No gulag for the mind

MY favorite news photo of the week was of Yelena Bonner at the window of her Rome apartment not talking to reporters. Miss Bonner, the wife of Nobel Prize-winner Andrei Sakharov, has been allowed to leave the Soviet Union temporarily for medical treatment.

She says she is under orders from the Soviet KGB not to speak to Western reporters. If she breaks the rule, she says, the Soviets have warned that she may not be able to return to the USSR and her husband.

The ruling expresses the heavy-handed inhumanity of which the Soviet system of communism has so frequently shown itself capable.

The Sakharovs have already suffered much, having been stripped of position, denigrated, harassed, exiled within the Soviet Union, and isolated from each other, family, and friends. Admittedly they have committed an unpardonable crime: They have uttered a squeak of protest and dissent against communism's excesses. For this they must now endure the additional threat of permanent separation.

Yet for all the punishment, there was something unbowed and triumphant about Bonner at her Rome apartment window. She put her finger to her lips, indicating she was maintaining her vow of silence. She made a kind of zipping motion across her mouth. Then, with a gentle smile, she spread her hands, as if to say, ``Suffer this idiocy to be so.''

There is something indescribably buoyant about the spirit of liberty that burns in mankind whatever the assaults of tyranny.

The Sakharovs, and the other harassed dissidents in the Soviet Union, have taught the regime its most frustrating lesson: There is no gulag for the mind.

Although Bonner is keeping her bargain with the KGB, family members are fleshing out details of the harassment the Sakharovs have suffered. They are putting the lie to some of those propaganda films the Soviets have issued, designed to show that exile in Gorky is a little like life in a vacation spa.

How could the Soviets be so naive as to think the truth would not eventually come out? How could their propaganda machine, so vaunted at the Geneva summit, not perceive that by gagging Miss Bonner they were giving the story additional focus and drama?

When Secretary Gorbachev returned to Moscow from the summit, he was heard telling colleagues at the airport that he had had no time to see Geneva. He has had a glimpse of London and Paris. But Soviet understanding -- or misunderstanding -- of the West remains a troubling factor as we look for ways to reduce tension between East and West. Mr. Gorbachev may have his Arbatovs and Dobrynins to counsel him about American, and Western, ways. The political secretaries at the Soviet embassy may spea k fluent English and have flared pants and styled haircuts. But there remains in Moscow an apparent failure to understand the issues that move Americans and Westerners. If the West is to trust the Soviets more, the Soviets will have to change the way they treat people.

Gorbachev has brought a breath of fresh air to the leadership of the Soviet Union. He is dynamic. He mixes with the people. He has even let the Soviet people know he has a wife. The question is whether a change in style is to be accompanied by change in the substance of Soviet policies.

So far, Mr. Gorbachev has dismissed Western critics of his country's human rights policy with the argument that (a) no problem exists, or (b) if it does, it's nobody's business but the Soviet Union's.

The attention even a gagged Yelena Bonner is getting proves him wrong on both counts.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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