Just before he was sent into internal exile, Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov signed a still-unpublished dissidents' protest against Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, sources close to his family say.
The sources believe the signature was the straw that broke the camel's back and caused the Politburo to act after leaving Dr. Sakharov in relative freedom for 12 years.
The disclosure came as the Soviet dissident movement feared more reprisals now that its leader has gone.
"We feel like orphans now," said one dissident figure. "We think anything could happen now.'
It is clear here that worsening detente has removed, in the Kremlin's view, the power of President Carter and others in the West to "protect" dissidents with the threat of criticism.
The Kremlin began to crack down hard in October, 1976. Anatoly Shcharansky and Dr. Yuri Orlov were arrested in March 1977 and tried in mid-1978.
A new round of arrests began several weeks ago. The Soviets have objected to Mr. Carter's human-rights stands until now. Few dissident leaders remain active in Moscow.
The prospect of the Sakharov name lending authority to internal criticism of the Afghan invasion was simply too much for the Kremlin, the sources believe.
It is believed that the Kremlin wanted to make examples of Dr. Sakharov and his wife so that other dissidents would drop their protests on Afghanistan and other matters.
Among the backers of the Afghan protest are believed to be people close to the Moscow branch of the London-based human- rights group, Amnesty International.
The Sakharov decision to sign could explain a paragraph published in the government newspaper Izvestia late Jan. 22, sources say. The paragraph said he had been stripped of all Soviet titles and awards because he had "lately embarked on the road of open calls to reactionary circles of imperialist states to interfere in the USSR's internal affairs."
Meanwhile Izvestia Jan. 23 made the first official reference to the exile, justifying it by calling Dr. Sakharov a man who had betrayed his country by "blurting out" state secrets to Westerners. If the sources are right, the Afghan protest helps explain why the Soviets moved now, when the United States already is retaliating against Moscow because Soviet troops are in Afghanistan. Izvestia Jan. 23 did not mention any Afghan protest. It is assumed the Soviets will not publicize it at all.
The Kremlin clearly felt the benefits of removing Sakharov to the city of Gorky, 250 miles east of Moscow, outweighed the international criticisms now being heard.
Dr. Sakharov is not only isolated from Westerners in Moscow, but his passionate belief that outside pressure can help reform inside Russia has shown to be less than true when the Kremlin thinks the chips are down.
His supporters argue he is right over the long term, but that sacrifices must be made in the short term.
Another development in Moscow the day Dr. Sakharov was exiled is believed to be connected with his case.
The official in charge of Soviet scientific contacts with the outside world for the last 15 years, Dr. Vladimir Kirillin, suddenly left his duties. Tass news agency said it was at his own request. Dissident sources said it was possible he had been telling the Kremlin not to touch Dr. Sakharov for fear of alienating scientists the world over.
His removal might have opened the way for reprisals. Or he could have been ousted because he objected to the exile plan.
For many years the Sakharovs have had a summer dacha next door to Dr. Kirillin's at the VIP resort area of Zhukovka outside Moscow. The two are said to have known each other well.
The authorities moved fast against Dr. Sakharov. No trial, no hearing, no document (though Izvestia said Jan. 23 he had been exiled "according to administrative law").
His mother-in-law, Ruth Bonner, said in an interview in the tiny kitchen of the Sakharov apartment that she still had no idea how long he would have to stay in Gorky. His wife had been given only two hours to pack. She took two small suitcases with warm clothes, food, and medicines. Both Dr. Sakharov and his wife have been in poor health for years, friends report.
Reuter news service reports from Washington that the president of the US National Academy of Sciences said Jan. 23 the arrest and internal exile of Dr. Sakharov will seriously harm future US-Soviet scientific exchanges.
Dr. Philip Handler called the Soviet moves to silence Dr. Sakharov "a challenge to further cooperation and an act of deliberate bad will."
US delegates to a February scientific meeting in Helsinki, to be attended by nations that signed the 1975 Helsinki accord, plan to open the session with a sharp rebuke of the Soviet actions against Dr. Sakharov.
["It is difficult to imagine scientific exchanges continuing in the spirit we had created heretofore," Dr. Handler said. He said the resignation of Soviet Science Minister Vladimir Kirillin, who has been viewed as a moderating voice in the Kremlin, adds to the mood of gloom surrounding future joint US-Soviet scientific endeavors.]