Due to intolerable KGB pressure, the Moscow Helsinki group - formed by Soviet citizens in May 1976 to monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki accords - announced a halt to its work. This statement has spurred press speculation that dissent is dead in the USSR.
Soviet officials, of course, have long touted their success in routing so-called ''anti-Soviet subversion.'' Rather than dealing with such fundamental economic and social ills as endemic food shortages, rampant alcoholism, or declining labor productivity - not to mention the escalating cost of Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan and Poland - the Kremlin tries to stamp out political dissent.
Has the systematic Soviet repressive campaign succeeded? The basic causes for dissatisfaction continue, exacerbated by Soviet propaganda that everything is coming up (red) roses. Indeed, in the first seven months of 1982, at least 127 people have been arrested for their human rights activity. Official claims to the contrary, the Soviets still have not succeeded in stopping dissent from spreading.
The Soviets have reacted very harshly to the Soviet Helsinki groups: 38 currently imprisoned members of the Moscow, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Georgian, and Armenian groups are serving a total of 355 years in detention. The Ukrainian Helsinki group has borne the brunt of this all-out campaign: 26 men and women have been imprisoned for joining its ranks. The Ukrainian KGB chief, Vitaly Fedorchuk, who organized this campaign, is now KGB top dog in Moscow.
The Soviet Helsinki groups managed to garner considerable public and diplomatic support in the West. In addition, the monitors rallied often disparate Soviet human rights activists under the Helsinki human rights banner. The hundreds of documents issued by these groups were often based on testimony from ordinary citizens throughout the Soviet Union.
Western attention has centered on those courageous Soviet citizens who advocate democratic solutions to Soviet ills. Yet dissent in the Soviet Union takes numerous forms: concern for unique cultures; defense of religious rights; and protest at declining living standards.
Most Russians are concerned about easier access to better consumer goods, such as meat and bread. In fact, Dr. Zoya Serebryakova, chief neuropsychiatrist of the Soviet Ministry of Health, made a statement in May 1981 which strongly suggests that there are thousands of patients in mental hospitals who are there merely for making ''groundless'' complaints about living conditions. Leaders of the fledgling free labor union movement, such as Aleksei Nikitin, also languish in psychiatric hospitals.
Support for genuine national and religious rights probably elicits the greatest level of popular support, particularly among the non-Russian half of the Soviet population. The Soviet constitution, in fact, grants each of the 15 Soviet republics the right to secede from the USSR. People who advocate greater cultural rights or protest official policies of russification, however, face likely imprisonment.
Thus, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, and Jews are overrepresented among the ranks of Soviet political prisoners. The 500,000 Muslim Crimean Tatars continue their 25-year petition campaign to be allowed to return to the Crimea from their places of Stalinist exile.
Many religious groups refuse to abide by discriminatory Soviet laws on religion. Others, such as Uniate Catholics, are outlawed in the USSR. There are now 160 imprisoned reform Baptists in the Soviet Union, while Adventists and Pentecostals are also jailed for trying to follow the dictates of conscience. In fact, after generations of persecution, an estimated 30,000 Soviet Protestants, mostly Pentecostals, want to emigrate from the USSR. The West knows the tragic story of one such Pentecostal family, the Vashchenkos, who are again on hunger strikes in Moscow and Chernogorsk. Despite persecution, 15 unofficial journals exist in Lithuania; one journal recently printed a petition signed by 18,341 Catholic parents to protest police brutality against religious youths.
Faced with such protest, the Kremlin has taken new measures to isolate the Soviet people. Citing technical reasons, the Soviets have cut off direct dialing for international telephone calls. (In view of Soviet achievements in space technology, it is hardly a credible explanation.) Emigration rates have plummeted for the few groups - Jews, Germans, and Armenians - who were permitted to leave the USSR.
Although the Soviet Helsinki monitors are silenced for now, the West should not accept Soviet claims to have crushed dissent. There is too much evidence to the contrary.