THEY ASK, "If the Soviet Union opens up its borders how many million would leave?" Who knows? Maybe no one would leave. If the borders were opened, if would be a different system than the Soviet one, which simply could not exist with open doors.

Soviet borders consist of hundreds of thousands of miles of barbed wire, along with mines, signal lights, floodlights, guard towers, helicopters and tanks. Every teenager in cities and villages on the border is a member of the group called Friends of the Border Guards. Any stranger detected in the fields, in the woods or in the mountains is to be reported immediately. All that barbed wire, those millions of guards and armies of helpers exist not to fend off the invasion of some aggressors from afghanistan, but to keep the builders of communism inside.

We all remember the days when foreigners in Moscow were shunned like plague carriers, when people turned dead white asked, "Do you have any relatives abroad?" And then, all of a sudden, there were crowds in front of the Visa Department offices, demonstrations, songs, celebrations, the joy of those leaving forever. In 10 years, more than 300,000 people left the U.S.S.R.

The Soviet system has one essential feature: Its normal position is closed, both inside and out. The fact that the valve turned in the opposite direction is not a sign of some spontaneous "liberalization" so often heralded by the Western press. Steady liberalization is impossible under the reign of true socialism, no matter what the intentions of the leaders might be. Relaxation -- not liberalization -- is possible only for a short while and even then only as: (1) a political maneuver, as with the example of the New Economic Policy of the 1920s, which served to calm down the peasant rebellions and to gain time until the powerful machinery of the GPU [the predecessor of the current KGB] was built (2) a result of a squabble at the top, like the one that ensued after Stalin's death; (3) a tactical compromise caused by outside pressure. It is precisely because of this outside pressure that Moscow's iron-fisted grip on its subjects loosened up a bit in the early 1970s.

In December 1970, the problem of exactly how closed the Soviet system was grabbed the headlines of the Western press. The so-called Leningrad Trial was in session. The defendants were 11 people who attempted to escape from the country of true socialism. It was soon established that most of the defendants had tried for years to leave the country legally, that they were pushed by cynical refusals to the extremes of determination, that their escape escape attempt, first planned only as an escape, had grown into a political statement. Although they saw that they were being shadowed much more closely than before, the defendants would not give up their plan, hoping that their arrest would compromise Soviet emigration policy in the eyes of the West.

Our calculations were simple: We understood the nature of the Soviet regime. The economy was in a shambles and the only escape was to either introduce economic reforms or to manipulate Western "donors." The latter was preferable, since it did not effect the political system in any major way -- maybe requiring only a few concessions here and there. We counted on this "maybe," believing that the need for Western currency, technology, grain, etc. was so great that if due pressure was applied, they would give in on the question of emigration. But the question had to be brought to public attention. Knowing of the inevitability of the arrest, we wanted it to be as scandalous as possible, so that they could not rid themselves of us quietly.

"When I found out that they had sentenced both of you to death and the rest were given 10 to 15 years, I -- excuse me -- rejoiced; I thought, 'They will break their neck over this.' If they had tried you fairly, everything would have passed unnoticed. But such sentences will disturb people," wrote prominent dissident Vladimir Bukovsky in 1980. "If we had known it would turn out this way, it would have been better to let escape," a KGB colonel named Syschilkov told me in 1973.

As we found out later, it was Vasiliy S. Tolstikov, the first secretary of the Regional Committee of the Leningrad Communist Party, who insisted on capital punishment and arrests throughout the country in order to suppress any hopes for emigration once and for all. But this didn't work; they had to commute the death sentences and stop the mass arrests. Tolstikov was first sent to China and then sent as ambassador to Holland, where he continues to this day.

The international scandal caused by the particular severity of the sentences forced Moscow to step -- "detente" maneuvers were in danger. They had to open the borders.

Almost all of the defendants in the Leningrad Trial are free today: some served their entire terms and some were exchanged for Soviet spies and a gigantic computer. But there are still three prisoners left, whom everyone seems to have forgotten: Ukrainian Alexei Murzhenko, Russian Orthodox believer Yuri Federov and Isoef Mendelevich, an Orthodox Jew.

Not so long ago, I came out myself -- only a year and a half ago. But it is already hard to imagine how it is possible to live there -- how such brutality, such an absurd way of life, can exist. How could anyone think of putting people behind bars only for their desire to emigrate? Freedom of movement, the right to emigrate, is one of the most basic human rights and freedoms.

Citizens of the democratic countries are not familiar with such problems.

Only a principled position on the part of Western governments can force the U.S.S.R. to at least partially open up its borders. Without this, there can be no international security. In the meantime, Moscow keeps bringing us new surprises. The number of martyrs there does not decrease. Among them are the three I've mentioned. They need our help now.