MOST OF THE WESTERN literature about Soviet criminal justice focuses on political prisoners. But the vast majority of unfortunates who populate the Gulag Archipelago are the sort of ordinary run-of-the-mill criminals found in every society: Common thieves, drunken wife-beaters, armed robbers, tax evaders, rapists and murderers.

Valery Chalidze's work describes this phenomenon of ordinary non-political crime in the Soviet Union. Chalize, a recognized expert on human rights who was deprived of his Soviet citizenship because of his public documentation of political abuses, spent his formative years barely avoiding arrest. He recognizes - as many Western critics of the Soviet justice system do not - that it is impossible to understand the Soviet treatment of political crime without knowing something about the Soveit attitude toward crime in general.

Chalidze begins in Czarist Russia with its long tradtion of bribery, thievery, drunkenness, violence and religious bigotry. He points out that the seeds of the revolution were irrigated by common criminals: armed robbers were recruited by Stalin to help fill the Bolshevik coffers; private assassins became political terrorists; drunken mobs were turned against landowners.

With the success of the revolution came a prophecy by Lenin that since crime was caused chielfy by "the exploitation of the masses," it would soon begin to "wither away." But crime has proved virtually intractable over the ages. Its causes are manifold; its manifestations limiitless; its perpetuation inevitable. Ecomonic and political changes surely have an important impact on certain kinds of crime, but deeply rooted human passions - jealousy, vegeance, viloence, greed, sexuality and deviance - are not much affected by changes in government, even fundamental ones. Traditional crime thus continued to plague the new order. Indeed, the new order created - as might be expected - a new type of criminal: the capitalist who "speculated," or who retained personal property. It also produced a different brand of political dissident; the counterrevolutionary who harboured anti-Soviet attitudes, or who advocated implementation in practice of the kind of freedom that Marxx had espoused in theory.

As the revolutionary government enters its seventh decade, its prison camps remain as overpopulated as the Czarist ones had been. Chalidze demonstrates that the one aspect of crime that did "wither away" was crime statistic: the increase in crime was such an embarrassment to the Kremlin that in the late 1920s the "problem" was "solved" by simply eliminating the publication of criminal statistics. one can only guess at the bumber of crimes, the type of prison sentences, and the distribution of prison population over the past half century. But if Chalidze's extrapolations are even close to accurate, then the crime problem in the Soviet Union today is far more serious than the Kermlin would have us believe: more than a million convictions each year; average prison sentences of a little less than four years; and a prison population of about one million, seven hundred thousand inmates.

The weakest part of Chalidze's analysis is his attempt to demonstrate that certain types of crime common in the Soviet Union grow out of the uniquely Russian character. But the data he presents to bolster this hypothist view of crime: that criminals in different cultures tend to be more alike than different. He documents the existance of a Russian underworld whose rules and modus operandi resemble, in remarkable fashion, those of our own underworld. the crimes of passion which Chalidze sees as reflecting the Russian character are entirely familiar to the readers of American tabloids; the reasons for these crimes seem as applicable in New York as in Moscow, in Detroit as in Tashkent.

The single most important difference between cirme in the Soviet Union and crime in the United States is the governmental response to law-breaking. The Soviet approach is to make virtually everyone theoretically subject to conviction for common everyday conduct. Thus, the criminal code includes such crimes as "hooliganism," which is defined to include all "international acts which seriously disturb public order and show a clear disrespect for society." This broad definition has been constured to encompass telephone conversations critical of the government, or defacing a picture of a government officials, as well as running into a person carrying a cake. (The defendant in the cake case happened to be a prominent dissident). Chalidze points out that the breadth of criminal definitions is a deliberate act of Soviet policy: "It has long been Soviet practice to draft laws in such general terms that as many offenders as possible can be pulled in."

Of course, only a miniscule percentage of all "hooligans" and other technical offenders is arrested. It is up to the "discreation" of law enforcemnet authorities to determine who to select for prosecution from among the vast array of potential defendants. Not surprisingly, a significant number of those selected for prosecution and imprisonment are political activists and those who have evidenced an interest in emigrating to other countries.

During the past several years - as the Soviet Union has become more sensitive to outside criticism and has attempted to project its legal system in a favourable light - Soviet authorities have altered their response to dissident activity. They have relied more on prosecution for ordinary crimes and less on crimes of advocacy and speech. It is, after all, far more comfortable for the authorities to charge a dissident with speculation that to charge him with anti-Soviet propaganda. And the deterrent impact of such prosecutions on dissent is equally - if not more - effective.

There is a lesson to be learned by American legislatures and courts from the recent Soviet experience. Overcriminalization is an extremely dangerous weapon whih can be selectively employed against unpopular defendants in this country as well. The retention in our penal codes of "crimes" which are rarely prosecuted - particularly "crimes" invloving consesual conduct - poses a danger of political abuse.

Valery Chalidze has performed a valuable function by exposing us to the abuses of another country and alerting us to the potential for such abuse in our own country.