`AMERICA is a very big village. That is my impression so far.'' Yuri Orlov leans back in his chair and smiles, accentuating the creases on his face. After only four weeks in this country, the freed Soviet dissident is clearly still soaking it all in.
``Of course, New York City is separate. But in your suburbs, you have so many of these private homes, a lot of them two stories. The psychology of the Americans who live in these houses is very village-like, and to me that is nice. They have a certain naivet'e, a good-naturedness. On the streets, even people who don't know each other greet each other - as in my country, in the villages.''
At this point, the American ``village'' he has seen most of is Oakland, N.J., where he and his wife have been staying with their close friends Valentin and Tanya Turchin, themselves former Soviet dissidents.
But Dr. Orlov has barely begun to settle down in his new country. He hasn't begun to study English. He hasn't decided where he will live or work.
Yuri Orlov hasn't had time: He is a man with a mission.
``My first job is to try to get out those I left behind as prisoners,'' he said in an interview in his native Russian. This kind of work is nothing new to Orlov, a distinguished physicist who first raised his voice in dissent in 1956. Twenty years later he helped establish and then led the now-defunct Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, the self-appointed task of which was to monitor human rights in the Soviet Union.
In the West, Orlov understands that news media interest lasts only so long, and he is making the most of his celebrity. Since he stepped off the plane at Kennedy Airport on Oct. 5, he has kept a schedule that would exhaust anyone - let alone someone who has just endured seven years in a labor camp and then 2 years in Siberian exile. Yet this puckish man with a mass of graying reddish curls has shown boundless energy from the word go.
He has held court with President Reagan, with congressmen, with human rights groups, the National Academy of Sciences, the New York Academy of Sciences, Brookhaven Labs on Long Island.
At every meeting and every press conference, Orlov urges increased pressure on the Kremlin to release political prisoners. Lasting peace, he says, depends on human freedom and trust.
Speaking with the Monitor in the New York office of Helsinki Watch, he seemed less interested in talking about himself than about his colleagues still in prison or internal exile, or simply waiting for an exit visa. It is a list of names he has rattled off so many times in the past few weeks: Andrei Sakharov; Dr. Sakharov's wife, Yelena Bonner; Anatoly Marchenko; Naum and Inna Meiman; Anatoly Koryagin.
``Anatoly Koryagin....'' he repeats wistfully, perhaps envisioning his friend's face. ``You know, when I was in the labor camp, he was in the next cell. They would let us out to the work room where we did heavy labor, and when I wasn't able to finish my work, he would help me and secretly finish it for me. That's what kind of person Dr. Koryagin is.''
Orlov's release, with his wife, Irina Valitova, came as part of the arrangement that freed United States journalist Nicholas Daniloff from the Soviet Union and Soviet UN employee Gennady Zakharov from the US. In principle, Orlov feels that an ``exchange of hostages for criminals'' is unjust, but that sometimes human concerns must be weighed against principle.
Orlov is grateful to the Americans for his freedom, but he says his release cannot be viewed as a total victory: ``They let me out of exile, but they also took my citizenship away, which means I can never return.''
Orlov looks forward to resuming his scientific research, specifically in the field of quantum mechanics - a switch from his old field of particle acceleration. Cornell, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are wooing him, and it looks as if Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y., may have the inside track. ``The natural surroundings are better, the water is better,'' Orlov says.
What Orlov misses most are his three sons by a previous marriage.
``They would like to see me, but they don't plan to try to emigrate,'' he says. ``It would be nice if they could come here for a few years, then return. My youngest son is a pianist and he wants to compose jazz. I think he would have a hard time competing here. But if he came here and got experience, then returned, it would help his career. I don't know if he would be allowed to do this.
``Same with my second son, who is a theoretical physicist. It would be very useful for him to come here to work at a university and then go back.
``And my oldest son - he was also a theoretical physicist, but he decided not to stick with it. So now he works as a programmer. But really, he's interested in more humanitarian issues. For him it would be useful to travel, see the world. Maybe here he would find himself. There, it's hard to find yourself.''
Has Yuri Orlov been changed by his ordeal? Remarkably, no, say friends who knew him in Moscow. His face is older, but he is the same self-effacing man who succeeded in uniting dissidents with a broad range of causes - Jewish emigration, nationalist rights, religious rights.
After all he has gone through, the physical and psychological abuse, Orlov has no regrets or bitterness. He says there is nothing he would have done differently.
``Forty years ago it began - my motives, my view of the world. And at its basis was an examination of the world and a desire that it be better, for people. I had no external reason to become a dissident - nobody in my family had ever been arrested; I am not Jewish.
``I simply thought - thought and sympathized with the suffering of people. And then my thoughts turned to how to organize.
``There aren't too many people in the Soviet Union who think as I do. Of course there are some, but because information is only official, the basic masses - the workers - have mush in their heads. The political consciousness that was in Russian workers before the revolution is lost.''
Orlov's wife, an art specialist, has kept a low profile these past weeks. ``She cries for Moscow,'' Orlov says. ``I miss my children, but I simply don't have time to cry. And only for that reason, I don't cry.''
Indeed, time is a precious commodity for Yuri Orlov in the weeks ahead. All this month he will travel around Europe for meetings with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and members of the European Parliament, human rights groups, and scientific organizations. His first stop was Vienna, for the opening yesterday of the third follow-up conference on the 1975 Helsinki Accords on security, economic ties, and human rights in Europe - the very thing that led him to his final collision with the Kremlin.
Over the long term, Orlov will try to strike a balance between his scientific work and what he calls his ``social activities.''
``On those occasions when it's very important, I will try to have some influence,'' he says with typical humility. And with that, the little man with big energy bounds out of his chair, throws on his jacket, and heads out into the cool Manhattan evening.
He has business to attend to.