YURI ORLAV, a 53-year-old Soviet physicist, has just been sentenced to a maximum 12-year term in Moscow for attempting to monitor Soviet compliance with an international agreement, the Helsinki Accords, that the Soviet government signed three years ago. In the eyes of the Soviet state, he "slandered" the state by calling the Kremlin publicity to account for violations of the human-rights provisions of accords. Mr. Orlov had been incommunicado for the 15 months before his trial. The proceeding itself elcited from the government claque packing the courtroom cries of "spy" and "traitor" and, upon sentencing, "he deserves more." It was, in sum, a revolting and all-too-characteristic performance by the Soviet government and one that decent people everywhere, first of all in the Soviet Union, will condemn. The Kremlin's war against the finest instincts of the Soviet people seems to have no end.

Mr. Orlov is the first of three Soviet dissidents whose scheduled show trials have become central to the atmosphere of current Soviet-American relations. The three cases coincide with, and have seemed to be something of a response to, the hard initial human-rights thrust of administration policy toward Moscow. That thrust has since been moderated, partly out of a growing recognition in Washington that the Kremlin would not shrink from making the intended beneficiaries of American concern pay-Awareness has also spread that conspicuous Soviet repression feeds back into the American political context, diminishing support for such other administration interests as arms control. Meanwhile, the thug element in the Kremlin is having a field day.

For Yuri Orlov, there must be respect and compassion. But there must also be acceptance of a requirement to match the promotion of human rights abroad with the particular foreign context in which they are necessarily worked out. This demands a measure of self-discipline at odds with the outrage Americans feel for foreign abuses, particularly for Soviet abuses. The United States cannot be in the business of helping create martyrs.It can only do what it can to widen the scope for individual liberty. It ought to strive, in so doing, to keep open prospects for progress on other fronts.