Soviet dissent seen from outside and from inside the USSR; Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights, by Joshua Rubenstein. Boston: Beacon Press. $12.95.

Is the struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union making progress? Can a few independent thinkers accomplish anything significant on behalf of freedom against massive modern tools of aggression?

At least one prson thinks so, and he makes a compelling case, if not for confidence, at least for hope. He suggests that because of the irrepressible courage of people who refuse to let fear overshadow their integrity, the Soviet system is, grudgingly and fitfully, yielding its stranglehold onthought and expression.

Joshua Rubenstein, New England coordinator for Amnesty International's US branch, justifies his position by citing how far things have come already in the light of Soviet history. In Stalin's time, if anyone spoke out he or she would simply disappear. Today teh regime's solutions are often less brutal, hence disaffection is more apt to surface.

There are those who argue that oppression today is actually more effective because it is more selective an subtle. But according to Mr. Rubenstein, one simple can't ignore the fact that people are speakingtheir minds more than ever before -- though the numbers are still extremely small.

The first half of "Soviet Dissidents" is a history ofthe rights movement since Khrushchev. Mr. Rubenstein tells how small group of Soviet citizens took advantage of the crack in the door of artistic freedom provided after Stalin's death and pushed until it became wide enough for Jews to emigrate and several antiestablishment movements to spring up.

Unfortunately, this is the least satisfying part of the book. Mr. Rubenstein obviously collected a huge amount of material (he lists 43 dissidents with whom he talked), but it is not well organized. And -- particularly irritating at times -- he gives the impression that dissidents always wear white hats and Soviet officials black. There surely are less than noble dissidents, and somewhere there must be Soviet officials who are relatively enlightened. Even acknowledging this would have helped the presentation sound more balanced.

But it is worth plowing through this section for the final chapters. Here Mr. Rubenstein makes his case for encouragement about the general direction of human rights in the USSR. He doesn't ignore the hard facts -- such as the current crackkown that has severely depleted the numbers of activist in Moscow. Yet he doesn't ignore the signs of progress, either. For instance, he notes that in 1965 Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were sent to labor camps for publishing their works abroad. Today, he says, no one is even arrested for this reason alone.

A question he doesn't deal with, unfortunately, is that of how widespread Sovet dissent may be today. The massive outpouring of police-jeering youth at the funeral of actor-poet Vladimir Vysotsky during the Olympics last July suggests there may be more than either the KRemlin admits or the West is generally aware of.

In relation to such dissatisfaction, however widespread, Mr. Rubenstein asserts: "The dissidents did not think differently from everyone else, as the word dissident implies. Rather, they decided to say what everyone else knows." It almost makes one dare to hope that what is known will someday be said throughout the country.

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