One of the most famous Russian dissident intellectuals-who for reasons of his own wishes to remain anonymous in this story-was distressed one morning recently when a group of security policemen arrived at his apartment and started to search for "anti-Soviet" material.

"The last time we went through this you took away all my best books and never game them back even though there was nothing anti-Soviet about them," the dissidents says he angrily told the agents. "Now go ahead and search but I won't let you take anything away. You'll have to arrest me."

Then he called to this wife to pack him a clean shirt and a toothbursh.

The flustered agents telephoned their superiors. Arrest of the intellectual, everyone knew, would cause an international scandal. Finally a compromise was reached. The search continued with all the books and papers duly listed on the appropriate police forms.But not one was removed, and the dissident considered this a substantial victory.

Bargaining with suspects may seem a strange course of action for Soviet police, but it reflects the baffling unpredictability - some might even say confusion - that marks the Kremlin's approach to its internal critics nowadays.

The goal as always is to suppress any opposition that the leadership considers subversive. But the old stratagem of rounding up dissenters and packing them off to labor camps, mental hospitals and Siberia has been supplemented by a policy in which anything seems to be possible.

The change has come about because of Moscow's interest in detente and the dissidents' success in gaining publicity and support in the West.

The wide range of available options was vividly displayed in a single week in October when a number of Jews who had been denied permission to emigrate decided to stage sit-ins and demonstrations at the reception rooms of the Supreme Soviet and outside and Communist Party Central Committee headquarters. On successive days these tactics were employed:

Coercion: A dozen Jewish protesters were ordered into a bus at the Supreme Soviet at nightfall, driven to a secluded woods about 30 miles from Moscow and, when they refused to disembark were beaten by men wearing the red armbands of auxiliary policemen.

Negotiation: Three of the protesters were invited as spokesmen for their group to meet with Soviet Minister of the Internal Affairs Nlkolai Shcheiokov. To the undoubted surprise of the ministe, the Jews walked out when Shchelokov said he would discuss only emigration and not the beatings a day earlier.

Toleration: Twenty-five Jews wearing large yellow stars of David were permitted to march through the crowded streets of central Moscow at midday and then stand silently at the Central Committee building without harassment.

Seizure: Forty people were arrested at their homes or on the street as they prepared to start the second week of the sit-in. Nineteen were given summary 15-day sentencesfor disorderly conduct. Two were held for further prosecution on more serious charges (and eventually released) while the rest were freed with a warning.

Ironically, one other method the Soviets have increasingly used for dealing with troublemakers - a one-way ticket into exile in the West - is what the Jews were demonstrating to achieve. Such dissident luminaries as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Amalrik and most recently Vladimir Buskovsky have departed, to their relief but against their will, while these Jewish "refusedniks" must struggle on.

Many Soviets and interested foreigners believe that the Kremlin's grand design for removing the irritant of dissent is eventually to send virtually all the most prominent figures abroad, thereby limiting their effectiveness as martyrs. But that has to be accomplished withoug making the passage easy or pleasant enough to attract others. Hence the continued harassment.

The use of conventional punishments have by no means ceased. Within a week of the dramatic exchange Dec. 18 of Bukovsky for Chilean Communist leader Luis Corvalan, one of the dissident's closest friends Vladimir Borisov was interned in a mental hospital. He has now been declared sane which means he could be tried on criminal charges for his political activities. A Leningrad woman, Yulia Voznesenskaya has just been sentenced to five years of Siberian exile on a charge of spreading lies about the Soviet system.

Yet what is more intriguing about the Kremlin's recent moves is how the much other dissenters have been allowed to get away with before any decisive action against them is taken. The best example is the case of Yuri Orlov, a feisty, physicis, who once held a position in the American Academy of Sciences and is now the leader of a group set up in May to monitor Soviet compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki accord.

Two days after the group, composed of nine well-known dissidents, announced its formation, Orlov was picked up by police in southwest Moscow, held for an hour and then released. The Soviet news agency Tass, in an unusual statement, said that Orlov had been told his group was illegal. The warning, said Tass, was meant to "prevent the perpetration by Orlov and persons connected with him of actions punishable by law."

Orlov, however, was unfazed. His committee began diligently to produce statements and reports on what it considered violations of Helsinki guarantees on minority rights, freedom of religious belief and free exchange of information. The group held numerous press conferences and even managed somehow to get a letterhead printed.

The reports, which number about 20 so far including those produced by auxiliary groups in Lithuania and the Ukraine, have been sent to the Moscow embassies of the 34 other countries represented at the Helsinki summit of 1975.

In the seven months of its operation, the committee established itself as perhaps the boldest dissident organization of recent years in the Soviet Union, an alliance in its way of differing factions from "democrats" to Jewish would-ne emigrants. Yet no further effort was made to disrupt the group, particularly notable given Moscow's extreme defensiveness on human rights questions and its avowals of rectitude in all aspects of the Helsinki accord.

Finally, in late December, the police moved. They conducted extensive searches at the homes of Ukrainian members and the apartments of three members in Moscow, including Orlov. The next day he was picked up on the street, held for seven hours and told that a case is in preparation against him on charges of "circulation of deliberate fabrications slandering the Soviet system."

The riddle of why the Soviets don't just pack up all the most outspoken dissidents of one kind or another and send them off to the West, or perhaps a remote corner of Siberia, fascinates among others, the dissidents.

"Nobody, not even [Soviet leader Leonid] Breznhev himself wants to take responsibility for a move like "that," remarked a young Jewish "refusednik."

"Can you imagine the uproar in the West? What about the Kremlin's relations with those liberal Western Communist parties? What about detente?

"Russia," he said with a grin, "is restrained by its own ambitions."

News agencies reported these other developments related to dissident movements in Easterns Europe.

Czechoslovakian authorities arrested playwright Vaclav Havel yesterday. Havel is one of the signatories of the "Charter 77" human rights manifesto that drew fire from the Communist Party newspaper Rude Pravo.

"We cannot permit disruptive elements to slander our socialist society," the paper said yesterday, calling 300 signers of the manifesto "renegades, reactionaries and disruptive elements."

Journalist Jiri Lederer was taken into custody Friday.

In Warsaw, a spokesman for the dissident Workers' Defense Committee said two of its members had been ordered to stand trial on unspecified charges and that authorities had confiscated funds donated to the committee by sympathetic Poles.