The Soviet Union is quietly trying to encourage some of its most prominent emigre artists and writers to come home.

Several Russian intellectuals in the United States and Western Europe, who left the Soviet Union under pressure or defected to the West, have received indirect offers that they would be welcome to return from various intermediaries, including well-known Soviet cultural figures who have travel privileges.

Western experts differ on the meaning of these contacts. Some observers say Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is pressing for major internal reforms, and the return of some prominent emigres would boost popular support for his initiatives. Others say the contacts with emigres point to no real change in the Soviet Union's cultural or political policies and are designed only to generate favorable propaganda.

"Right now they are conducting work with emigres; messengers are coming to this country," said Yuri Lyubimov, former director of Moscow's most popular theater, the Taganka. Lyubimov, who defected to the West in 1983 and was later stripped of his Soviet citizenship, built his reputation as the Soviet Union's boldest theater director by pushing the limits of official tolerance.

"They talk about huge changes," Lyubimov said. "They stop at the homes of 'the enemy,' sometimes even hug us and kiss us. They have become so bold -- it's a global campaign to get people back."

Others who say they have been contacted in similar ways include sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, best known in the Soviet Union for the bust of Nikita Khrushchev that marks the deposed leader's grave; writer Viktor Nekrasov, who rose to prominence with a remarkably frank account of World War II; and Andrei Tarkovsky, one of Russia's most famous film makers.

These emigres say they are not interested in going back unless there are far-reaching political and cultural reforms in the Soviet Union, if at all.

Nekrasov, in a telephone interview, said he was told "second-hand that someone said I could return and everything would be good." The writer, who emigrated to the West in 1974, said he would consider returning to the Soviet Union only if "everything" changes.

Lyubimov said the Soviet Union should first restore his citizenship if it is interested in his return, not use a method of "quietly apologizing" and then "ambushing you at the train station and sending you off to jail somewhere."

So far, no formal invitations have been extended, and the initiative appears designed to gauge the mood of emigres toward their homeland and the West. Such a cautious approach indicates that Soviet authorities are unwilling to offer direct invitations until they are sure of a positive response, western experts say. Nevertheless, the pattern of these hints appears broader than any period since the end of World War II.

Lyubimov, who is staging "Crime and Punishment" at the Arena Stage this fall, said the Soviet Union is using "messengers" in the form of artists and writers who enjoy travel privileges to talk with emigres.

Those involved "start with Soviet journalist Victor Louis and end with poets, writers and musicians" who travel to the West, he said. Among those who have discussed the possibility of emigres returning to the Soviet Union are Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the well-known Soviet poet who traveled across the United States reading from his works this winter, he said.

The Soviet Union would like to entice its leading cultural figures back after a huge drain of such talent in recent years, Lyubimov said. "Of course they would like Mstislav Rostropovich back, they would like Vassily Aksyonov a novelist now living in Washington , Ernst Neizvestny, Andrei Tarkovsky . . . and some dancers, all of them.

"They need people for agitational and propagandistic reasons."

Mstislav Rostropovich, cellist and musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra, declined to comment for this article.

Contacts were made either by telephone from Moscow or in person with Lyubimov, Neizvestny, Nekrasov and Tarkovsky in the last six months, these emigres say. Lyubimov said he was phoned by a well-known writer in Moscow shortly before he was criticized for emigrating in the Soviet press in March.

"The hints are about personal love towards me and that without me it's tough; but officially they say it's my personal tragedy," Lyubimov said in an interview. Lyubimov said that before former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov died in February of 1984, he had offered to forgive Lyubimov for making critical remarks to the western press while abroad.

"Andropov said, 'What nonsense in The New York Times, you can come back and work,'" Lyubimov recalls. "And I wanted to go back. It's a good thing I didn't, or Chernenko would have found the place for me."

Any talk of returning to the Soviet Union was completely shut off under the brief tenure of the late Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, but the "hints started again with the ascendancy of Gorbachev," Lyubimov said.

Sculptor Ernst Neizvestny said in an interview at his Greenwich Village studio that in contacts with traveling Soviet cultural elite, he was told, "If I go back they hint everything will be okay, that they will give me a huge studio, huge orders, they even will give me the opportunity to come back to America to my studio or to Switzerland to my museum."

On their visits to the West, officially approved Soviet poets like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky have talked of "real changes" in the Soviet Union in the area of the arts, saying that artists and writers can now publish, paint or put on productions that would not have been accepted by the authorities a short time ago, Neizvestny said.

Yevtushenko, Voznesensky and other such "message bearers" work partly on their own initiative and partly at the behest of the Soviet authorities, according to the sculptor. "When Zhenka (Yevgeny Yevtushenko) tells me Moscow intrigue, he's honest," Neizvestny said. "Another part of him is not entirely honest -- when we are told how much we are loved and wouldn't it be good if . . . "

Neizvestny, who emigrated under pressure in the 1970s, said there has been an ebb and flow of such contacts in recent years. "When I left and went to America these discussions started with some Soviets, then it stopped for a long time, then with the rise of Andropov it started up again as friendly contacts.

"For the most part, my former friends . . . stop by and let me know I'm 'theirs,'" he said.

In a telephone interview from Paris, Vladimir Maximov, editor-in-chief of the conservative emigre journal Kontinent, said there had been contacts made with emigres living in Western Europe. "The offers exist," said Maximov.

Andrew Yablonsky, a UNESCO interpreter and personal friend of Andrei Tarkovsky, spoke on behalf of the film maker who is in Paris for treatment of cancer. Tarkovsky received a letter at his hospital room some six months ago from Soviet ambassador to Paris Yuli Vorontsov, letting him know his family would be allowed to join him in the West, Yablonsky said. Tarkvosky, who defected to the West in 1982, had been asking for the release of his family for four years.

At the time of the visit, embassy officials told Tarkovsky, "Why don't you come back to us and you can continue working?" he said. Tarkovsky did not take the remark as an invitation, he said.

If these initial contacts are the first step in a more concerted effort to win back prominent Soviet emigres, it would not be the first time. Many leading cultural figures abroad were convinced to return to their homeland after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and again after World War II.

"It's not new; this was a constant scene in emigre circles in Berlin and Paris in the 1920s, and many people responded to it, the obvious ones being writer Maxim Gorki and composer Sergei Prokofiev," said S. Frederick Starr, president of Oberlin College and a Soviet scholar.

In 1984, the Soviet Union transfered the grave of opera singer Feodor Chaliapin from France back to Moscow, despite an infamous letter Chaliapin wrote to Gorki in which he stated, "Back to that scum -- neither alive nor dead."

The return of some prominent emigres at this time would lend support to Gorbachev's new regime at a time of transition, experts say.

Starr said, "It's partly a matter of national pride, partly a matter of neutralizing or reducing the effects of the Rostropovich emigration, and partly a means of legitimizing themselves at home . . . at a time when the regime is under criticism from itself."

Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet political prisoner who was traded for a Chilean Communist in 1976, said there has been a drive, since Andropov came to power, to "make a reverse wave of returns," neutralize the emigration, and create a new image, but, he said, that this does not signal change in the system.