A handful of Soviet citizens seeking to join spouses in the West has demonstrated that you don't have to be Andrei Sakharov to win a hunger strike against the Kremlin.
But the Kremlin, evidently concerned that marrying Westerners and/or staging hunger protests might come to be viewed as a ticket abroad, is standing tough on other cases.
Soviet officials seem determined to avoid sending clear encouraging signals to would-be hunger-strikers. As sometime journalist Andrei Frolov left Moscow June 20 for reunification with his American wife, the one other member of the self-styled ''divided-families group'' still on the coordinated fast begun six weeks ago lay weakened on his bed. Like another of the five original Moscow hunger-strikers, he has in effect scaled down his original demand for an exit visa, saying he will resume eating if his American wife is allowed into the USSR.
The two other protesters, one the daughter of a Soviet general, say they have been told they will get exit visas. They have abandoned their fast, although neither has yet received the visa.
Well before the May 10 protest began, two other Soviet citizens married to Westerners were allowed to leave. One of them, a Leningrad resident, had intended to join an earlier, short-lived hunger strike by the Moscow divided-families group. The second, a Moscow woman married to a Frenchman, did stage a hunger strike.
There may be a pattern here. But none of the foreign pundits and diplomats with a fondness for identifying such things can find it. Kremlinologists are more puzzled over the Soviets' agreement to grant visas to some than they are over the refusal to let other protesters leave.
Dr. Sakharov's successful hunger strike last December, springing the wife of his emigrant stepson to the West, did seem to prove contagious. Most foreign analysts here had expected that the Kremlin, forced to roll back on an initial hard line on the Sakharov protest, would be demonstratively tough with any imitators.
For one thing, the imitators lack something Dr. Sakharov has: international scientific and political repute (plus, of course, a Nobel Peace prize).
Kremlin toughness, it was assumed, would apply particularly to divided-family protesters. Though the majority of such would-be emigrants have traditionally been allowed out, the Soviets have long suspected - with good reason, in some cases -- that marriages to Westerners might stem less from love than from a desire to emigrate.
To emigrate, in the official Soviet scheme of things, is to be a traitor.
Diplomats here posit various explanations for the isolated successes of post-Sakharov hunger-strikers.
1. The Soviets are presumed to want to avoid international repercussions from the death of citizens who want simply to leave.
2. The Kremlin may want to demonstrate goodwill to Western states -- specifically, West European ones, like France.
3. It probably helps to be the daughter of a Soviet general. (The woman in question was told she would get a visa after he had visited her for the first time in three months and, she said, had decided to drop objections to her leaving.)
4. Private representations by US diplomats may have had some effect, though it was almost surely secondary.
At this writing, two hunger strikes outside the divided-families group show no signs of success. One involves a 28-year-old photographer married to an American. He began fasting June 2.
The other case stems for the 32-day-long protest earlier this year by Lydia Vashchenko, one of seven Siberian Pentacostals who burst into the US Embassy four years ago in search of permission to emigrate. She was hospitalized and then returned to Siberia to apply for a visa, with no success so far. The other six Pentacostals remain in the embassy.