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The new wave of Soviet repression

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The Soviet repression machine is gaining speed. Surely, as always, the evidence is somewhat contradictory. Those who search under a microscope for positive signals from the Kremlin will always be able to come up with something.

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An American fifth grader, Samantha Smith, who has written a letter to Yuri Andropov, recently got the red carpet treatment in Moscow. Then she was sent to an exclusive summer camp rather than to a concentration camp, which are filled with Russians who, without official authorization, have dared to appeal to President Reagan.

A family of Pentacostalists was just allowed to emigrate from the USSR. For years the group has been hiding in the American Embassy in Moscow demanding exit visas. Apparently it became too much of an embarrassment for the regime. Meanwhile, other Pentacostalists at this very moment are being arrested for practicing their religious beliefs and some are sentenced to many years of hard labor.

Finally, the Soviet Union has accepted a compromise language on human rights at the review session of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Madrid. But it was the West, not the East, that definitely made the most of the concessions. And the adopted formula is sufficiently ambiguous to allow the Politburo to continue with repression. The fact that the compromise was proposed by Spain and endorsed by neutral countries with the Reagan administration remaining open-minded but unenthusiastic may mean that the alleged Soviet flexibility is motivated by a desire to outmaneuver Washington in a competition for the ''hearts and minds'' of the Europeans.

The tightening of Soviet political controls is well documented. The recent Central Committee plenum in Moscow emphasized the need to intensify the ideological struggle. Artists, writers, and other intellectuals have been strongly reminded that they are expected to act as soldiers in an intensified war of ideas. Those who refuse to conform are punished with growing brutality. An expression of unorthodox views which in the past would cause an official reprimand now routinely leads to a prison sentence. And offenses previously classified as anti-Soviet propaganda now are increasingly labelled as treason, a crime punishable by death.

Also, out of court, there are a growing number of instances in which dissidents and Jewish activists are assaulted and badly beaten by unidentified thugs, some of whom have KGB connections. Their children are harassed by classmates and their apartments are vandalized.

Particularly frightening is a new tendency not to release critics of the regime even when their concentration-camp terms expire. Unless dissidents are prepared to repel and make a formal commitment to ''behave well'' after their release they are routinely accused of a new crime against the state. The guilty verdict inevitably follows.

The emigration of Jews has reduced to a trickle and anti-Semitism is on the rise. Openly anti-Semitic books are published and favorably reviewed by the official media. A newly created anti-Zionist committee is constantly in the news. The committee's chairman, a retired three-star general, David Dragunsky, (some say he is still on active duty), was himself a victim of anti-Semitism. For many years this much decorated and accomplished hero could not be promoted. His career was truly launched only after the 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East. The combat veteran was assigned the role of an official Jew, useful for demonstrating to foreigners that Jews enjoy full rights in the Soviet Union and want nothing to do with Israel.

Dragunsky's first deputy - and the real mastermind of the group - Law Professor Samuil Zivs is a particularly reprehensible character. Closely linked with the KGB for decades, he has just published a book filled with slander against dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov. Interestingly, Zivs has not always admitted his Jewishness. In 1949 at the peak of Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign, Zivs publicly declared that, while both of his legal parents were Jewish, his mother had a secret affair with a Latvian. The legal scholar claimed that since his real father was a non-Jew, he, Zivs, was entitled to be registered accordingly in his papers.

The new wave of Soviet repression creates a difficult policy dilemma for the United States. In his recent testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State George Shultz suggested that if the Kremlin is interested in a better relationship with America it should first improve its human rights performance.

Preconditions of this sort are noble but counterproductive. The Politburo is not going to surrender to what is described in Moscow as the US dictate on internal Soviet matters. The US-Soviet rapprochement will be blocked. And the chilling winds of a cold war will even further complicate the plight of independent-minded Soviet citizens.

The alternative - a benign neglect of human rights on the superpower diplomatic agenda - is equally unattractive. First, during the last decade the United States has given Soviet dissidents enough encouragement to be morally committed not to abandon them for the sake of foreign policy expediency. Also the US political process will certainly prevent an across-the-board accommodation with the Kremlin as long as the current outrage continues.

The only realistic option in dealing with human rights in the Soviet Union is to adopt a policy of assertive but tactful gradualism in the context of a general improvement of the relationship. The administration is entitled, indeed is obliged, to tell Moscow frankly that any Soviet-American agreements would be hard to sell to US domestic opinion without some easing off of repression. Unfortunately, this argument will probably not have a serious impact on the hard-nosed Soviet leadership unless important arms control accords are in sight.

Meanwhile, the collapse of detente has reduced the United States to the role of an irrelevant observer of the most vicious crackdown in the Soviet Union since Stalin's death.