SEEING THE PICTURES of Anatoly Shcharansky stepping briskly across the Glienecke Bridge on Tuesday, I suddenly understood what was so special about him in his heyday, a decade ago, as a dissident in Moscow: Even in the direst of moments, Shcharansky was always, in his heart, a free man.

The last time we spoke by telephone was only a few hours before the KGB seized him in a downtown apartment building on the afternoon of March 15, 1977. Shcharansky joked about the thugs who were following him everywhere, calling them his "cage." Since we knew he was in serious trouble, neither of us was really amused. Shcharansky's quips were his way of whistling in the dark -- his personal emblem of fortitude.

In the nine years Shcharansky was a prisoner of the KGB, I often had visions of him in prolonged solitary confinement, being force fed while on hunger strike and suffering from debilitating weaknesses of the body and mind. Yet one glimpse of Shcharanasky on television was enough to know that this small moon-faced, rosy-cheeked man had survived with his spirit intact.

Among the 250,000 Jews who have emigrated from the Soviet Union since 1967 and the untold numbers who have been deterred or denied, Shcharanky was singled out by the authorities for extra suffering -- the ignominy of a treason charge, the torture of what amounted to an open-ended sentence under extreme conditions. Why? Because with his tough-minded wit and savvy, Shcharansky's defiance of the state threatened a system built on fear. So in 1977, at the highest political levels of the Kremlin, the state resolved to break this young computer programmer.

What we saw last week is that the state is no stronger than the will of a free man.

The dissident story was particularly lively during my time as The Washington Post's Moscow correspondent, from 1974 to 1977. I first met Shcharansky in the spring of 1975 at a typical social event of the period, where journalists mingled with dissenters of various persuasions and a diplomat or two. The occasion was a festive going-away party for Alec Goldfarb, a biochemist who had served with daring and skill as the "press spokesman" for Jewish "refusedniks" and had finally been given permission to leave. He introduced Shcharansky as his successor and I remember congratulating him because it seemed that the Soviets had decided that the best way to deal with young troublemakers like Goldfarb was to get them out of the country.

The complicated political atmosphere in Moscow during that time takes some explanation. As always, the Soviets were railing against dissenters, calling them "outcasts" or "moral perverts," and harassment was commonplace. The great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn had been hustled into western exile; less well-known writers, scientists and artists were subjected to punishments varying from loss of privileges to prison terms.

Aside from intellectuals and Jews the "dissident" movement included underground Pentecostalists, minority nationalists such as the Crimean tartars and even Marxist reformers like the historian Roy Medvedev. The cramped apartment of the saintly physicist Andrei Sakharov, who later that year was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, served as a combination of shrine and clearing house, where reports on treatment of these disparate groups and individuals were assembled.

Thinking back now, what was remarkable about the period was the energy, boldness and, relatively speaking, the optimism of the dissenters, whatever their particular conviction. They felt that the pressures they were exerting had some impact because governments in the West paid them heed and the Soviets would not or could not eliminate them.

The signing of the Helskini Accords on European Security and Cooperation in August 1975 was a high point, holding out the prospects that the Soviets would be held accountable to the human-rights standards the agreement set on issues such as family reunification and the flow of information and ideas across frontiers.

The role of western correspondents was essential. Our stories conveyed to the outside world details of what was happening to the dissenters and these reports were beamed back to the Soviet Union by the Voice of America, the BBC, the West German Deutsche Welle and Radio Liberty. In the detente era of Soviet-American relations, the Soviets substantially reduced radio jamming and millions of people across the U.S.S.R. openly listened to foreign radio stations.

Soon after Shcharansky ascended to press spokesman for the refusedniks, his name began to appear in western dispatches and on radio broadcasts and he was, before long, something of a local celebrity. His fluent English, his engaging manner and his zest for the tasks at hand made Shcharansky a masterful public relations man. Although his commitment to Jewish emigration was his first priority, he became active in liaison with other causes and often translated for Sakharov.

In the two years in which he was active, Shcharansky cut a very wide swath. He fielded visiting U.S. dignitaries with aplomb (seeing "a roomful of Jews," as one presidential hopeful once put it unsolicitously, was an obligatory pilgrimage for American politicians), and fended off the KGB, which periodically bore down on him and held him for brief spells in custody.

While it was easy to admire Soviet dissidents as a whole for their courage and conviction, they were not all likable. In fact, some expected western journalists to behave like their servants, mindlessly disseminating whatever they told us. One leading dissenter -- now dead -- attacked me in his autobiography because he said I was afraid to invite him to dinner. The truth is that I thought he treated his wife badly and was a self-centered boor.

But I liked Shcharansky the moment I met him and cannot remember a single occasion -- no matter how intense or difficult -- when he was unreasonable or demanding. Whereas many Russians reflected the autocratic stubborness that is far from their best national characteristic, Shcharansky instinctively understood the natural rapport between reporter and source. I think he was born with Western sensibilities, which was clearly bound to make his life in the Soviet Union harder but made him a pleasure for folks like us.

Shcharansky's diminutive size and his premature baldness made him look, at first sight, less than imposing. But as soon as he began to speak, the crinkle around his eyes and the shrewdness of his comments gave him a compelling presence. His leisure tastes were simple: a good game of chess, animated conversation, a table full of good Russian cooking.

Shcharansky read American newspapers and magazines avidly and showed a sympathetic understanding about Western political and social problems that few other Russians had. Despite his determination to emigrate to Israel, I do not remember him being devoutly religious. The only time I ever went to a service at the Moscow synagogue, Shcharansky was my guide. I recall that he seemed almost as much a tourist as I was.

What made my relationship with Anatoly Shcharansky more than a good professional friendship, at least as far as I am concerned, is that we both came into contact with a man named Sanya Lipavsky. Lipavsky was a hearty, ingratiating fellow, a doctor who presented himself as an unsuccessful Jewish emigrant; over time, he became close to Shcharansky. Once my wife Susan and I went with the two of them to dinner with a worker couple, who showed us with great pride their new apartment. It was a jolly evening and I was shocked to learn several weeks later that the KGB had descended, ransacked the premises and accused the couple of abetting dissenters.

Finally, in early 1977, Shcharansky and Lipavsky started to share a room and one February evening they came to our house for supper. Lipavsky was pale and seemed distracted. Shcharansky was also a little depressed. The Soviets had sharply stepped up their anti-dissident rhetoric and the pace of arrests was increasing. At one point, Shcharansky gently picked up my 6-week-old son and said to Susan, "I wonder whether Avital and I will ever have a chance for children." That was the last time we saw Shcharansky or Lipavsky.

A few days later a major article appeared on the back page of the government newspaper Izvestia signed by Lipavsky who revealed that he had been an informant for the KGB and accused Shcharansky of spying. In the course of his diatribe he also said that I, and several other journalists and American diplomats, had abetted the espionage. It was an uncomfortable moment. I thought it was possible that in the ensuing 48 hours we might be arrested ourselves or at least expelled. But nothing happened to us, and, despite another attack by Lipavsky, I went on to finish my tour in Moscow that June.

Shcharansky, of course, was not so fortunate. Based on Lipavsky's testimony and the fact that Shcharansky freely helped correspondents with material about Soviet science, among other things, the KGB presented an espionage case asserting that he had betrayed state secrets. Shcharansky went off to prison after a memorable feisty statement in court calling the spying allegations against him "absurd" -- which was certainly true.

In the years since Shcharansky was imprisoned, the Soviets have eviscerated the dissident movement. Jewish emigrations has slowed to a trickle. Sakharov and his gallant wife, Elena Bonner, (now in the U.S. for medical treatment) have been sent into internal exile in Gorky where their lives are even more miserable than reports have indicated. And most of the others whose names became familiar are now either in the West or silenced at home. It is hard to portray the situation of dissidents in the Soviet Union in positive terms when so many of the past luminaries are martyred and unreplaced.

Yet the survival of Shcharansky is a personal triumph that has to be inspiring to those in the Soviet Union who are yearning for heroes.

Russia is a land which produces personalities on a grand scale. For their accomplishments, as well as their characters, Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn are formidable figures. Anatoly Shcharansky is something else. Now in Israel, he can, at last, make a life as a husband, perhaps a father, and pursue whatever career strikes his fancy. But for what he has achieved so far, he is as extraordinary as a human being can be, and it is his indestructible humanity that makes him so.