How Andropov could quickly make himself look good

Among the 20th-century autocrats of the Soviet Union, the new general secretary of the Communist Party, Yuri Andropov, may prove next to Lenin to be the most intelligent. He undoubtedly is a most purposeful and unbending communist, yet his familiarity with Western values may result in a less oppressive rule.

As a native Hungarian, I am familiar with one part of his career. Andropov, appointed ambassador to Budapest in 1954, quelled the 1956 uprising. When Russian troops who had fraternized with the Hungarians did not fire on the freedom fighters, Andropov had them replaced with troops from Asia. He gained time by conducting ''negotiations'' with the head of the Hungarian government, Imre Nagy. Nagy and his defense minister were last seen when they went to sign an agreement under which an independent Hungary would not interfere with the communist party, abstain from political ties with the West, and maintain Soviet monuments and cemeteries. Later they were found dead. The freedom fighters were put down in a bloody manner by the new Soviet troops.

However, Andropov's choice of Janos Kadar for the head of the puppet government was astute. Kadar had been imprisoned and tortured by Stalin, but Andropov correctly assessed his loyalty to the Soviet Union. At the same time, Kadar has managed to get Hungary the best treatment among the satellites. After a quarter of a century, Kadar would probably win a free election.

These facts support the view that while Andropov will not make any essential compromise, he may want to improve the public image of communist government. He could begin by freeing a leading Soviet dissident - Anatoly Shcharansky.

Shcharansky's name carries considerable importance in the West. In 1973, Shcharansky, a young, very able computer expert, asked for a visa to emigrate to Israel. He was refused permission and lost his job. A year later he married a young woman who, together with her brother, had received an exit visa. The day after the wedding his wife was forced to leave the country, but with the understanding that her husband would be allowed to follow within six months. But Ana-toly's visa failed to materialize.

In 1975, the Soviets signed the Helsinki accords on human freedoms. Shcharansky felt greatly encouraged since the resolution on the right to emigrate spoke to his problem most directly. He carried this point freely and openly both to officials in his government and to foreign correspondents. However, in the ensuing two years, he did more. He unified various groups, the Ukrainians and the Jews, for example, whose rights had been denied. Prior to his effort, these minorities had no history of cooperating to gain civil rights. This activity sealed his fate. Arrested in 1977, Shcharansky was sentenced to 13 years of forced labor in 1978.

As a prisoner, Shcharansky has been kept almost totally isolated. He spent more than half of 1981 in solitary confinement, has not been allowed to send out mail or receive visits from his mother. In late September this year, he protested his treatment with a hunger strike. This further damaged his health and has left him extremely weak. A steady stream of pleas from the West has reached the Kremlin.

Andropov's decision regarding Anatoly Shcharansky could become a most important first signal.

Communism's promise of a better future for all people has been tarnished by brutal activities in Afghanistan, the ''workers' paradise'' in Poland, the low standard of living experienced by most Soviet citizens, and by Soviet treatment of people of conscience.

As long as Shcharansky remains imprisoned, he serves as an example of the absence of freedom and dignity inside the Soviet system. As a martyr, he has the greatest possible influence throughout the world. There can be little doubt that free people everywhere would be grateful for the release of this exceptional man of courage.

An intelligent leader of the Soviet Union may realize that Shcharansky's release would also serve as a restorative of hope to those who would like to believe in the communist utopia. Clearly, saving Anatoly Shchar-ansky would be of advantage to people of every political view. We must now wait to learn more about the nature of the intelligence of the new Soviet autocrat.

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