While the main news of the week has been the pardon of a large number of Soviet dissidents, a strangely discordant side-show has been played out on the streets of central Moscow. Every morning this week a small group of people has gathered in a pedestrian precinct in the Arbat, one of the prettiest and most historic areas of the city, to call for the release of Iosef Begun, a Jewish activist. Mr. Begun was sentenced most recently in 1983 to seven years' imprisonment for producing anti-Soviet literature.
The demonstrations, which drew less than two dozen people, were tolerated for a day. After that the group was broken up or prevented from assembling with steadily increasing degrees of harshness. A force of 40 to 50 security men turned out yesterday to face around a dozen demonstrators. Ten minutes before the demonstration began, Begun's wife and a friend were detained and led down an alleyway to a small unmarked building.
When the demonstration started, small snow plows began to turn tight circles around the group in an effort to break them up. The security men would not identify themselves to the demonstrators, but one person - who seemed to be in charge - described himself as a ``public-spirited citizen.'' They pushed, shoved, and harassed the demonstrators off the precinct.
Seven people were detained. One of them, a middle-aged woman, was dragged away by two plainclothes men.
``What's happening?'' another demonstrator protested to a uniformed policeman. ``Nothing,'' he was told. ``Is this normal?'' the demonstrator asked. ``Probably, yes,'' the policeman replied.
Journalists were shoved around, too. An Agence France-Presse journalist had his notebook ripped away. A German photographer was briefly detained. An ABC television team had its cable cut. The Associated Press correspondent was jostled, and tried to complain to a uniformed policeman who was standing next to him. His complaint was shrugged off.
Some bystanders looked on in silence. Others made anti-Semitic remarks.
The authorities' behavior was mystifying. It came just as United States Ambassador Arthur Hartman, not a strong supporter of Soviet policies, was openly praising the pardons. Without the strong-arm tactics, the demonstration would have received little or no publicity.
Perhaps this is the leadership's way of reassuring the security organs that its powers will not be eroded by the revision of the legal system that is under way.
In the last few days Soviet officials have said the revisions were tending toward a simplification and a softening of the criminal code. Non-dissident Soviet sources report some policemen have expressed misgivings about the projected changes. And Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov noted Tuesday that ``there are some comrades who consider that the harsher [the punishment] the better.''