MOSCOW, NOV. 1 -- The history class had ended, and a discussion was under way among 10th graders at Moscow School No. 72. The topic was the "blank pages" story, one of the most potent and volatile political issues here as the Soviet Union approaches its 70th anniversary on Nov. 7.

The 40-minute lesson had focused on the reasons for the Soviet victory in World War II. The children, dressed in the standard blue jackets and blue vests, had stood up one by one and ticked off the factors, the principal ones being, as their 25-year-old teacher Olga Ivanova kept reminding them, "the advantages of our socialist system" and the "guiding role of the Communist Party."

But now the class was over, and the 31 children, whose average age was 16, began to talk about what else they know about their own history and what else they want to know. To nobody's surprise, none of the subjects that they cared about had been taught them in school.

"We know more about the war between the South and the North in the U.S.A. than we do about our own history of the {Second World} war and of the 1930s," said Sasha, a dark-haired boy who spoke shyly but with emotion, glancing toward school director Galina Danyushevskaya for approval.

Asked which of the "blank pages" -- or, literally translated from Russian, "white spots" -- they wanted to see filled, Sasha and others immediately focused in on the era of Joseph Stalin -- "the massive repression, the enormous mistakes," "the devastation of the Army, the intelligentsia, science and culture."

"We want to know more about that period -- the reasons why it happened," said Artyom, a lanky boy sitting at the back of the room. "We cannot be silent again. The time has come to talk about this."

Most of what the students do know they picked up over the past year from the remarkable outpouring of historical material, essays, novels, films and television programs that have surfaced with the new policy of open debate, or glasnost. Such material has fueled the national debate over history.

One girl, Natasha, mentioned the much-publicized movie, "Risk," shown on television in October. She learned from the movie for the first time that the Soviet Union's most famous aeronautical scientists had been imprisoned. Other pupils quoted newspaper articles about Stalin's victims. A few had seen the anti-Stalinist movie, "Repentence." One had read "Children of the Arbat," the celebrated novel about the years of the terror.

But for these students, as for many other Soviets, the most powerful source of information remains the memories of relatives whose firsthand accounts fill the gaps left in the old textbooks. Seventy years is not such a long time: for 16-year-olds, it spans the lifetime of their parents and grandparents. Now, as their interest in history is awakened, these students are searching into their own past.

"I was talking to my grandmother yesterday, who told me about her father. He was taken away to a camp in Sverdlovsk. She was 17 and was thrown out of the Young Communist League. Later, it seemed, it was all a mistake, but she never saw him again," said Sasha. Tolya, three rows back, began talking about his grandfather's brother: "He also was repressed."

When the subject moved to Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, almost everyone had opinions. "Not a particularly gifted leader, but his great deed was at the 20th party congress where he told about Stalin," said Artyom. Masha wanted to know why Khrushchev had kept silent during the long years that Stalin was in power.

Khrushchev is reemerging in Soviet history -- he was featured at length in "Risk," for example. He had been a nonperson since 1964 -- before the pupils in the 10th grade class at School No. 72 were born.

The school may not be typical. Located in the center of Moscow, it is attended by children predominantly of the intelligentsia. While these children's knowledge may be greater than others -- some young people don't know who Khrushchev was -- their interest in history is not unique, according to students and parents from Moscow and elsewhere.

And the lively discussion -- held in front of their teacher, Ivanova, and school director, Danyushevskaya -- was itself a sign of the times. The school had been told just the day before that a reporter would visit, and the free-for-all discussion had been as unexpected for Danyushevskaya as it had been for the students.

Danyushevskaya, 56, is a history teacher herself and so, as she said, the subject of "blank pages" is one that has been painful for her. As she told the class last Wednesday, the "white spots" are more than just history to her.

"My parents were doctors, and I was a student at Moscow University when {Stalin} launched the campaign against the doctors" who were accused of a plot against Stalin's life. "I remember the headlines in the newspapers, the feeling of that time. And yet when he died, I cried."The Prism of Stalinism

On the eve of the gala anniversary of its revolution, the Soviet Union is once again grappling with its past, principally the legacy of Stalin, whose bloody rule casts its shadow even now, 34 years after his death. On Monday, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will deliver a major speech in which he is expected to deal with key historical issues -- perhaps rehabilitating Nicolai Bukharin, a leading Bolshevik of the revolution who backed Stalin as V.I. Lenin's successor but was later executed by him; recognizing Khrushchev and condemning the crimes of Stalin.

"Not to talk about Stalin would be impossible," said Yuri Afanaseyev, director of the Institute of Historical Archives and a prominent voice in the historical debates. "When we talk about Stalin, we are talking not just about the past, but about the present day."

For both sides of the historical debate, Stalinism is the prism through which much of the Soviet experience is being viewed. Even the review of such figures as Bukharin and Khrushchev is ultimately pegged to Stalin: the first was his victim, the second his accuser.

The phenomenon extends to all fields, from economics to the arts, from political issues to the study of history itself. Today's economic debates are largely replays of the ideological battles waged among Stalin, Bukharin and Leon Trotsky in the 1920s. Collectivization in agriculture, forced through by Stalin, is again at issue as Gorbachev tries to revive farming.

The rehabilitation last August of a group of leading economists of the 1920s is part of the new flexibility in economic debates: now the works of Alexander Chayanov, who was Russia's leading agronomist, Nikolai Kondratiev and others, banned for 60 years, will at last be published. Scientific figures victimized by T.D. Lysenko, the leader in Soviet genetic research under Stalin, are being lionized in literature and restored to library shelves. The rehabilitation of Bukharin, theoretician of Lenin's New Economic Policy, or NEP, would follow up on Gorbachev's move toward limited private enterprise.

Historical plays about the early days of the revoluton highlight the open debates between Bolshevik leaders -- seen as legitimization of the frankness and democratization now pushed by Gorbachev.

For these reasons, the community of intellectuals, writers, economists, ideologists and propagandists is as eager to hear Gorbachev's words on history as historians. "You must remember that history is the main part of Soviet ideology," noted Soviet dissident historian Roy Medvedev.

As ideology, the official version of history is decided not just by Gorbachev but also by the party leadership as a whole. Thus, Monday's speech was a major item on the agenda when the Central Committee met on Oct. 21. And as the debate of the past few months indicates, the leadership has not been unanimous in its views on the history debate.

Yegor Ligachev, chief party ideologist and conservative voice on the ruling Politburo, has repeatedly warned against an overemphasis on the dark side of Soviet history, at the expense of a glorification of Soviet achievements.

In a speech last summer, Ligachev defended the 1930s as a time when the Soviet Union achieved new heights not only in industrial production, but also in culture. Last Sunday, President Andrei Gromyko hinted at some anxiety over how history is now being treated when he said much of the credit for the creation of the United Nations in 1945 should go to the Soviet leadership "of that time."

"And these pages of history should not be closed," he was quoted by the newspaper Izvestia as saying.

In letters to editors, veterans and pensioners also have voiced their concern over the besmirching of the name of Stalin, who had been idolized by the nation until his death in 1953.

In his 2 1/2 years in power, Gorbachev has mentioned Stalin only once -- in May 1985, when he cited Stalin's wartime leadership. Medvedev notes that Gorbachev probably chose to bide his time before making any statements on such a sensitive topic. "Stalinism is not the main preoccupation for Gorbachev," he said. "For Khrushchev, Stalin was the main issue."

Afanaseyev views the leadership's silence so far as a good sign, a move away from the tendency to send directives down the line on how to examine history. "To comprehend history, to comprehend the truth -- that is the lot of science, of history and not of politicians. Politics should be based on the conclusions, the work of historians, and not the reverse: politicians should not tell historians how to write history."

But some, including Medvedev, expect Gorbachev's speech to end one stage of the debate over history by signaling from the nation's highest tribune how the past should now be viewed. Old truths will be replaced by new ones.

In all of this, Lenin remains the unchanged source of all wisdom. Although professional historians talk of the need to "deiconize" the founder of the Soviet state, his words are still hallowed, even if they are used selectively to justify prevailing policy.

Now, as the view of history shifts, writers and propagandists quote a Lenin who for years had been neglected -- the Lenin who called Bukharin "the favorite of the party;" the Lenin who promoted Lev Kamenev, another Bolshevik leader who Stalin turned into an "enemy of the people" and executed; the Lenin who spoke of the need for more "openness" and "democratization," two of Gorbachev's themes.

Historical interpretation in the Soviet Union has always closely followed political change: it was Stalin who delivered the biggest blow to historical science with the 1938 publication of the now infamous book, "Short Course in the History of the Communist Party," which rewrote history shamelessly to idealize Stalin's role. Its influence has risen and fallen over the years with Stalin's own reputation.EARLIER DE-STALINIZATION PERIOD

The Soviet Union already went through one phase of de-Stalinization after Khrushchev, in a secret speech to the 20th party congress, condemned the crimes of the "cult of personality" and released millions of prisoners from the chain of labor camps that dotted the Soviet map.

But when Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, the de-Stalinization process came to a halt, and to a limited extent, Stalin was even rehabilitated under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev. Then too, the attack on Stalin was perceived by the old guard as an attack on the system that he had created and the people whom he had put in power.

Again, the clamp came down on culture, the Stalinist power structure was left untouched and history -- one of the most sensitive barometers to change -- was again rewritten to deemphasize Stalin's crimes.

Under Gorbachev, de-Stalinization has gained ground on all fronts, from the trend to decentralization in economics to the liberalization of culture and the arts.

But this time, the debate over Stalinism has taken new forms and acquired new depths. The analysis has already gone beyond Stalin's character, his ambitions and paranoia -- loosely referred to here as the "cult of personality" -- and even beyond the recounting of his crimes, although much about these still remains undocumented.

Articles have now appeared looking at Stalin as the founder of the current Soviet system, and at Stalinism as the source of the country's continuing economic, social, political and moral dilemma.

A recent article in the journal 20th Century and Peace argues that Stalinism shut off all other political choices that might have been open to the Soviet system. Historian Mikhail Gefter, in an interview with the journal's editor, cast the problem in a new light, shifting the focus from the demonology of Stalin to an appraisal of the Soviet mentality: the article is entitled "Should They Fear Us," and questions whether the West's anxieties about the Soviet Union are not justified.

"When we renounce Stalin, we make our life simpler, but this simplicity results from the ignorance of our own selves," Gefter said in the interview. "We can only approach self-awareness if we approach Stalin as our equal."

This article and others have called for the eradication of the Stalinist structure of Soviet society.

"Unless {a politician} dares speak about restructuring the foundations, he gets into the same old trap as the people of 1936, when people were asked, 'Do you support socialism or oppose it?' as if socialism did not presuppose constant choice," Gefter says.

The immediacy of history -- the relevancy of old ideological quarrels -- has added drama and intensity to the current debate.

Each new article is widely discussed, each new mention of Bukharin, Khrushchev and others is cited as a clue to their coming rehabilitation. On these issues, culture and poltics are merged: last week the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, poet of the de-Stalinization period of the 1960s, read for the first time a new poem, dedicated to Bukharin's widow, to a large crowd at a Moscow reading. The poem won warm applause.

This week, if the production is ready on time, Mikhail Shatrov's play on the Russo-German peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk in World War I will be staged for the first time, airing Lenin's historic argument for peace as the "breathing space" needed for the young Soviet state. Not coincidentally, it is the same argument advanced now as Gorbachev pursues a second detente with the United States.Gorbachev's Challenge to Historians

It was last spring when Gorbachev first challenged historians to fill in the "blank pages" in Soviet history. Now the task is to put those new pages into the history books.

So far, the job is not done. This year 9th and 10th graders across the country have no textbooks for modern Soviet history: the old ones, written in the Brezhnev era, have been discarded, and the new ones are not yet out.

That leaves teachers such as Olga Ivanova of Moscow's School No. 72 to fill in the gaps.

Every Thursday, she attends lectures on "blank pages" at the Institute for Higher Teachers' Qualifications, where she and other city school teachers are instructed on "power struggles within the party" and other subjects missing from the old curriculum.

"Of course, it makes it more difficult," said Ivanova, now in her fourth year of teaching. "Not so much for the younger ones, but the older teachers who don't like to be taught how to teach history."

But in the view of Afanaseyev, the reeducation process must begin before another generation is lost. "All textbooks on the history of Soviet society are false," he said in a recent interview. "They of course should rewritten from scratch, not just improved."

The resistance that Gorbachev's reforms have met in economic and political spheres is matched in the historical field, as well.

So far, the "rewriting" of history is going slowly, too slowly for Afanaseyev.

"The essential characterization of history continues to stay the same.

Just now books are coming about the first year {of the revolution} and other events, and in them you find the same old thing -- that is, the same half truths, the same 'blank pages,' even in books published today."

Thus, for instance, in the latest edition of the Encyclopedia of the Revolution, the names of Bukharin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders who were killed by Stalin finally appeared in print, emerging from total eclipse. But the encyclopedia does not mention how or why they died.