MOSCOW -- A winter evening just a year ago today: exhausted from another day of political battle in the Congress of People's Deputies, Andrei Sakharov told his family he was going downstairs to his study to take a nap and then write his speech for the next session. "There will be a great struggle tomorrow," he told his wife, Yelena Bonner. A few hours later, she found him collapsed in the hallway. Sakharov was dead.

The next few days were moving. In bitter winds and snow, tens of thousands of people waited outside the Palace of Youth for the chance to pass by the coffin and say goodbye. Time and again someone would stop, tears in his eyes, and say, "Forgive us!" At the Kremlin, a young, disabled legislator named Ilya Zaslavski hobbled to the podium and insisted the Congress declare a day of mourning. When Mikhail Gorbachev told him to sit down, Zaslavski, finding for a moment within him the strength and spirit of Sakharov, said he would not. He had more to say and he would say it.

Then the day of the funeral: Gorbachev and the Politburo pulling up in limousines at the Academy of Sciences and removing their fur hats and fedoras to pay a moment's respect to Sakharov. Bonner looked on with a wary eye. Then the massive, day-long funeral march, the rally in the vast parking lot at Luzhniki stadium, and finally the dark and the smell of pines and snow at Vostryakovskoe cemetery, the army band playing Schumann's "Traumeri," the sod thrown in clumps on the coffin.

Everyone went home that night empty and exhausted, wondering what Sakharov's absence would mean to this struggling country. People thought it was like the terrible uncertainty after Stalin's death in 1953. Then the country had lost its mesmerizing butcher; now it had lost its saint.

Within a few months, Gorbachev came round to one of Sakharov's crucial political demands. The Communist Party ended its guaranteed monopoly on power.

But with time it became clear that Sakharov's death meant something even greater than the loss of a clear-headed and courageous political advocate. A new generation of democrats, many of them in the Russian republican parliament and in the city halls of Moscow and Leningrad, have already taken Sakharov for their inspiration, and they are learning.

But Sakharov's leadership was more complicated than that. He was for more than 20 years this country's moral center. Human rights for him was a matter not of loving humanity -- an easy, grotesque declaration -- but of respecting the individual man and woman, of restoring the civic and social bonds torn apart by a totalitarian system. His sense of ethics and his untheatrical persistence had the ability to change the way people think, to inspire them in the profoundest sense.

Sakharov's life -- its meaning and narrative -- seems like a book from the Biblical prophets: his personal transformation, his exile and return. Working nearly 40 years ago at the nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, the Soviet Los Alamos, Sakharov saw the potential devastation that his team of scientists had brought into the world with their new hydrogen bomb. He also began to understand the nature of the regime that had filled his desk drawer with the highest awards. He turned from the privileged life of pure science to the messy, uncharted course of politics and dissent.

It was left to this gentle physicist to confront a system that had executed millions of its own people and tried to instill a robotic sense of obedience in the rest. Hannah Arendt once described how a totalitarian society, through purges and propaganda, through the deliberate arbitrariness of its rule, divides each person from the other, creates a society of universal suspicion. Loneliness becomes the normal state of being. "In this situation," Arendt wrote, "man loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all. Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time."

There were other dissident heroes of the past 25 years, many of whom suffered even greater privations than Sakharov. But he had a singular gift, a genius for moral strength and accuracy that helped people gain trust in the efficacy of their own thoughts. By example, he waged war against despots through the elemental act of thinking his own thoughts, acting on his conclusions and refusing to retreat. By example, he returned people to themselves and helped them fight the kind of social loneliness that Arendt described.

Losing him was cruel. In this case the cliche' of an "untimely death" rings true. The Soviet Union's perspectives for a renewed economy and state system seem so long-term, so painfully distant at times, that no one is in any mood to dwell on the political victories of the past six years. This is an exhausted country with exhausting trials ahead of it. The air is filled with contradictions and desperation. Gorbachev himself is now subject to calls both for an iron hand and for faster democratic reform. Somehow without Sakharov, life is more confused -- for the Soviet people and especially for their president. The writer is a Moscow correspondent for The Post.