MOSCOW -- An emotional debate over the memory of Joseph Stalin has broken out into the open here as scholars and writers continue to expose the Soviet dictator's harsh legacy, including his errors of judgment during World War II.

Signs of a backlash already are appearing in the press. In letters to editors, war veterans and longtime Communist Party members have objected to negative assessments of the Stalin period, even of his bloody purges of the late 1930s -- the years of the "Great Terror."

The intensity of the current debate over Stalin -- his wartime role, the terror he unleashed and even the economic system he created -- is a sign of how raw the wounds he inflicted on this country still are.

"What was created at that time, the belief in our rightness and in our future, helped us to win victory in a cruel war," wrote a war veteran to the Communist Party newspaper Pravda last month. "What was was, but most of it was good. So why is it all being dragged through garbage and covered in mud?"

A chauffeur from Penza took up Stalin's defense more directly in a letter to the newspaper Socialist Industry. "Stalin enjoyed the great respect, love and trust of the Soviet people," wrote Ivan Karasev. "The name of Stalin should be immortalized in granite, bronze, even gold."

All monuments to Stalin -- except in his native republic of Georgia -- were destroyed in the 1950s when then-leader Nikita Khrushchev launched a campaign to purge the system of Stalin's "personality cult" and to rehabilitate his victims. After Khrushchev's fall in 1964, the process was halted and Stalin's repressions were no longer publicly discussed, leaving only his image as the victorious wartime leader.

Now that record too is under attack as historians dismantle legends built up around the Soviet commander-in-chief.

Answering Karasev's letter in Socialist Industry last week, an eminent scholar criticized Stalin's failure to prepare the country for Hitler's attack on June 22, 1941, and other blunders, including the miscalculation that led to the Soviet retreat toward the Caucasus in 1942.

"It is my conviction that Stalin was not a leader of genius nor a great general because he made mistakes that had tragic consequences," wrote Alexander Samsonov, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Samsonov's article, however, was notable for the absence of any direct reference to the Stalin-Hitler nonaggression pact of 1939, usually seen as a key reason -- along with Stalin's decimation of the officer corps -- for the Red Army's inability to anticipate the German attack.

One western diplomat noted that a thorough critical analysis of Stalin's prewar diplomacy is probably still too sensitive for Soviet society, even under the policy of glasnost, or "openness," proclaimed by party leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Many members of the Soviet intelligentsia are intent on using the period of "openness" for a fresh, complete look at Stalin's deeds.

"Stalin is the link . . . . If we pull on this link, we will pull out the whole chain and much will become clear," said Mikhail Shatrov, a playwright whose works focus on historical themes. Two of them have only now appeared, more than 20 years after they were written.

In an interview, Shatrov said Stalin had dealt an "enormous blow" to Marxist ideas. The issue now, he said, is whether Marxism received "irreparable damage or whether it can cleanse itself and be restored.

"The quicker we conduct . . . a very serious analysis, the quicker we can cleanse ourselves of it in literally all fields. It is like a cancerous cell," he said. "If we leave it untouched in one place, then all the same it will spread."

Gorbachev gave a boost to the reappraisal when he said in a speech that it was time to fill in the "blank spots" in Soviet history.

Since then, a raging debate has been waged in the press, particularly in the weekly Moscow News, over how to examine the past.

Yuri Afanasyev, rector of the Moscow State Institute of Historian-Archivists, angered conservative historians in January with a piece challenging them to conduct an honest reexamination of Soviet history.

For this, Afanasyev has been attacked for raising "petty and clamorous" issues, obliquely accused of defending Trotskyism and siding with non-Marxist historians.

The debate has now settled on the broad question of whether a reexamination of the Soviet past is necessary if Gorbachev's perestroika, or "restructuring" program, is to work.

As the historical examination continues, the focus is increasingly on the 1930s -- the years not only of the Great Terror but also of the foundation of the rigid economic and political centralization that has gripped the country. Leading economists here have specifically attacked the "Stalinist" administrative system recently, calling it a distortion of Leninism.

"The restructuring going on now is a restructuring of those economic and social structures the beginnings of which were laid down in the 1930s," Afanasyev said in an interview last week.

And the 1930s again lead historians, economists and ordinary citizens back to the towering figure of Stalin, who is still a highly personal memory for survivors of the period.

"Stalin lives in the heads of very many people," said Afanasyev, "as a positive image, as a wise man, as boss of the country. It is a fact.

"For a great number of people, the years of the 1930s, 1940s, were not uniformly imperfect," he said, citing the dedication and enthusiasm shared by millions of citizens of the era. "It is wrong to paint the period in only one color."

So far, the historical reexamination is being conducted mostly in the press and in works of literature -- some of which, like Shatrov's "Peace of Brest-Litovsk," written in 1962, are now appearing for the first time and showing a many-sided view of such purged figures as Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky.

Afanasyev once complained that historians should not rely too heavily on Shatrov, and Shatrov himself is challenging historians to do their job. "Who is getting in their way?" he asked recently.