MOSCOW -- What happens when debate opens up in the Soviet Union and writers are allowed to have their say? Following an old Russian tradition, they argue, becoming embroiled in fights that are ideological, personal and nasty.

"Sometimes," said Vitaly Korotich, editor of Ogonyok magazine, at a recent gathering, "we allow ourselves, especially in literary discussions, the kind of language you'd expect from fistfighters who sew brass knuckles into their gloves."

As openness, or glasnost, enters its second year, the cultural debate seems to have taken on a sharper edge and swept up a larger area of life, from literature to history to contemporary music. Like most cultural events here, it also has a political dimension, and reflects a similar struggle going on at the top levels of the Communist Party.

As Soviet journals and newspapers publish a wider range of works and opinions, ancient and bitter divisions in Russian culture have reemerged. The lines of battle sometimes blur, but essentially the camps are split between western-oriented liberals and conservative Russophiles, just as they were in the 19th century.

Once again, it is a winner-take-all argument, with little give on either side. The lack of civility may be partly due to the fact that after years of uniformity imposed from above, people here have lost any talent for reasonable debate. Some argue that Russia has never developed a tradition for resolving conflicts peaceably. But in the cultural debate, the intensity is also in direct proportions to the stakes, which both sides agree are very high.

"They want to monopolize patriotism," poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said of the conservative critics and writers. "It is a very old question. And it is a dangerous one: It is an easy step to go from saying that people are not good patriots to saying that they are traitors."

Sergei Vikulov, editor of Nash Sovremenik (Our Contemporary), main journal of the conservative Russian Republic Writers' Union, said, "Our goal is to preserve genuine Russian literature . . . . If that is conservatism, I don't know. We call it the continuation of the best in Russian culture."

At his recent meeting with media executives and leading artistic figures, Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev appealed for tolerance and harmony. "Let us have a dignified attitude to criticism, let us respect each other; sticking labels on each other is absolutely inappropriate," he said, referring to "group tendencies" in the literary press. "Let us not deny anyone the right to state his viewpoint, even if he held outdated views at some stage in the past."

Such is the heat of the debate that no sooner had Gorbachev finished speaking at the Jan. 8 meeting than Korotich got to his feet with a vow of revenge. "Unfortunately," he said, "it is still too early to say that we finally have gotten rid of those people who caused us so much harm in the past."

Like all old fights, this one comes with long memories and lots of bad blood. Some of the main actors were involved in the last major fight to divide Moscow's official literary world, which took place in the late 1960s. Alexander Tvardovsky was then the editor of Novy Mir, the literary journal that published Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Dudynstev and other authors of the post-Stalin "thaw."

In the confrontation between Novy Mir and conservative magazines such as October and Ogonyok in the late 1960s, Tvardovsky and his group lost. His forced resignation in 1970 is usually marked as the moment when official Soviet culture sank into the stagnation of the Leonid Brezhnev era.

Today Ogonyok, with Korotich as editor, is on the other side of the fence. Known for its bold investigative pieces, for its revelations about history, particularly about the Great Terror of the 1930s, and for printing works of once-banned writers like the emigre Vladimir Nabokov, it is now accused of printing "provocations" and of waging a "liberal terror."

In a parallel that some find disturbing, a number of those leading the conservative backlash today are the same people who attacked Novy Mir in 1969. Meanwhile, one of Tvardovsky's top assistants, Vladimir Lakshin, has become a top editor of Znamya (The Banner), helping to turn it into one of the leading liberal journals of the 1980s.

In the Gorbachev era, the conservatives are in the minority. The combined circulation of the conservatives' three main journals -- Nash Sovremenik, Molodaya Gvardia and Moskva -- is just above 1 million, while Novy Mir, Znamya and Ogonyok now total about 3 million. Furthermore, Gorbachev also has enlisted the national dailies in his campaigns for criticism and historical honesty.

But the conservatives claim to speak for "the people," and many observers here acknowledge that their brand of rigid patriotism probably has broad support, particularly outside the big cities.

As a guardian of Russian tradition, Nash Sovremenik has launched a few memorable salvos. Last fall it printed a letter from Sverdlovsk, where a reader complained that the city's opera company had distorted a Pushkin fairy tale by putting six-pointed Stars of David in the scenery.

One of the central newspapers jumped on the case as an example of incipient anti-Semitism. But Vikulov is unapologetic. "No one, no one has the right to pervert Pushkin. It is an insult to any Russian person," he said. "The star on our flag has five points. Why a six-pointed star? We are living in Russia, not in Israel."

Vikulov touched on other subjects that have become litmus tests for the conservatives. He questioned literary journals' printing long-suppressed works, such as Boris Pasternak's novel "Doctor Zhivago," that he said would be better published in book form. The rush to print them in the journals is a ruse to raise subscriptions, he said.

On the issue of history, he criticized articles in Ogonyok on the Stalin period, noting for instance that the recently published reminiscences of the widow of executed Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin could not be called "objective."

"Now everywhere you read about the repressions, collectivizations, that Stalin was a vampire and {secret police chief Lavrenti} Beria was worse," he said. "It is difficult for people to live in this atmosphere. I believe you have to give people hope."

In the curious kaleidoscope of Russian literary politics, Nash Sovremenik was the first to raise several issues, including ecology and the social consequences of alcoholism. Some of its writers are among the Soviet Union's best, including Valentin Rasputin and Viktor Astafeyev.

But if the journal has an ideology, it hews loosely to a kind of narrow cultural nationalism that has always opposed western-style liberalization. Rock music is now an object of frequent attack in the magazine.

In a new poem -- entitled "Vendee" after an 18th-century right-wing French provincial uprising -- Yevtushenko attacks Russian reactionaries who see jazz as the symbol of all evil and "aerobics as a western Mata Hari."

"This kind of aggressive nationalism is just a mask for aggressive mediocrity," said Yevtushenko. "I call it medievalism, stupidity. In fact, rock music and classical music can coexist perfectly peacefully."