Afanasi Koptelov, the novelist, lives with his brother, the hunter, in a wooden cottage in a small village some twenty miles from Novosibirsk in Siberia.

met him in late November before the rigours of winter had set in, but it was cold enough, at minus twenty-five degrees, for Valery, our guide-interpreter from Gosteleradio, to quote Pushkin, ‘Sun and frost, a fine day!’.

The garden could only be identified and admired through indentations in the snow, as with ancient burial mounds, although a few low apple trees defied the elements. There were home-grown apples at lunch, and sliced tomatoes, but shamefully I did not taste them, not realising how significant they were.

I gorged myself on the little mcat-filled dumplings called pelmeni, for Afanasi explained how mail riders used to gallop from staging post to staging post with frozcn pelmeni in their pouches, which could be placed in boiling water to provide a good hot meal in ten minutes, Sibcrian fast food.

Yes, of course, there was Siberian vodka too, and of course, we were expected to drain the little glasses in a single gulp, and then wait for a second or so, until the ethnic fluid hit the boots and bounced back again, melting the limbs from ankles upwards. And of course, this instant anti-freeze was accompanied by toasts to world peace and brotherhood and similar irreproachable sentiments, so that the visitor who did not down his vodka in one go would feel guilty and thus obliged to prove his manhood in another toast, until an unseasonable thäw set in, reducing us all to a kind of slush on the carpet.

Afanasi, I'm sorry to say, drank Pepsi-Cola, under doctor's orders, for he is eighty-one years old, but his brother, who kills bears, made sure that we lacked nothing in the way of fellowship, liquid or otherwise.

The cottage was low ceilinged, very warm, with hot-water pipes crossing the floor, and Afanasi's study was lined with books and stuffed in every cranny with mementoes, sometimes grand, like medals for literature, and sometimes intimate and personal. There were photos of his wife, who died last year, or of a box of apples, all tagged and labelled, which his son had photographed many years ago for display at school.

Those apples were a bit of a nuisance at the beginning, for wc were supposed to be recording an interview for the BBC about Afanasi's latest work, Lenin in Siberia, but whencver I asked some sharply-honed question, such as ’What did Lenin think of Siberia†’, Afanasi would talk about apples, and I would glance indifferently at these withered specimens of Golden Obnoxious and say, ‘Very interesting, Mr. Koptelov, but what about your latest book?’ and he would reply, light glistening from his gold-capped teeth, 'I'm glad you find them interesting, for I have another photograph of apples over here’, and the lot would be translated by our patient Valery, before we began again; until struggling to find a middle way between politics, literature and horticulture.

I asked Afanasi about his early book, The Garden, which I had not wanted to mention —but what thc hell? And then it transpired that what was tripping mc np were not applesper se, but symbolism, for when Afanasi was a young man, there were no apples in Siberia, apart from some sour hedgerow crabs—but through careful grafting (described in his book), thc crab stems were encouraged to nurture some more palatable specimens, until at last Siberia, with its three-months summer, could grow its own apples.

Apples were only the beginning. Then came tomatoes, grown under glass, and various methods were devised for keeping plants with berries warm during winter, until that desolate tract of the Soviet Union, renowned for receiving those not welcome in Moscow, could be described as ‘a real garden!’

All around Novosibirsk now there were small allotments, each with wooden huts where one could store tools and even sleep, where the Siberian factory workers could get away from it all and try their hands at growing fruits and vegetables.

Who first noticed and extolled the untapped riches of Siberia—its minerals, its water and ice power, its mountains, lakes and valleys, its sturdy inhabitants and even its capacity to grow apples† Why, Lenin, who was also not blind to the strategic importance of Siberia, the land of the last retreat, of continental size and well-walled by mountain ranges, guarded by its harsh winters and self-sufficient.

In Novosibirsk, there is the second largest opera house in the world, a monument to culture, with a row of marble statues encircling the auditorium, where there are balconies like jury boxes and enough seats in the stalls for your average praesidium. But the strangest fact about this odd building is that it was constructed between 1942 and 1945, by Stalin's decree, in the heart of the war, when most manpower and materials were being rushed to the front.

The official explanation is that Stalin was confident that the war would be won and was already planning the future—but the unofficial one is that he was contemplating a retreat across the Urals to the fortress of Siberia, where his government could be safe, listen to speeches and watch opera.

Apples were Afanasi's way of demonstrating Siberia's development— not as dramatic, perhaps, as the hydroelectric dam over the river Ob, not as death-defying as those human walruses who cut holes in the ice for their midwinter dips, not as sleek as University City with its exhibitions of' avant-garde Estonian art, but more homely and practical than those other achievements.

They also taught me a little about Afanasi's tum of mind, useful when interviewing a writer whose language one does not understand. In manner, Afanasi Koptclov reminded mc of the late J. B. Priestley, slow-speaking, an odour of commonsense, down-to-earth anecdotes and a moralist. His books are enormously popular throughout the Soviet Union. They sell a million copies per title, in print runs of 100,000 which are insufficient to meet the demand.

I asked for his address in Moscow and was told that 'Afanasi Koptelov, Siberia’ would probably find him. He is little known in the West for, as Valery acidly explained, he is not a dissident, quite the reverse. Nor is he merely a mouthpiece for the regime.

Moralising is the curse of Russian literature, as it is of their drama. I have before me a collection of essays by a Lenin-prize winning journalist, about the Soviet Union. It is titled This Is My Native Land and it reads in English rather like those stories in Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia, full of strange facts and daring adventures, each usefully supplied with a moral.

President Chernenko himself insisted in a recent statement, praised for its liberalising approach, that ‘the real extent of the influence that literature and art on the whole exert on the moulding of the ideological and moral frame of the people's mind is the most precise criterionof their success’.

Afanasi's books, I suspect, mould the Russian minds with the best of them. He explained how, in Lenin In Siberia, he wanted to show the human side of Lenin. How? Warts and all? Not exactly. Afanasi cited what Lenin must have been thinking when he approached the BritishMuseum in London, where Marx sat and studied. His human Lenin muststill have been thinking of Marx, not of the leak in his shoes, the cold at the back of his throat, dinner or the girl at the next desk.

Nonetheless, he is no party hack—or, rather, perhaps we in the West are too apt to see the presence of propaganda in works which would be seen by Russians in another light. Koptelov's appeal partly lies in his sense of Siberian history, his knowledge of folklore aid his tales about how men pit their ingenuities against the elements.

His book The Great Trek tells of the tribal migrations over the continent, how to survive against wolves, bears and winter. His adventure stories carry credibility for, as a Siberian peasant, Koptelov knows the landscape and his subjects so well.

But what might mislead Westerners, as it did me, is his sense of unforced optimism. The first impression which we receive of life in the Soviet Union is one of drabness, punctuated by instances of wild, pre-revolutionary colour. In Moscow, there are the ponderous slabs of grey architecture, the tower blocks and the Teutonic, parade-ground avenues, with monstrously ugly statues of Yuri Gagarin or the crescent-shaped flight of a metal space rocket, hard, vainglorious, inhuman.

The Metro may be a wonder of urban transport, but, with the US problem neatly reversed, there is too much public affluence, too much private squalor. The range of food in the supermarkets is depressingly limited, and subject to sudden feasts, such as a pile of salt fish, and unexpected shortages.

You don't see such curious Western luxuries as paper handkerchiefs or Tampax; and inMoscow, sitting in an Intourist hotel, surrounded by foreign currency shops, a Westerner feels isolated by privilege. There may be no unemployment in the Soviet Union, but wherever you go, you see people grappling with menial and often silly tasks which would be despised in Britain.

I have the image of a middle-aged woman, round and fat, with layers of assorted clothes, chipping the ice from the steps of the Lenin Library, with a heavy pick, while the flakes of ice, thus detached, froze on the steps behind her before they had been cleared away.

To talk of the economic achievements of the Soviet Union under those circumstances invites a rude response, and yet this is precisely what they do boast about.

A ‘leading Soviet economist’ on the Voice of Moscow proclaimed that the gross national product of the Soviet Union had increased by 100% since 1917, not very impressive when you think about it, and that this had been achieved through the hard work of theSoviet People. He exhorted the Soviet people to work even harder so that the benefits could be even greater.

The technological revolution which,so concerns us in the West affected his peroration very little; and I guess that he would have regarded the proposition as unsound and ideologically suspect that the Russians should work less hard but more intelligently,even at the expense of full employment.

When Afanasi Koptelov talked about the improvements in the Siberian way of life, the economic growth and expansion, and illustrated his arguments with apples, the perspective changed. What seems ludicrous in Moscow is credible in his little village near Novosibirsk; and Moscow is, after all, situated in an untypical corner of the Soviet Union. When Westerners sneer at the inefficiencies o1 the system, and the Five Year Plans whose targets are publicly over-reached but do not seem to make any difference, they may be seriously deluding themselves—for there has been great change.

The economy has improved, but it requires the perspective of Siberia, not Moscow, to appreciate this fact. And Koptelov with his knowledge as to what it was like in Siberia in the old days has chronicled their evolution.

A significant part of that troubled history lies in the legacy of the Second World War, and here again I suspect that we misread the situation. In 1985, the Ministry of Culture has advised theatres throughout the Soviet Union that they should find some way to celebrate the end of the war; and my initial reaction on hearing this vital news was to think,‘Well, what on earth have they been doing in 1984?’—for plays, films and books distantly or directly connected with the Second World War are everywhere, in Moscow, as in Siberia.

Leonid Reshetnikov, a former colonel in the Red Army who writes poetry and lives in Siberia, indignantly resented the suggestion (from a Dutch journalist) that the Soviet Union is obsessed with the subject, arguing that the younger generation must know about the desperate anguish which Russia suffered.

‘Well,’ replied the journalist, ‘we all know that you lost more than twenty million lives. But we in lesser ways also suffered and we have made an effort to put the past behind us. You do the opposite. You want to remember the war.’

The Western suspicion is that war memories are encouraged to reinforce the idea that there is a continual military threat from the West, that the Soviet Union must continually arm itself to prevent another (and even more cataclysmic) war from happening and that the endless footage of Moscow under bombardment is being recycled for Cold War purposes.

I saw a new fiIm in Siberia which illustrates this point. It was regarded as ‘liberal’ in that it dealt with a love affair between a Russian soldier and a girl from a Nazi family who meet again later in peace. An illiberal film would never have conceded that a Russian soldier could have had such a relationship. Many details in the film revealed an inner message. Post-war West German life was not only unbearably garish, with stripjoints ripping off the unwary East German customer, but also violent.

The eyes of a West German at a fairground shooting gallery turned sinister and silver as he fingered the trigger of a gun. The shots of the Second World Was were intermingled with mushroom clouds. The whole emphasis was that the West Germans have not changed and that the West itself is dangerously trigger-happy. Reagan and Thatcher are monsters.

War movies and plays are as popular in the Soviet Union as they once were in the West, and they usually point to the moral that the West is still to be feared. In Siberia as in Moscow, there is the unquestioning assumption that the West intends to invade Russia with only the might of the Soviet army to hold them back.

It is depressing to feel how far the frost has penetrated the soil, to what cultural depths, East and West, the Cold War has managed to sink. It is hard to believe in Russia that the NATO forces are not poised for an immediate assault. It is equally hard in the West not to view Russia as a colonising power.

And the cold is thawing, very little, drip by drip. The war, for example, is not instantly described as the Heroic Struggle of the Soviet people against the Forces of Fascism and International Capitalism. Leonid Reshetnikov no longer wants to write Kiplingesque lyrics about the heroic soldier, but about the horrors and destruction of war.

Jingoism is becoming old- fashioned. Another Siberian writer, Rasputin, who lives by Lake Baikal writes stories about the sad ironies of war, one of which is currently being performed as an opera in Moscow. It concerns a Russian soldier who left his post, not to desert but simply to see his wife and children again. He intended to return to his duties but while he was away, peace was declared. His tragedy was that nobody will believe that he did not intend to desert, for he lost his opportunity to prove himself in battle.

Under the disguise of war stories, there are new pleas for tolerance and understanding, which mitigate the cold war tone. There is more warmth in the soil than we can imagine..

This was what Afanasi Koptelov meant when he proudly showed us his apples and tomatoes as an allegory of survival. There is a little heat somewhere beneath the snow and even sour crabs can yield sweet fruit. Such a simple Arthur Mee-like moral may not cut much ice with Reagan or Gromyko, but the climate did seem to become milder while we travelled the long way back to Moscow.