A Western diplomat at the Madrid conference on "security and cooperation" noted a Russian delegate's suntan. The Russian said he had just returned from Spain's Atlantic shore. It was, he said excitedly, his first sight of an ocean. The tanned fellow was Igor Andropov, 41, son of the Soviet leader.

That episode, says Max Kampelman, chief U.S. delegate, expresses, metaphorically, the purpose of the process begun at Helsinki in 1975 and continued in Madrid. The purpose is to teach the insular Soviet elite the geography of the Westen mind, "to bring the world to them."

But the effect on them is negligible. The effect on us is debilitating.

After 34 months of meetings, the 36 participating nations are about to accept a 35-page document. It sharpens some definitions of the obligations Moscow will continue to ignore. It also calls for future meetings to clarify commitments (such as peaceful settlement of disputes and reunification of families) that were clear enough at Helsinki.

The Helsinki accord was a dubious achievement. The West acknowledged what the Red Army had settled 30 years earlier: Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. In exchange, Moscow made numerous empty human rights commitments, and promptly smashed those of its citizens rash enough to act as though the Helsinki agreement was more than parchment.

Kampelman argues, convincingly, that the Helsinki process--an ongoing arraignment of Soviet tyranny--has constructively shaped public opinion in Western Europe, and has facilitated public acceptance of new NATO missile deployments. The value of the Helsinki agreements is that they are not honored, and thus produce a court in constant session. But there is a cost to the West that may be more important.

Demoralization is generated by an international agreement that is violated in virtually every particular by one side while the other side merely negotiates follow-on agreements that also will be largely disregarded. Furthermore, as the public becomes used to the sight of Western and communist diplomats deliberating about freedom of expression, travel, trade unions and other matters, the public concludes that the people talking so earnestly, for so long, share a political vocabulary and frame of reference.

Actually, there are few possibilities for real communication, let alone accommodation, between nations with diametrically opposed definitions of all important political concepts, from freedom through justice. So the Helsinki process spreads a fog of false but soothing assumptions. (We now speak routinely about Soviet "trade union leaders" and "journalists," although there are no such Soviet persons, within the Western meaning of the terms.)

Kampelman asks: the process begun at Helsinki will continue, so what is the U.S. alternative to participation--boycott it, leaving our allies to wage political warfare alone? Kampelman is convinced that Soviet officials are deeply distressed by the Western consensus against them on human rights questions since Helsinki. The purpose of the Helsinki process, he says, is to keep Moscow on the defensive and force it to pay a political and moral price. He believes Soviet leaders do not possess the moral indifference of vigorous barbarians. Rather, theirs is an other-directed regime, desiring respectability as well as power.

Perhaps. Certainly for educating the educable there is no better teacher than Kampelman, a tough, intellecual Democrat. But teaching civility to Moscow is like teaching golf to wolves.

Some Eastern European countries are complying reasonably well concerning matters such as family reunification. But the West knew from the start that it would be futile to hope the Soviets would agree at Madrid to stop jamming Western radio broadcasts--which, if words mean anything, they agreed to do at Helsinki.

Fifty-one Russians who believed in the Helsinki agreement and organized to monitor their government's compliance are in jails, labor camps, "psychiatric hospitals" or internal exile. Since the Madrid meeting began, 500 Soviet citizens have been convicted for political or religious "crime," Jewish emigration has virtually stopped and Poland has been suffocated.

Still, one salutary effect of the Helsinki process is on the morale of a few valiant persons--dissidents in the Soviet sphere, including many in prison. Recently, when a dissident released from the Soviet Union was introduced to Kampelman, he kissed him, exclaiming that while in prison he and others had been heartened by Kampelman's relentless indictment of Soviet noncompliance with Helsinki undertakings.

Kampelman has quietly but effectively achieved relief for many suffering Soviet persecution. However, dissidents will be devastated if the Madrid conference ends with no tangible gains for those who risked --and lost--so much because they took Helsinki seriously. Specifically, no document should be signed with Anatoly Scharansky in prison.

Were even a significant fraction of the Helsinki obligations fulfilled by Moscow, the Soviet system would be changed, and so would Soviet international behavior. That will not happen. And the release of a thousand Scharanskys would not change the Soviet system. But it would release heroes and partially redeem the Helsinki charade.