Anatoly Shcharansky rejects the argument that his release from a Soviet prison is proof of the power of "quiet diplomacy" and behind-the-scenes negotiation with the Soviets over human rights.

In an interview here, among the most wide-ranging he has given since his tumultuous arrival in Israel last February, Shcharansky credited President Reagan with helping win his release by raising the issue at the summit meeting in Geneva last November. But Shcharansky stressed that without the long public struggle led by his wife, Avital, such diplomatic efforts would not have worked.

Shcharanksy re-emerges as a public figure this week on a visit to the United States that includes a meeting with President Reagan. Shcharansky's hard-line views, combined with his personal charm, are likely to make him an important new advocate of tough policies toward Moscow.

Just before his travels, Shcharansky broke a self-imposed silence to talk at his small apartment in Jerusalem. When I arrived, there were papers and books piled everywhere; on a coffee table were African violets and a copy of Joan Peters' controversial book on Middle East history, "From Time Immemorial."

Shcharansky, 37, said he was feeling fine but was having trouble sleeping. When he sleeps, he dreams that he is back in what he refers to as his "punishing cell" -- the solitary confinement imposed during the worst moments of his nine-year confinement. He said, joking, that he didn't want to sleep so much anymore -- because he now enjoyed being awake.

"The KGB do their work well," he said. "One thing they understand is the weakness of people. They were telling me all the time, from the first day of my arrest, 'Believe us. You are not the first. Sooner or later, you will give in. So the earlier you change your position, the better, because one day you'll be destroyed.' There were many whom they managed to destroy." But Shcharansky said "no" to them to the end.

Shcharansky's views will be an important addition to the American debate about the best ways to bring about the release of Soviet Jews. Some argue for a hard-line, public confrontation with current Soviet policy, while others advocate a softer, backstage approach.

Shcharansky joins the hard-liners. He told me that he believes the controversial Jackson-Vanik Amendment of 1974, offering trade concessions in return for release of Soviet Jews, worked. "I think the amendment helped thousands of Jews to emigrate. Without this process of pressing the Soviet Union, there would not have been the explosion of emigration that happened at the beginning of the '70s," he said.

But that emigration of approximately 200,000 Jews, he added, could not have taken place without a struggle inside the Soviet Union by Jews who dared to declare their desire to leave.

Another turning point should have been the Helsinki Accords of 1975, guaranteeing Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe in return for recognizing the human rights of their own citizens, including the right to leave. Approximately 400,000 Jews have sought permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

But the Helsinki agreement turned out to be a meaningless piece of paper. Shcharansky, who became a member of a group that monitored Soviet compliance, recalled, "The moment they signed it, they started to take steps to discourage people from using it . . . They understood that many people would be encouraged to try to use these new opportunities, and they started to suppress them." In the Soviet prison camps, he said, "Helsinki was a big disappointment. The conditions became worse and worse." Reaching agreement wasn't a mistake, he said. The mistake was a failure to be tough in demanding Soviet compliance.

There is a lesson from Helsinki, Shcharansky said, for those interested in arms agreements with the Soviets. He suggests that one way to measure whether the Soviets can be trusted is to examine performance in fulfilling past agreements: "The issue of Jewish emigration arises because once you let thousands of Jews go, you can't change the situation back. In other areas, they can say, 'OK, we'll do that,' and then overnight, they can stop."

Is Gorbachev any improvement? Shcharansky read Gorbachev's speeches while he was in prison camp; he believes that Gorbachev "speaks about the Soviet Union more openly than his predecessors. He understands the drastic condition of the Soviet economy and the need for western technology."

But Gorbachev's answers to his country's problems are, in Shcharansky's opinion, nothing new: "He belongs to the system, and he understands that you can't touch fundamental parts of the system. For example, he wants to improve his economy, but he is not ready to give real freedom of initiative to his people. He says we must have more good public control." Gorbachev is right about the Soviets drinking too much, said Shcharansky, but his ineffective remedy is to control people even more tightly than before.

Shcharansky believes that President Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union has been more successful than that of Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter. The Soviets, he explained, "detect weakness and know how to use it. I saw it on the conquered faces of many people." The same holds true, he believes, in regard to foreign governments: "When there is something they can use, when there is weakness, they will capitalize on it." With Carter, the Soviets saw a gap between his words and his actions. With Nixon, Shcharansky believes, the Soviets used the deception of detente, which he calls a "one-way street."

Shcharansky believes that the Soviets hoped Reagan would be weak. "But these hopes disappeared," he said. "I'm absolutely sure they will try to find weak points in the future with Reagan, too. If they can get him to soften his line on the strategic defense initiative or human rights, they will by saying, 'We let Yelena Bonner leave. We let Shcharansky leave.' They might say, 'You can't demand too much from us.' They will try to pay a little but not fulfill the main demands of the Helsinki Accords to open the gates."

It probably wasn't an easy decision for the Soviets to let him go, Shcharansky said with a smile. But he explained, "I'm sure they have already compensated for it by arresting dozens of others, activists and Jews. There is very bad news about the persecutions of Jews arrested only for teaching Hebrew. It doesn't look like there is any moderation or liberalization."

In the coming years, Shcharansky will write a book and will work to help gain freedom for Jews who remain, involuntarily, in the Soviet Union. "We Jewish activists don't expect justice from the Soviet Union," he said. "What we want is fundamental change in the policy toward Jewish emigration."

Other questions are more personal: How is Shcharansky getting along with his wife? He married her 12 years ago in the Soviet Union; the next day she emigrated to Israel and later proceeded to lead the worldwide campaign for her husband's release. During her long vigil, Avital Shcharansky changed. She became a personality in her own right, familiar with politicians, heads of state and other influential world figures. She turned to religion, becoming an Orthodox Jew.

"I always felt our communication, spiritually," Shcharansky told me. "But I was surprised how we started understanding one another from the very first moment." He said he was pleased at how she had changed: "I was also surprised my wife had learned about politics, about different political figures. When I sent her to Israel, she wasn't at all interested in politics," he recalled. He spoke admiringly of the mammoth campaign for his release that she organized and led.

In solitary confinement, did Shcharansky believe he would ever be free again? "I was optimistic and ready to be out at any time," he said. "On the other hand, I tried never to make concrete plans or to dream because I knew many people who relied too much on their hopes and lost their sense of reality. So, I simply prevented myself from thinking about being free. I knew I faced 13 years of imprisonment and they could easily prolong this. But I felt deep contact with Avital and my people and my country. I was sure that my people and my friends hadn't forgotten me. That was what gave me the strength to say 'no' to the KGB."