Moscow — There are only a few dozen of them, little people who battled the Kremlin. And they have lost. "They" are -- or, for all practical purposes, were -- self-styled "monitors" of Soviet compliance with human-rights provisions in the 1975 Helsinki accords.
A scattered few are still free.
But on July 21, almost exactly six years after the Helsinki agreements, a Moscow court dispatched one of the last active members of the group to nine years' effective silence, four of them in a labor camp, the rest in "internal exile."
He is Felix Serebrov. A welder by trade, he had helped publicize allegations of psychiattric abuses in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet news agency Tass, reporting the verdict, said he had "engaged in subversive activities . . . systematically produced, duplicated, and distributed documents containing calumnies denigrating the Soviet state and social system."
"The sentence," Tass added, "was taken approvingly by the workers and employees of Moscow enterprises and institutions who were present at the court session."
Mr. Serebrov's wife attended and said he looked close to collapse by trial's end. In Moscow tradition, Western reporters and Soviet friends of the accused dissident were not allowed in.
The downfall of men and women like Felix Serebrov -- roughly 50 of them have been tried and sentenced at this writing -- began, for all practical purposes, on May 12, 1976.
It was then that Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov announced the birth of the Helsinki Watch Group, rooted in 38 words from the year-old accord between East and West.
"The participating states," the agreements said, "will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion , or belief. . . . They confirm the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights and duties in this field."
Two weeks after founding his Moscow group, Yuri Orlov explained: "The . . . goal is to collect, analyze, and transmit to the participating states information on violations of the humanitarian provisions of the [Helsinki] final act."
He apparently saw Western correspondents here as playing a crucial role, saying, "I must point out that the continuing interference with the free exchange of information is a fundamental violation of the spirit and letter of the final act."
In May 1978, Yuri Orlov was sentenced to seven years in a labor camp and five years of exile.
Most of the rest -- writers, teachers, scientists, engineers, electricians -- have since followed in his footsteps.
Many a Muscovite, if asked, will say that Orlov and company are traitors. The overwhelming majority don't seem to give the matter much thought. Dozens -- largely, but not only intellectuals or Jews barred permission to emigrate -- seem to empathize with the Helsinki group. But fewer hold out hope that these or other dissidents can change Soviet society, any time soon, at least.
The Soviet leadership seems to see the dissidents more as an embarrassment than a serious challenge.
The official news media go out of their way to rebut various Western allegations of human-rights abuses. The Tass report on Mr. Serebrov's sentencing noted: "These [libelous] materials were channeled by him through some foreign correspondents in Moscow for purposes hostile to the Soviet union."
The official line, meanwhile, is to be very tough on the dissidents. The real violations of human rights, Soviet officials suggest, are poverty and unemployment in the capitalist West.
Soviet "human-rights activists," they say, are subversive, slanderous, and on occasion, clinically, mentally ill.
One they put in this last category is Vladimir Klebanov.
He was a driving force behind a tiny movement seeking creation of Western-style labor unions in the Soviet Union. He was committed to a mental hospital.
"We are strongly opposed to naming these unfortunates [in mental institutions ]," the chairman of the Soviet Council on Psychiatry says in the current issue of the Moscow foreign policy weekly New Times. "We strictly abide by the obligation of the medical profession to keep such information confidential."
But he does discuss Mr. Klebanov, because "he is depicted in the West as a 'victim of Soviet psychiatry.'
"Working . . . as a miner, he suffered concussion of the brain in 1959," the Soviet psychiatrist says."His health gradually improved and in 1962 he was found fit to return to work.
"But he protested violently and showed signs of excessive excitability. In 1965, owing to the deterioration of his mental condition . . . he was placed under medical care.
"The diagnosis was confirmed after consultat ions with Moscow doctors.
"Klebanov is still sick.