Siberia seems so long ago," says Anatoli Rybakov. "I remember it more as a writer than I do as a man." The novelist's memory drifts back to the year 1933. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had just begun a reign of terror that would claim millions of lives. Rybakov, an engineering student in Moscow, was spared but exiled to a peasant outpost some 2,500 miles away. "I was 22 years old," he says, "and I understood my life was being destroyed."

Yet he survived, and by surviving found himself no longer an engineer but a writer—a man with a compulsion to explore the treacherous '30s. "They are the most tragic years in the history of our people," he explains. "And they are the most dramatic years of my own life."

For two decades Rybakov, now 77, struggled to publish his own account of those harrowing years, but was stymied by bureaucratic timidity. Then two years ago his moment arrived. In print since 1987, his novel about life under Stalin, Children of the Arbat, has become the literary sensation of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost No book like it has appeared in the Soviet Union since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the grim story of Stalinist labor camps, which appeared in 1962 during the brief Khrushchev "thaw." Arbat's first printing of 1 million copies was quickly sold out. A single copy now fetches $50 on the black market, though new press runs are scheduled. (An American edition was recently published by Little, Brown.) Says Rybakov: "What we now call perestroika [restructuring] will be a painstaking, stubborn process. Stalin produced mass and unbroken terror. The Soviet people have to learn to think independently again."

The novel's autobiographical hero, Sasha Pankratov, lives at 51 Arbat Street where, not coincidentally, Rybakov grew up in the years after the Russian Revolution. "I was a child of the times," says the author. "Young people were full of enthusiasm. We were building socialism, so I entered an automobile engineering institute." But like his fictional Sasha, Rybakov was arrested for publishing irreverent rhymes mocking socialist labor—an indiscretion the authorities deemed evidence of counterrevolutionary attitudes. He was jailed, then shipped off to a remote village in western Siberia.

Ironically, World War II was to be his salvation. Drafted into the Red Army, he served with distinction as a chief mechanic of a tank division and received a "pardon" for his earlier conviction, permitting him to return to his family after the war. "Most of my friends had died, some in the war, some during the purges," he says. "I was seized by recollections about my youth. I had always wanted to write. I was 35 years old, and I understood that if I didn't start now I never would."

Rybakov first established his reputation as a popular writer of children's adventure tales. With his success came the privileged life of a famous author: an apartment in Moscow, a dacha at the writer's colony at Peredelkino, a car and driver and permission to travel abroad. In 1978 he wrote his first adult novel, Heavy Sand, the first description in Soviet literature about Nazi atrocities against a family of Russian Jews. All the while he was working on Arbat, the first installment in a planned trilogy.

The first sections of Arbat were completed in 1967. Twice in the next 20 years Rybakov was told that excerpts would appear in influential Soviet magazines, but twice the editors reneged, presumably fearing political repercussions. Still, Rybakov refused to export his manuscript for its initial publication. "This novel was needed by my people, by my country, first and foremost," he insisted.

Rybakov's third wife, Tatyana Murkovna, a former magazine editor, is both her husband's literary helpmate and harshest critic. "He writes by hand, and I type his pages," she explains. "He's a wonderful master of dialogue, with perhaps less regard for details than I have. I try to get him to add more details." The second title in the trilogy, 1935 and Other Years, is due for publication this year, and the Rybakovs are already well into the third volume.

Rybakov's unsparing account of Stalinist cruelty has been attacked by some who still admire the tyrant's strong leadership. He has heard that in Stalin's hometown of Gori, in Georgia, there is a group calling itself Stalin's Eagles that requires new members to steal a copy of Arbat from a library, then bring it to Gori for burning. Far from being dismayed, Rybakov tells the story with pride. "The highest possible reward for a writer," he says, "is to have his books burned during his lifetime."