have been contradictory. The uncertainty has led to debates here as some intellectuals hold out the hope that Gorbachev will carry his efforts at revitalization into the arts and letters. Others doubt that any Soviet leader would risk such a move.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, once a maverick poet but now considered part of the establishment, recently called for more cultural freedom. In a speech to a writers' congress, he said, "The acceleration of scientific and technical progress is unthinkable without acceleration of the spiritual."
Yevtushenko's challenge closely hewed to the themes of Gorbachev's campaigns for more "openness" and less "obsequiousness" to authority, but the poet challenged the government to go further.
"Articles rhetorically calling for openness are not the same as openness itself," Yevtushenko said. This and other provocative thoughts were excised from the excerpts of his speech printed after the congress.
Unlike the rest of government, from which waves of ministers have been retired, the bureaucracy that handles cultural life has remained largely unchanged. This ranges from the Ministry of Culture to the Writers' Union to film studios.
The one exception has been at the giant state Television and Radio Committee, or Gosteleradio -- where entertainment is entwined with ideological propaganda. Sergei Lapin, 73, a veteran of 15 years there, was replaced last week by Alexandr Axionov, 61, the ambassador to Poland who once served as deputy head of the Byelorussian KGB secret police and for five years was the republic's internal affairs minister.
The appointment of Axionov to head Gosteleradio coincided with a stern call for more and better propaganda from the state-controlled media. Yegor Ligachev, the Politburo member in charge of personnel and ideology, told Communist Party members at Gosteleradio on Nov. 20 that television and radio "should wholly promote our political aims."
"We must use television and radio more effectively to promote our specific objectives in the economy and ideological education," he said.
Ligachev's speech, and the appointment of a man with background in police work to head the powerful Gosteleradio, alarmed some intellectuals here, particularly those who find Gorbachev's assertive style frightening. As they watch him build up his own base, they worry that he will use his power to tighten his grip on the country.
At the same time, they note that when Ligachev pushed for more "effective" propaganda on television he was also pushing for better quality. For some intellectuals, that was a recognition that creativity and hard work should be rewarded, even if among handmaidens of a political line.
"Now they are saying they want 50 percent propaganda and 50 percent entertainment," said one actress. "That's better than what they have now, which is 100 percent nonsense."
There has been much criticism of late of the media in general. Ligachev accused TV and radio journalists of "resting on their laurels," and an editorial in the Communist Party daily Pravda chided the press for being boring. Yevtushenko took a swipe at the critics, saying "lead editorials on the need for freshness of thought and language often are written in a language so dry that you involuntarily yawn."
As Yevtushenko noted, the battle cry now is for a new "openness" -- a willingness to reveal mistakes, uncover corruption and discuss problems.
The campaign already has had some results. Ministers have appeared on television shows to face questions about their shortcomings, and a radio program invites listeners to give suggestions on, for instance, saving electricity on landings in state-owned apartment buildings. Press accounts of wrongdoing and shortcomings now name those responsible at the highest level.
There are signs that some artists are beginning to test the concept of openness. A play is being staged that for the first time airs the issue of emigration, portraying a family whose sons want to leave the Soviet Union -- one for Israel, the other for the United States. Another play, staged at the Moscow Arts Theater, examines the cover-up of corruption in local party politics, not a new theme but one that in this case is given more realistic treatment.
People cite a short but interesting list of films that have been released after having been bottled up for years -- from "Agonia" (called "Rasputin" in the West), which came out shortly after Gorbachev took office, to films recently shown on television.
Still, the new openness as defined thus far applies only to certain subjects. No one here would confuse it with free debate, or the expression of opinions that in any way challenge Communist orthodoxy.
Most intellectuals assume that Gorbachev has not yet focused on the cultural sphere because the economy and foreign affairs must come as his top priorities.
"It is still too early," noted dissident historian Roy Medvedev. Said one Soviet official sympathetic to Gorbachev's efforts in other areas, "You cannot cover all areas at once, and remember, the cultural bureaucracy is very conservative. These things take time."
Several months ago, a story made the rounds about a telephone conversation between Gorbachev and Oleg Yefremov, director of the Moscow Arts Theater. Gorbachev had just seen Yefremov's production of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" and called Yefremov at home to congratulate him.
According to one version of the story, Gorbachev indicated during the one-hour conversation that he wanted to turn his attention to cultural affairs but that he had to take care of other issues first. In the meantime, he asked the director if there was anything he needed.
Yefremov reportedly seized the moment to mention difficulties in completing a renovation of the theater's old building. The next day, a team is said to have arrived from the Moscow city council, offering its services.