How long can the Soviet Union continue to stonewall world pressure for credible information about the current situations of dissident Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner? No one is persuaded by the Kremlin's bland assurances or its undatable photographs that prove nothing - thus far all that the Soviets have offered.
Such violations of common decency, not to mention freedom and basic human rights, can occur only in nations which suppress information. It is with good reason that the Soviet hierarchy permitted not a word of French President Francois Mitterrand's comments on the Sakharovs, in his meetings late last week with Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko, to be relayed to the Soviet people. The Soviet leaders want the light that Mitterrand focused on the darker side of their government to remain hidden from their people.
The United States has its problems in need of correcting. But Americans know what they are - they're freely discussed. Unearthing deficiences is the best first step toward meeting them, and over the years the US has made great strides in dealing with its problems. What critics in the US say is spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific, without government censorship, and irrespective of the assessment of government officials.
In the short term, criticism and the ferment it generates can be embarrassing. But in the long run the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression is a great American strength.
By contrast, the Soviet Union unvaryingly explains the protests of its internal critics as hostility to the state - as if the dissidents were the wrongdoers and the state the aggrieved party.
Dissidents' views are suppressed. They themselves frequently are placed in mental institutions or are exiled to some distant Soviet city and held incommunicado, as the Sakharovs are in Gorky. The Soviets would have the world believe that the dissidents are insane or malcontents.
But this is standing truth on its head. Many of the dissenters who have left the Soviet Union, whether by defection or visa, have found contentment in the freedoms of Western democracies. Or, as in the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, they have found an open forum for criticizing contemporary Western culture.
President Mitterrand is to be commended for having carried the torch of human rights into the Kremlin. There can be no compromise with human rights principles , even for the sake of cordiality, as the US and the West seek accommodation with the Soviet Union on arms control and other causes of international tension.