Russian prisoners

-30 IT was a profoundly important day - but passed by unknown to most people of the world. Oct. 30 marked the 10th anniversary of Soviet Political Prisoners Day. People involved in the Soviet human rights struggle took time to honor the 10,000 prisoners of conscience (POCs) now in prisons, camps, and psychiatric hospitals in the USSR.

News recently reached the West that in the last six months three leading imprisoned Ukrainian dissidents have died: poet Yuri Litvin, journalist Valery Marchenko, and teacher Oleksy Tykhy. All three men served long terms of imprisonment for their human rights work. All three had been resentenced in the last few years to 15-year terms. As recidivists, they were consigned to the harshest (ironically known as ''special'') of the four regimens of Soviet labor camps and ended up in Perm Camp 36/1. According to Amnesty International, there are about 30 political prisoners in this camp. The tragic deaths of Marchenko, Tykhy, and Litvin represent a 10 percent mortality rate for the POCs there.

In 1982, a political prisoner in Camp 36/1 smuggled out a report on camp conditions. Prisoners live in dark and fetid cells working to fill unfair quotas. Camp food is rotten and water is brackish. Prisoners are only allowed contact with their cellmates. All inmate writings are confiscated. Daily one-hour exercise sessions are held in small, sunless, concrete spaces. These cruel conditions lend tragic credibility to reports that Yuri Litvin committed suicide in early September in Perm Camp 36/1.

Camp conditions, already bad, have deteriorated since 1980. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviets embarked on a harsh new law-and-order campaign - KGB style. The intensified anti-human rights campaign went hand-in-glove with a new crackdown in Soviet camps and prisons. This repression has several aims: to further isolate camps from the outside world; to demoralize inmates through greater brutality; to discourage others from ''contagion'' by human rights activists; and to augment the authorities' repressive arsenal.

As part of this isolation strategy, the Soviets have restricted correspondence. Prisoners are deprived of their semiannual family visits - often for years in advance. As a result, the fate of some prisoners is unknown.

Brutal torture of prisoners, with the resultant deaths of millions, was the cornerstone of the Stalinist camps. After 1953, Soviet law forbade violence against inmates. Gradually, violence has crept back.

After 1975, a steady increase of violence against prisoners of conscience is discernible. Beatings were first inflicted on POCs held for pretrial ''investigation'': In 1978, a young Adventist, Yakov Dolgoter, and in 1980, a Jewish mathematician, Mark Morozov, were crippled after beatings. 1983 saw a surge in beatings of POCs in camps and prisons: Moscow Helsinki Monitors Yuri Orlv and Anatoly Marchenko; Pentecostal activist Eduard Bulakh; Muslim Nizametdin Akhmetov; and Russian psychiatrist Anatoly Koryagin. Beatings also spread to Moscow: Aleksei Smirnov and Sergei Khodorovich were brutalized in pretrial detention. Imprisoned peace activist Aleksandr Shatravka tells of his attempted suicide in May 1984 due to brutal treatment in his camp in Kazakhstan.

To supplement the authorities' repression, the Supreme Soviet passed a new law, ''Malicious Disobedience of the Administration of Corrective Labor Institutions.'' Issued on Sept. 13, 1983, the law eases procedures for resentencing inmates for up to five years for minor infractions of camps rules. Vladimir Poresh, a Russian Orthodox activist, is the first known POC victim of the new law - his trial was expected in October.

The tragic fate of these political prisoners is only the tip of the iceberg. If one recalls that there are some 2.5 million men and women in Soviet camps and prisons today, the massive scope of the human tragedy emerges. These 2.5 million represent the permanent underclass of Soviet society. On Oct. 30, the bravery and sacrifice of 10,000 Soviet prisoners of conscience is remembered in the West as well as in the USSR.

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