In January 1945 a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, was kidnapped in Budapest by the Soviet military. At first the Soviet government acknowledged having Wallenberg in its custody, then it denied having anything to do with his disappearance, and then it again changed its story.

Twelve years later Andrei Gromyko, then deputy foreign minister, said that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in 1947 in the KGB's Lubyanka prison. Gromyko did not offer anything to prove his assertion, which was later challenged by numerous though ambiguous reports placing Wallenberg in a mental hospital and in various camps and prisons.

This story has been much on my mind since May 8, when a report from Moscow confirmed our suspicion that Andrei Sakharov had begun the hunger strike we knew he had contlated for some months, one which was to start immediately if his wife were detained in Gorky.

The Soviet authorities seemed to be well prepared for the hunger strike, to judge by some indirect evidence and especially by the complete blackout of news from Gorky that they established at once and have maintained up to this day. All of this as well as Soviet refusal to acknowledge the hunger strike has led me to believe that the Sakharovs are to be buried in Gorky or some other place, alive or dead.

All subsequent developments we considered from the point of view of whether or not they signify a change in the official intention to bury the Sakharovs.

The cheerful official and quasi-official pronouncements on Sakharov that started to appear on May 20 did not cheer me. Soviet claims that Sakharov is alive and well and is "leading a normal life" sounded rather frightening. The statements did not ring true. They sounded as if they had been made under the assumption that Sakharov would never to be able to disprove them.

Meanwhile, reports from Moscow suggested that Sakharov was hospitalized in critical condition on May 25, that he could have been artificially fed as late as early June, that he was administered pyschotropic drugs and regularly visited by a psychotherapist. These reports were attributed to various sources, identified as "dissident," "close to the government," "usually reliable," "psychiatric" -- always unnamed. These reports were, if more believable, as unverifiable as the official claims. The only named source, Irina Kristi, who had brought from Gorky the first news about the hunger strike, was and remains under strict house arrest.

Finally, in mid-August the government released a movie shot mostly by a hidden camera and produced in the mixed fashion of a tourist advertisement ("visit the ancient city of Gorky, a thriving cultural and industrial center") and a video that terrorists used to make to prove they had the victim in their custody.

Apart from the episodes shot apparently long ago (one of the episodes can be dated in spring 1980) and apart from well-known still pictures of 1975 and 1979, the movie shows the Sakharovs sometime between mid-July and August. Yelena Bonner walks the streets of Gorky in the company of a Moscow lawyer, Yelena Reznikova, as a voice behind the screen remarks that the Sakharovs "are glad to welcome visitors, close relatives or simply friends." Sakharov is apparently in a hospital. He sits in a garden dressed in a hospital uniform in the company of an unidentified man. "At present Sakharov is resting," explains the voice. Then he eats soup in a dining room. The nurse brings a July issue of Newsweek and this is the only place we are allowed to hear Sakharov's voice: "He keeps giving me magazines. Is he reading them himself? My favorite, Newsweek." (Just out of curiosity, who is this lucky "he" who enjoys access to Western publications?) At no point are the Sakharovs shown together in these episodes, which confirms an earlier account of a letter from Yelena Bonner reportedly received in Moscow saying that she did not know where her husband is.

The film raises another question, subtle but rather important in its implications: Who sent me birthday greetings in June in a telegram supposedly signed by both Sakharovs?

At best, the movie provided no indications that Soviet authorities have changed their mind and that the Sakharovs will ever be heard from or seen in public. Whatever the authorities could have done to Sakharov to break his hunger strike and however horrible it could have been (drugs, forced feeding, blackmail), the question really is: Have they done something they want never to become known?

Reports of Yelena Bonner's trial and of a sentence of five years of internal exile add other gloomy questions: Will she remain in Gorky or be sent someplace else? Will she ever see her husband? Will Sakharov ever be allowed to leave the hospital?

The unidentified source that sold the movie to the German newspaper Bild is assumed to be Soviet journalist Victor Louis. That source said later in an interview with Bild that Bonner "is as before at (Sakharov's) side in Gorky" and promised to prove this claim. No proof has been provided so far. Again last week Louis told Bild that Sakharov was just released from the hospital. He repeated this claim to The New York Times.

The theory goes that Louis does not lie, since for years he was a source of sensitive information that the Soviet government did not want to release officially and the government would not want to ruin his reputation. There is probably some truth to it, though, for example, Louis' report of 1977 on a Moscow subway bomb allegedly planted by dissidents was never proven.

I do believe that Louis does not lie intentionally and cherishes his reputation. I doubt, however, that the Soviet government, which supplies his information, considers Louis, along with his reputation, as indispensable. Anyway, who is to prove Louis wrong if the Sakharovs disappear forever?

Last week came news of the publication of Sakharov's article in a Soviet physics journal. The article, "Cosmological Transitions With a Change in a Metric Signature," was written in February and published in English in May by the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. It is the third scientific article written by Sakharov in the past four years, since his exile to Gorky.

The Soviet government takes a somewhat perverse pride in Sakharov's scientific achievements and his ability to work under the most adverse conditions. Soviet representatives like to refer to his scientific publications as proof that he is provided with every opportunity to work as a scientist. What bothers me, however, is the report that the galleys of this latest article were returned for publication signed but without any corrections, which is highly unusual for Sakharov's editing habits.

Last week the Soviet deputy foreign minister appeared on NBC's "Today" show and told us that Sakharov is healthy and well in Gorky. It was a part of an unprecedented Soviet public relations campaign, which is expected to continue on the television networks.

The Soviet government is apparently trying to graduate from "evil empire" to a "not so evil empire," or even to "an empire not so evil as you people think." The recent firing of Marshal Ogarkov, Soviet chief of staff, associated with the downing of the Korean airliner, could have been a part of this campaign. I wholeheartedly support these efforts and believe they should be strongly encouraged. People should always try to prove that they are better than they seem to be. It makes them better.

But my hope is that the Soviet government will realize that there will be no successful public relations campaign without real and direct news from the Sakharovs. And this news better be good.