The possibility that Soviet dissidents may play a role in the resolution of the Daniloff affair puts the spotlight on the fate of the dissident movement. One rumor is that a deal would involve American journalist Nicholas Daniloff being released from the country, probably without a trial, and the subsequent exchange of Gennady Zakharov, the Soviet UN official being held in New York on espionage charges, for one or more Soviet dissidents.
The names most frequently mentioned are: Yuri Orlov, a prominent physicist and human rights activist who was arrested in 1977; the Jewish activist Vladimir Slepak, sentenced to five years' exile in 1978, and who with his wife Maria has been trying to emigrate since 1970; Ida Nudel, a Jewish activist exiled to Siberia in 1978, who is now living in the far southern republic of Moldavia; and David Goldfarb, a would-be Jewish emigrant who reportedly refused to cooperate with the KGB, the Soviet secret police, in an effort to frame Mr. Daniloff two years ago.
Since the arrest of activists like Mr. Orlov, Mr. Slepak, and Ms. Nudel, and the silencing of others, the dissident movement has virtually ceased to exist.
The best-known surviving dissident group is the Group to Create Trust Between the USSR and the United States, a pacifist organization founded in 1981. It claims about 40 members. Earlier this year, several leaders were forced to emigrate. At least four others have reportedly been confined to mental hospitals.
Most Russian-language samizdat (``self-published'') materials have apparently ceased. The best-known samizdat, the Chronicle of Current Events, stopped publication several years ago. Some minority-language samizdat continues, however, and individual letters, appeals to the government, or protests are periodically circulated.
Essentially, however, the Soviet dissident movement in the 1980s has suffered continued repression and decline.
At the height of its activities in the 1970s, the movement spanned the political, religious, and ethnic spectrum. There were independent Marxists like the brothers Roy and Zhores Medvedev, Eurocommunists grouped around the underground journal Poiski (Searches), human rights activists, Jews demanding the right to emigrate, Christian activists, and a group for the defense of invalids' rights. There were ethnic minorities, and even profound conservatives like the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose beliefs are almost literally reactionary.
Some were trying to change Soviet society. Others, like the Jewish would-be emigrants -- refusedniks, as those who were denied permission to leave became known -- were trying to leave it. But the two currents often merged.
Refusedniks like Anatoly Shcharansky and Slepak became active in human rights. Non-Jewish dissidents joined refusedniks in their demonstrations.
The fate of the movement is perhaps epitomized by the story of one small group -- the Moscow Group for Assistance in the Implementation of the Helsinki Agreement. Founded in May 1976, the group planned to monitor the Soviet government's compliance with the the 1975 Helsinki accords. It numbered about 100 activists nationwide, including Orlov, Yelena Bonner (the wife of dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov), and Mr. Shcharansky.
In February 1977 Orlov was arrested. Sentenced to seven years' imprisonment and five years' exile, he is due for release in December 1988. A month later, Shcharansky was picked up. He received three years in prison and seven in a labor camp. Released in a prisoner exchange in February, he now lives in Israel.
In January 1980, Dr. Sakharov, the doyen of the dissident movement, was exiled to Gorky, a city closed to foreigners.
In September 1982, the group ceased activity.
``All members of the Helsinki group in Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine have been arrested and imprisoned,'' its final document said. ``Three members remain in the Moscow Helsinki group, in conditions which make further work impossible.''
By August 1985, according to a report by the US Helsinki Watch Committee, 51 of the 100-odd group members were either in prison, labor camp, exile, or psychiatric hospitals.
Five are dead, 17 have emigrated.
The destruction of the movement was largely the work of Yuri Andropov, the late mentor of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Andropov was chairman of the KGB from 1967 until he became party leader in 1984. During this period, about a quarter of a million Jews were allowed to emigrate.
This drastically reduced the dissident constituency. Then in 1979 -- the high point of Jewish emigration -- came the final crackdown on dissidents.
There may be another reason for the decline in dissidence: the upsurge of debate and questioning that the leadership of Mr. Gorbachev has encouraged within the mainstream of society -- among those who accept the general framework of the system but want to make it more work more efficiently.
But this does not mean that the new leadership is any more favorably inclined to dissidents than its predecessors. The tone of official comments on dissidents and human rights activists has certainly not changed.
``Propaganda about the abuse of human rights,'' an article in the official daily Sovietskaya Rossiya recently stated, is one of the ``fabrications most often used by Western ideological saboteurs.''