MOSCOW — Soviet underground artists--who for years have nourished a counter-culture with exhibitions and performances in private apartments--are emerging cautiously into the daylight under Kremlin leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"We are coming out from underground, but it is a struggle," said poet Tatyana Sherbina, who is arguing with the editors of the magazine Ogonyok over small cuts they want to make to her verses when they bring out a collection of her work next year.
Sherbina, regarded by Moscow intellectuals as one of the best living Soviet poets, has already been published in the West. Samizdat (underground) editions of her books have passed from hand to hand in the Soviet Union for years.
"These underground publications were technically illegal, but I was never prosecuted, probably because my work is not anti-Soviet," she said in a recent interview in her book-crammed Moscow apartment.
Sherbina, who wrote secretly in childhood because her mother told her poetry brought only trouble, said she received an offer of official publication back in 1980. "But I said at that time, let them publish (Joseph) Brodsky and (Boris) Pasternak first."
Publication in 1980 would have involved too many compromises in her writing, which weaves cultural themes from past and present, Russia and abroad, Sherbina added.
Today, with poems by exiled Nobel Literature laureate Brodsky already out in this month's Soviet journal Novy Mir and publication of Pasternak's once-suppressed novel "Dr. Zhivago" promised for next year, the atmosphere is freer.
But Sherbina, who like many artists was disturbed by the way Moscow Communist Party leader Boris Yeltsin was ousted last month, is still unsure how much faith to place in Gorbachev's policy of openness and democracy.
"I see myself now neither as an official nor an underground writer. I am independent," she said.
This approach is taken by other artists such as theater director Boris Yukhananov, for whom words like underground and dissident, with their ring of struggle against the system, implicitly take that system seriously.
He prefers the word parallel, implying he lives in a world of his own, not in conflict with the system, just indifferent to it.
"The political climate does not affect me," he said in a recent interview. "It's like the sky above me. The sun may shine or it may rain, but I am the same."
The distinction between official and underground is becoming increasingly blurred.
At one time, to be an official artist meant to belong to the appropriate artists' union and to toe its politicized cultural line. The rewards were a good salary and the chance to travel abroad.
To be an underground artist meant to work as one pleased, limited by lack of access to facilities and, if one did not hold down a state job or if one criticized the state too strongly, facing the risk of prosecution as a "parasite" or anti-Soviet element.
"Many artists effectively spent their lives on strike," said film actress Larisa Borodino, of those who opted out of the often-sterile world of official art.
But now, more and more artists, like Borodino herself, are living with one foot underground and one above, working on their own projects but taking state contracts that attract them.
State work is becoming more interesting.
The latest edition of the film magazine Sovietski Ekran, this month written by and devoted to young film makers, contains the astonishing sight, by Soviet standards, of a gang rape of a girl whose blouse is ripped open to reveal bare breasts.
It is a scene from the official Byelorussian film "Don't Be Afraid, I Won't Touch You" with actor Igor Kichaev, who is also involved in the parallel (non-state) cinema.
But limits to the new freedom of expression were seen when an article on a parallel cinema festival held in Moscow in November was dropped from the magazine at the last minute, according to its authors.
The unofficial film festival, organized by Yukhananov among others, included a video with a homosexual rape scene shot late at night on the Moscow subway--still a bit too spicy for Sovietski Ekran.
Contradictions abound as artists put out feelers to test the space around them and the authorities wonder how to react.
For example, a gallery in Moscow recently opened its doors to an exhibition of unofficial paintings from Leningrad, long the center of Soviet underground culture.
Visitors to Vernissage 87 were able to see a collection of paintings unlike either the Socialist Realist works in official exhibitions or the kitsch of the amateur art market at Ismailovo Park.
Meanwhile at another exhibition by young painters at the new Tretyakov Gallery, at least one artist, showing a series of graphics based on literary themes, was asked to remove his work because he did not belong to the Artists' Union.
The adventurous new late-night Friday television show Vechernaya Programma carries a series of clips of rock musicians who began their careers underground.
But Leningrad keyboard star Sergei Kuryokhin, underground idol turned official performer, is so exasperated by the procrastination of Culture Ministry officials that he canceled a concert he was due to give in Moscow this month.
The uncertain nature of Gorbachev's cultural thaw explains why some artists are staying underground.
For yet others, the thrill of the illicit is essential to their art, and they fear life above ground will be banal.
"Let me merge with you," crooned Andrzej and Zhenya in outrageously seductive voices at a recent private concert in the basement of a derelict Moscow movie theater.
Their brand of "new erotic" rock singing is likely to remain underground for a long time to come.