MOSCOW -- Responding to a blizzard of pornographic videos and sexual publications on show and sale in Soviet cities, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev ordered yesterday a new anti-pornography commission to take "urgent measures to protect public morals."
Mr. Gorbachev's directive came in answer to "concern among the Soviet people about distribution in the country of all kinds of pornography, pseudo-medical literature, erotic videos and other similar publications," the news agency Tass reported.
He appointed Minister of Culture Nikolai Gubenko, a well-known actor and director, to head the commission. The group should study the experience of other countries in fighting smut, Mr. Gorbachev said.
Yesterday's directive is the first official move to curb a virtual revolution in public displays of nudity and sexuality over the past three years.
From a nation whose grim-faced customs officers once confiscated the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue from tourists, the Soviet Union has been transformed into one in which both television and general-interest publications are far more daring than in the United States and most of Europe.
One recent night Soviet television showed an hour of excerpts from one of the numerous "erotic stage shows" that have appeared in the cities, with scantily clad or completely nude women shimmying across the screen.
The popular Russian-language paper Baltiskoye Vremya (Baltic Times) in Riga, Latvia, promoted its subscription drive this autumn with a tanned young woman on its cover, reading the latest issue and wearing only sunglasses.
Imported soft-porn videos are standard fare in thousands of humble video salons that have appeared in cellars across the country, becoming a big moneymaker for the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, among other sponsors.
Nudie postcards and key chains are sold at most Moscow and Leningrad newsstands, alongside relatively crude photocopied sex manuals with names such as "Guide to the Forbidden."
Many street hawkers who peddled exclusively political samizdat (self-published) publications a year ago have switched over to sex, as the SMOT Information Agency, which tracks samizdat here, recently noted.
"In September-October street sales, sex achieved total victory, pushing out not only political samizdat but material on UFOs, mysticism and 'secrets of the KGB,' " SMOT reported.
Obviously the material is finding an eager market, and it is a common sight in Moscow to see gray-haired women standing at newsstands leafing through page after page of sex positions.
But the sex explosion has provoked increasing outrage as well.
The revered cultural historian Dmitry Likhachev warned last year that the flood of smut threatened Russian young people with a "spiritual Chernobyl."
Letters to newspapers and calls to radio talk shows suggest that Mr. Likhachev's horror is widely shared, and not only by conservatives. Soviet citizens who have traveled in the West note that frank sex and nudity in most Western countries are largely confined to specific publications and kept off open TV channels.
Mr. Gorbachev hinted at the coming action Tuesday in the Soviet parliament, responding to a deputy's complaint about pornography. He complained of seeing on TV a "so-called professor explaining [sexual] techniques" and turned to Leonid Kravchenko, the new boss of Soviet television, exclaiming, "Comrade Kravchenko, I hope this isn't what you were appointed for."
Mr. Gorbachev said that such material would soon be "prohibited."
In fact, the directive appears to leave to the Gubenko commission the eternal question of what constitutes harmful pornography and what is tolerable erotica.
The anti-pornography directive is the latest of several moves Mr. Gorbachev has taken in recent days to restore "order," a word that in Russian encompasses the ideas of civilization, discipline and decency.
He has ordered teams of workers, backed by the KGB, to hunt and punish theft and profiteering in the food distribution system. He has elaborated plans for a new Security Council to deal with crime.
Most significantly, he has removed Minister of Internal Affairs Vadim V. Bakatin, who was under heavy fire from conservatives for being too soft as the top Soviet police officer. In Mr. Bakatin's place he appointed a hard-line duo: Communist ideologue and former KGB officer Boris K. Pugo as minister and army Gen. Boris V. Gromov, former commander of ground troops in Afghanistan, as his deputy.
But in his usual weaving and dodging to placate both conservatives and liberals, Mr. Gorbachev now plans to appoint Mr. Bakatin, generally popular with reformers, to a significant post, his spokesman said.