The Soviet Union

The tense showdown over the fate of U.S. hostages in Iran has deeply anguished some Moscow intellectuals as prehaps no other international drama since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Across the Soviet capital -- sodden under seamless leaden skies and freezing rain -- artist, writers, philosophers and scientists are closely following the grim sequence of events in Tehran and Washington through Western radio reports beamed into the country by Voice of America, BBC, and the Voice of (West) Germany.

In their cramped kitchens, with the samorar steaming and ever-present zakuski snacks on the table, some of them talk and argue for hours on end about the dimensions of the distant crisis and its meaning for the world -- and possibly for them.

Those Moscow residents who are so closely attuned to Western ideals perceive the crisis as nothing less than a struggle between the lawfulness of the United States and the illegality of Iran.

Many of these intellectuals -- who form a miniscule percentage of the total Soviet population -- have long since reached a private parting of the ways with the Communist regime which governs and watches them, dating their disaffection to the August 1968 Soviet Army invasion which ousted the reform-minded Czechoslavak government of Alexander Dubcek.

They viewed that drama as Soviet state lawlessness, and place the Iranian actions in the same category.

One senior scientist recalled how, on hearing the news of the invasion of Czechoslovakia 11 years age, he walked out of his laboratory and burst into tears on the sidewalk. As he told the story recently, his eyes filled with tears.

OFFICIAL SOVIET propaganda, which depicts the deposed shah as a mass murderer and the United States as his protector against the just demands of courageous students, is ignored by such intellectuals. They consider it contemptible dissembling that dishonors their country in a moment of surpreme tension.

"The reason we are so involved in this is that it seems to us to be a very fundamental question, a moral issue of world proportions," asserted a literary critic to a U.S. vistor. This person's remarks echo sentiments expressed in recent days by many others in the tight-knit city elite. "This is not simply a question of politics between two countries," he said.

The critic added that the tense drama also has special meaning for the Soviets: "In a country where we know very well the meaning of state lawlessness, it is frightening to see (similar) lawlessness breaking out elsewhere in the world. That makes it possible for more lawlessness to spread."

The fact that it is the United States and its citizens who are hostages in this drama has particular impact among this group of Soviets, who closely identifly their own yearning for creative and intellectual freedom with traditional U.S. values.

"To see a country that wishes to do good in the world be so vulnerable is very frightening to us," said one person in a characteristic comment. "The United States represents a force for good, and it is terrible to see it rendered powerless."

JUST AS IN THE United States, there is a strong impulse here that favors force to strike back at the Iranians. Indeed, some intellectuals believe the Kremlin is closely watching President Carter's government for signs of weakness in handling the situation.

As a mathematician said to an American several days ago, "With restraint, you may succeed in saving these people and end up losing much larger things. Anti-Americanism is a kind of ideology, something dangerous. If others see it is possible to bring the U.S. to its knees in Iran, there will be great temptation to do the same."

His wife added, "The U.S. can't afford to have itself dictated to."

This couple urged swift U.S. retalation, such as expulsion of all Iranian students and cutting all trade and other ties with Iran until the hostages are released. They argued this way; "If Khomeini violated the law, you cannot ovserve the law."

But they conceded as well that such steps might simply trigger new moves by the Iranians that could end in bloodshed.

Said the husband, searching for a solution, "I'm not a military man, but if there is some military action that can be taken . . ."

Then he desitated and threw up his hands in frustration: "such an unbelievable, unfortunate situation."