MOSCOW — Rudolf Nureyev's visit to the Soviet Union lasted only two days, but already its importance far exceeds its short duration.
The ballet star, who is director of the Paris Opera Ballet Company, departed Monday after a brief visit to see his mother, who has been ill.
In almost any other country, that would not be news. But here, where Nureyev's defection to the West 26 years ago was regarded as a traitorous act, it appeared to underline a new attitude on the part of the Kremlin toward its citizens who have escaped to the West.
In the past, defectors were unmentionable persons, and their relatives in the Soviet Union had no hope of seeing them again. Now, as the Nureyev case illustrates, official policy is changing.
Nureyev, already a first-rank dancer in the Soviet Union, came to the attention of the Western public in 1961 when he defected in France. In recent years, he tried periodically to visit his mother in his hometown of Ufa but was persistently rebuffed. Suddenly, however, he found himself welcome to return to his homeland without threat of arrest or harassment.
Treated as an ordinary tourist when his plane arrived at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on Saturday, Nureyev, 49, attributed his first visit here in more than a quarter of a century to the policies of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"I think the human spirit wins eventually," he told reporters. "I am happy to be here, happy to be seeing my mother and my sisters." But Nureyev, who once was the leading dancer for the Kirov Ballet company of Leningrad, also said he would like to appear again before audiences in his homeland.
"Whatever is left in me of dancing, yes, I would like to show here," he said.
In a similar case, Soviet officials recently tried to persuade Mikhail Baryshnikov, another ballet star and Soviet defector, to perform here. Baryshnikov said he would come back if he could bring his troupe, the American Ballet Theater, and the negotiations foundered.
The new thinking on defectors was dramatized by the decision this week to grant exit visas to Galina Goltsman-Michelson, the wife of a Soviet official who defected to the United States in 1956, and to their daughter, Olga, and grandson, Anatoly.
In the past, Soviet authorities refused to consider her application on the theory that allowing family reunification in such cases would encourage others to defect.
Now, with no explanation or public discussion, that policy apparently has been reversed, and defection is no longer considered tantamount to treason.
Andrei Zhdanov, a rough-talking Moscow artist, and his wife, Galina Gerasimova, have been trying to emigrate for years to join their only daughter, who defected in Spain in 1982 while she was competing as a member of a synchronized swimming team.
For years, their case was considered hopeless. This year, however, they were unexpectedly given permission to emigrate.
There are still more examples of the Kremlin's more tolerant attitude, adopted since Gorbachev came to power, toward Soviet artists who have left for the West.
Author Vladimir Nabokov, who left during the Stalin era, was for years one of the unmentionable literary figures here. Now his work is being published in Soviet magazines.
Joseph Brodsky, the Leningrad-born poet who settled in the United States after his expulsion from the Soviet Union and who recently was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, has never seen a line of his work published here. But now the respected Novy Mir magazine has agreed to print some of his poems in its December issue.