WHEN Anatoly Shcharansky appeared on our television screens marching toward Ambassador Richard Burt, I was struck by how small he was. I hadn't happened to meet him personally in Moscow, although among his close associates, the Jewish refuseniks, were some of my acquaintances like Aleksandr Voronel and Felix Kandel.

That was really a breathtaking scene: with each step of his brisk pace, a short man in an oversized coat distanced himself from his jailors. After nine years in detention, he hardly knew that the "oversized look" was in fashion today. The KGB designers didn't know it either, otherwise they would have purveyed something tight for a swap ceremony on a German bridge.

Reading Martin Gilbert's Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time, an overwhelming account of a fight for human dignity, one cannot but think about the enormous disproportion in the spiritual capacity between Shcharansky and his persecutors: How great was this little man and how petty was the gigantic Soviet so-called "law-enforcing" (or better say "ideology-enforcing") apparatus.

There is an apt Russian expression melky bes (a petty devil) and a related concept of melkobesie (petty devilship). One who is melky bes refuses to take into account any inspirations, any motions of the human soul, any ideals, in other words, any elevated feelings. He takes pains to explain anything alien to "petty devilship" by the base feelings of greed, vanity, cheap hedonism, etc. Naturally such qualities were ascribed to Shcharansky: he was keen to accept money and valuable gifts from his masters, the CIA and "Zionist circles"; he was seeking scandalous fame in the West; he betrayed not only his motherland the U.S.S.R., but his women as well. I remember the Soviet TV Studio 9 talk-show. The guests, top Soviet experts on international affairs, suddenly started talking about the relationship between Avital and Anatoly Shcharansky. Having abandoned their high-brow masks, they burst into giggles in true petty-devlish style: "She is not his legitimate wife!"

AND WHAT particular charges were imposed on this brave man during that infamous monkey trial? Among the statements, quotes and other materials from the trial -- scrupulously collected by Martin Gilbert -- the reader can find some real gems:

"The Prosecutor then asked Shcharansky why, when he sent a telegram of congratulations to the president of the United States on the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, referring to the great achievements of democracy in the United States, he did not refer at the same time to pornography, the millions of unemployed, prostitution, and so forth.

Yet "at the very moment when Shcharansky sent his congratulations to President Ford, the chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, Nikolai Podgorny, had also sent a congratulatory telegram to President Ford. It too made no mention of unemployment, prostitution, or any other negative aspects of American life . . ."

The Canadian lawyer Irwin Cotler, who later represented Avital Shcharansky, commented: "The conclusion is inescapable. If the Soviet Union wishes to use a congratulatory letter as evidence to support a charge of anti-Soviet slander against Shcharansky, . . . they must use the Podgorny letter as evidence to support a charge of anti-Soviet slander against Podgorny."

Or again: "If Shcharansky really and honestly cared about human rights, the Prosecutor told the court, then he would direct his protest against the United States and Israel . . . Our prisoners have rights enjoyed by the prisoners of no other country. And it was the Soviet Union which has called on the whole world to respect human rights."

Slanderous propaganda, treason, espionage . . . this last charge, even though it seems to require more detailed "circumstantial evidence" than the former, was the most vague. How could a man endlessly tailed by the secret police for years be involved in that sort of activity? Soviet justice doesn't like such simple questions.

And what about the inspirations, the motions of the human soul, the ideals? Anatoly Shcharansky belongs to the younger generation of Soviet dissidents, to the generation which had been thoroughly prepared to become "the New Soviet Men." The creation of the "New Man" was the ultimate objective of the ruling ideology from the outset. Powerful measures had been taken in this direction -- decades of terror and brain-washing. But Shcharanksy's example suggested that these historic goals had been adopted in vain -- and that is why the authorities have gone out of their way to uproot "sedition."

Martin Gilbert provides an illustrative example of this crucial clash between two Soviet generations. One day Shcharansky's fellow activist Vladimir Slepak telephoned his father, seeking a reconciliation. "Who's speaking?" asked the old Bolshevik. "Your son." "I have no son!" "Then who am I?" "You are an enemy of the people!" Shcharansky's generation, instead of being absorbed by this spirit of conforming "petty devilship," took a major step toward true human values.

"Asked by . . . journalists why they were willing to endanger their lives, Shcharansky and Slepak replied that they wanted to be 'free men, free to practice their Judaism, to educate their children and to escape from anti-Semitism.' " This overwhelming desire to be "free men" and the search for national identity created for the Jewish activists a strong affinity with other movements for spiritual resurrection in the U.S.S.R. -- human rights fighters, Christian religious philosophers, Pentecostalists, Estonian nationalists, etc. In view of this affinity it was appropriate for Shcharansky to join Professor Orlov's Helsinki Watch Committee and to back its efforts to help those deprived of their basic rights -- the tiny nation of Meskhetians, the Crimean Tatars . . . and a most demoralized part of the Soviet population, the Russians.

Despite its strictly factual character (one cannot help admiring Martin Gilbert's scrutinizing style) Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time has a lot in commmon with Kafka's The Trial. Both books depict nauseous agoraphobic spirals and claustrophobic dead ends. However, one can see in Gilbert's book a shy glance, a possible way out of despair: Kafka's "K" was totally lost, Shcharansky knows his cause perfectly well. Here is a statement he made in court:

"Our reborn State of Israel in which we take such pride will continue to flourish and be an example for the other nations of this earth. I am proud to be a part of this movement of renaissance."

This is what made him stand out from millions of others: he was a Renaissance Man in the twilight zone of the decaying Revolution.