THIRTY-SIX YEARS ago, in 1944, the massed Soviet armies cross the Curzon Line into Poland, and began their relentless occupation of eastern Europe.

Twelve years later, in 1956, the Poles and then the Hungarians rebel, and 16 Soviet divisions and 2,000 Soviet tanks crush the Hungarians.

Twelve years more, in 1968, the Czechoslovaks rebel, and some 200,000 Soviet and satellite troops, later increased to 650,000, occupy the country.

Twelve years again, in 1980, now the Poles yet again, and the world waits with its heart in its mouth, knowing the Soviet armies are ready.

Twelve years from now, in 1992 -- will it ever stop?

The most striking fact about these eruptions is that, even as time passes in those inexorable 12-year strides, these peoples under the heel of a tyranny are not dulled, a flame still burns bright and inextinguishable in them.

After 1945, there was a group of writers and others in Britain, men like Malcolm Muggeridge, who worked hard to keep contacts with Poland alive, and among other things they smuggled in George Orwell's book, "Animal Farm." The poles mimemographed it and the dogeared pages were passed from hand to hand. One could almost hear the Polish laughter gusting across Europe.

But "Animal Farm" ends with the rest of the farm animals so completely under the dominion of the pigs that one cannot believe that their spirits will not be broken forever. In the last sentence, all that the other creatures can do is look, "from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which"; what hope is left?

But Poland is a nation where in 36 years a generation has died, another grown old, another taken its place, another already grown and still the machinery of modern despotism cannot get into their minds.

When one of the future liberators of Italy, Mazzini, was arrested by the Austrian authorities as a young man, the governor of Genoa asked his father, Prof. Mazzini: "What the devil is your son thinking of? . . . The government does not like young men about whose thoughts it knows nothing." It is all in those words, all that despotisms fear. Even with the devilish engines of modern despotisms, that is still where they are unable to reach.

Orwell in "1984" ended in despair. What hope could there be against the new engines of thought control? But the despair was too facile. The book ought not to be celebrated as much as it is. Orwell was in the end ungenerous in his estimate of the human mind, of its tenacity in the face of the most fearful odds, of its capacity to keep its thoughts private until their time comes again.

But those minds need food from us. As the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Service have sprung to their duty in the past week, one is again appalled at the thoughtlessness with which the budget for the Voice of America is attacked and cut. Why does the Soviet government try so furiously to jam the broadcasts, but that, like the governor of Genoa, it fears the thoughts in people's minds?

If there is one thing that worries me about the Americans' exercise of their leadership in the world -- which on the whole has been very successful and worthy of it -- it is that it constantly overestimates the power of communism and underestimates the might of Russia.

Like other despotisms of our century -- fascism and Nazism -- communism is even more fearful than the absolutisms of the past. To make the contrast, we may return to Mazzini. After his arrest as a member of the Carbonieri, he was tried by the senate in Turin, a satellite instrument of Austrian dominion. In their eyes he was undoubtedly guilty, and they would have liked to sentence him. But the law required two witnesses, and the prosecutor was able to bring only one. The senate did not try to circumvent the law, and the young Mazzini was freed at once.

Count Sforza used to tell this story in protest against his fellow Italians who poked frivolous fun at Mussolini's rule. Austrian rule was certainly intolerably cruel, he said, but it was cruel in accordance with the law, which it never violated. We may say of communism now that it violates the law; that is why our despotisms are worse.

Yet even communism does not reach where those private thoughts are. No conservative has yet answered my challenge to show me one democracy which has been subverted from within by the left. Where communism now prevails outside the Soviet Union, it is by might which has been imposed from without, it is the progeny of Russia's or its satellites, guns and tanks.

America is again and again distracted, in its duel with Russia, by too simply translating it into a crusade against communism. Joe McCarthy in his hunt for communists in the State Department destroyed the very desks which knew best how to resist Russia. John Foster Dulles was strong as an anticommunist, he was flabby as an anti-Russian. And Reagan now . . . ?

It may seem to Americans to be world-weary -- and what are Europeans, compared with Americans, but so world-weary? -- to recall the history of Poland and of its survival. And then to say: The centuries may pass, but Poland will survive. It is one of the most extraordinary histories of any people. Nationhood, Triumph. Subjection. The cycle never ends. The Poles never give up. It is simply unfortunate for them that they lie between West and East in the path of the conquerors from both.

But when has the world ever, for long, not heard from the Poles? There is something for America to learn here. The power of false ideas is small, compared with the awful power of armies. I am not a Catholic, but look how the Catholic Church stays through the decades of subjection, its voice still heard. A Polish pope, at this hour? One almost says, "God almighty!"

Americans sometimes seem to know far too little of the histories of the new smaller nations of Europe, even though so many of their peoples came here and their descendants are stretched across their country.

Spain has always been at the doorstep of the United States, to the south, it has even always been within the United States, never more than now. Once powerful, proud, energetic Spain. Spain with its language which, alone of the other languages of Europe, challenges the sway of English in the world. And there is Spain now, beginning another of its colonizations, within the body of the United States. And there is Spain now at home, bringing back a monarchy, in this our century, to begin to recover its freedoms.

But always -- this week, -- is Poland. This outpost of the West in the East, this outpost of the East in the West. Belgium used to be called the cockpit of Europe. But it was only the cockpit of the West. The cockpits of Europe have always been where East and West meet: in the north in Poland, to the south in the Balkans. And the Iron Curtain may descend yet again, but when will Poland be silent for long?

It is curious that Americans, whose revolution was the embodiment of nationalism, have so little understanding of or trust in the nationalist spirit. It is Russian nationalism, not Russian communism, that tramples on other nations. It is Polish nationalism, not Polish democracy, that rises again in protest. Perhaps the melting pot has worked too well in America, perhaps it thinks that nationalism has melted elsewhere as well.

Ideas are indeed the flame, and nationalism is itself an idea. But it is nations, not ideas, that have armies. Stalin was ultimately but not altogether wrong when he asked how many divisions the pope had. The democratic idea of America is far superior to and more attractive than the communist idea of Russia now. But it is Russia, not communism, that has the armies. It is America, not democracy, that is too weak. It is a nation, not a democracy, that holds the flame.