AFTER LEARNING that I had returned to Moscow, a friend of mine, an octogenarian former dissident, hopped on the metro to see me.
''In the old days I would have brought a cake,'' she said. ''Now there is nothing to bake it with. Life has become easier.''
Visiting my hometown after a 13-year absence, I found it in the grip of food shortages of a magnitude I have not seen since wartime. That was to be expected. What I did not expect was that the analogy with World War II would reach beyond the food queues. It seems the Russians are once again drawing on their ability to weather catastrophes, and they are doing it in much the same way as a half-century ago.
In those days I was one of the children taught to believe that the Soviet borders were impenetrable. The Panzer divisions demonstrated otherwise. Deprived of the illusion of security, we fought, we endured, we helped our friends and our neighbors. In the process, we learned to place our trust in ourselves rather than our leaders and, unknown to ourselves, we became citizens.
If today's Moscow has any consensus, it boils down to the prevailing acceptance of shortages as a fact of life and the belief that the system has collapsed and this will definitely get worse and may never get better. Housing, medical care and pensions for the elderly have come into question. Not a trace is left of the old sense of security -- and victory seems anything but assured.
In 1941, when our troops were retreating, all of us stood by the radios, waiting for dispatches that would determine the course of our lives. Today, an actor I know told me that no one comes to his theater. Everyone is home watching the meetings of the Moscow City Soviet of the Supreme Soviets of the Russian republic and the U.S.S.R.
''I don't blame them for not going to the theater,'' the actor said of his vanished audience. ''If I could, I'd be home watching the congresses, too.''
As my stay stretched over an extra week, I ran out of presents for friends. ''Lyuda, let's say you would have brought me a jar of American coffee,'' hypothesized one friend after I showed up empty-handed. ''We would have drunk it. It would've been wonderful, but then what? We'd be back to drinking our swill.''
Considering the magnitude of the crisis, problems like finding eggs, sugar and flour to bake a cake have become trivial. One of my friends has not bothered to repair a kitchen faucet that has been broken for months, and another has not bothered to fix an old armchair. ''It will collapse,'' he warned me as I was about to sit down.
However, the sense of a lingering catastrophe has had a galvanizing effect on the Muscovites. Today, even the drivers and hotel clerks seem considerate.
''You don't need to thank me,'' said an Intourist clerk who had taken an hour to help me resolve a bureaucratic problem. ''If we don't help each other, what would happen?''
''I don't have any confidence in anyone anymore,'' a waiter, an Afghanistan veteran, said to me at my hotel.
''It must be terrible to be so young and not to believe,'' I said.
''I do believe,'' he said. ''I believe in myself.''
I would like to think that the collapse of Soviet communism was not the direct result of the efforts of one man, Mikhail Gorbachev, but rather the result of a great number of young people like that Afghanistan veteran realizing -- and stating publicly -- that they placed their trust in themselves rather than in their leaders.
As for the leaders, my friends were puzzled by the West's obsession with Mr. Gorbachev. Virtually everyone I talked to said that the Soviet leader had squandered his mandate and was, quite simply, old news.
Citizenry has a way of being impertinent and unwieldy. In his paranoid wisdom, Josef Stalin understood this. Hence, the wave of purges and inane ideological campaigns intended to make slaves of those who became citizens during the war. Yet despite the mind-numbing measures taken by Stalin and his successors, the citizen movement continued to evolve. It was anything but a mass movement; eventually all that remained was a handful of embattled dissidents. There were times when I thought that we, the dissidents, were alone in our battle against the state. The rest of our countrymen seemed too inert, too wedded to the notion that the Soviet system was eternal.
Today, the populace has been shaken out of its complacency. Thus, our slogans can be found in the platforms of emerging political parties and the voices of the new democratic mainstream can be heard at the Congresses, in food queues, and during gypsy cab rides through nighttime Moscow.