THIS holiday season will be a lot happier for Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner. Instead of internal exile and KGB harassment in Gorky, they are permitted to return to Moscow, where Dr. Sakharov will resume scientific work.
There is understandable elation in many lands about the return to more normal living conditions of the Sakharovs. But it is an ironic commentary on the Soviet system that this elation comes because the Sakharovs have been pardoned for a crime that would be no crime in a free society.
All they did was criticize certain aspects of Soviet policy and behavior. For that they have endured long years of exile, restriction, uncertainty, surveillance, and harassment. The world's joy at the ending of their punishment should be laced with anger that it was ever imposed in the first place.
Timed shrewdly on the eve of Christmas, it is another example of Mikhail Gorbachev's clever public relations flair. Mr. Gorbachev called Dr. Sakharov himself in Gorky to give him the news. Of course, Soviet officials had to install a telephone just for this purpose in the Sakharovs' apartment; they had not been permitted one during exile.
Does it mean that the Soviets are really bringing some moderation to their internal human rights policy? Or does it mean that a few prominent dissidents are getting better treatment to improve Moscow's international image? And is this a signal to the limping Reagan administration that Mr. Gorbachev still wants to do business with it?
The answer to the latter question is almost certainly yes.
Throughout the Reagan administration's Iran debacle, the Soviets have been relatively restrained. Signals have been sent that they want to get on with an arms control agreement. Sen. Gary Hart was told as much by Mr. Gorbachev during his recent visit to Moscow. The Soviets apparently calculate that dealing with the devil they know (Ronald Reagan) will pay off better than waiting for a new one to assume the presidency and start all over again on the US-Soviet relationship.
Mr. Gorbachev would apparently like to get something nailed down on arms control; he is a leader with many problems at home. He is trying to clean house in the Soviet leadership, and nobody can be sure how his struggle to consolidate his position is faring.
Meanwhile, he is trying to increase Soviet productivity without imposing drastic reforms on a torpid economy. The well-entrenched bureaucracy is not jumping to his appeals.
And as we have seen from recent rioting in Kazakhstan, he must deal with continuing ethnic tensions in Central Asia and other minority areas.
The real measure of Mr. Gorbachev's attitude on human rights is not the treatment of high-profile dissidents like the Sakharovs, but the treatment afforded the thousands of relatively faceless protesters in the work camps of the gulag. There is also the matter of Soviet Jews who wish to emigrate, and Soviets married to Westerners but denied permission to leave.
Three months ago in this column, I wrote of the case of Anatoly T. Marchenko, a founder of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, serving a 15-year sentence for anti-Soviet propaganda.
In a letter he smuggled out of his prison, Mr. Marchenko told of 15-day confinements in the punishment cell, where inmates were stripped of warm clothing and fed every other day in icy temperatures. There were beatings. He had been denied seeing his family for 2 years.
Mr. Marchenko would undoubtedly have been happy for the Sakharovs over their return to Moscow. Unfortunately, he died in his prison cell without learning of it.
The treatment of other political prisoners will now determine whether the Soviet Union is really reforming on human rights, or whether the policy is the same old cruel one in a smart new public relations wrapper.