The death on a rain-slicked road near Madrid the other day of Andrei Amalrik, one of the most gifted of Soviet dissident writers, highlights a melancholy fact: the Soviet authorities have succeeded for now in routing, mostly through exile or prison, the country's leading dissenters.

The movement for human rights and democracy, as Amalrik grandly called it (although it is more diverse than that), appeared about 15 years ago, struggled with the Kremlin leadership, even flourished in its way, but eventually was done in by the more powerful force.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Valentin Turchin, Andrei Sinyavasky, Yuri Orov, Alexander Ginzburg, Anatoly Scharansky -- all have been driven from Moscow. Their voices have inevitably been diluted by the fact that they no longer speak, if they speak at all, from the center arena of Soviet life. The KGB's strategy to disperse dissent, and therefore to quell it, has for the moment prevailed.

But -- and this, I suspect, would be Amalrik's belief also -- the Kremlin's success is doubtless temporary. There exists deep in the core of Russian life (not to mention that of the subjugate nationalities) a tradition of opposition that even vast Soviet power cannot eradicate forever.

At the moment, however, the situation is undeniably bleak. As recorded by this newspaper's Moscow correspondent, Kevin Klose, the remnants of the dissident community, courageous and isolated, offer a pathetic contrast to the international statue and influence of a Solzhenitsyn, a Sakharov or even, as his obituries demonstrated, an Amalrik.

The arrests in Moscow these days go barely noted in the West. The names of those sentenced or exiled blur together.

Perhaps that should not be surprising. That a great writer of physicist would capture the attention of the world and drive the Kremlin to distraction is one thing. But how worked up can anyone get over nonentities? Are they really the stuff of meaningful dissent?

The fact is that they can be. The story of Andrei Amalrik shows how; it shows just how insecure the Soviet leadership was and is and why the democratic movement is bound to revive.

At the time he wrote his little book predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Andrei Amalrik was in his 20s, and obscure Moscow university dropout. When the book appeared in the West in 1969, it caused a sensation because in those days the idea of any Soviet dissent -- especially so provocative a notion as Amalrik's -- was still considered remarkable.

Amalrik's outstanding characteristic was gall, the not-so-slightly egomaniacal belief that his criticism of the Soviet system mattered. His audacity dazzled Western correspondents in Moscow when he first emerged in the mid-1960s so they wrote about him as the novelty he was.

By arresting him and sending him into exile (he finally emigrated to the West in 1976), the Kremlin conceded that Amalrik's impact had it worried.This had the effect of emboldening other young intellectuals to come forward. Few of their names became as well known as Amalrik's, but to the Soviet people they eventually formed a dissident network more important in sum than in its individual parts.

It was at least partially to defend these younger people that senior figures like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn became increasingly active. The angrier the Soviet leaders got, the more it seemed they had to contend with.

The dissenters' goal ran the gamut. Some, like the Jews, simply wanted to emigrate. Others stressed Russian nationalism or religion. Still others wished to liberalize the Marxist regime. The substantial success of the jews in getting out reflects the strong support they have had from Jews in the West (as well as Moscow's desire to rid itself of a historically troublesome minority).

The nationalists and liberals have foundered for now because the energy they created dissipated over time under the mounting Soviet police pressure and there hasn't been time yet for new momentum to build, new Amalriks to come forth.

But dissent in the Soviet Union also depends on factors outside the country. It was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, for instance, that sparked a reaction at home. The events unfolding in Poland now are bound to have some resonance among Soviets.

Jimmy Carter certainly meant well in 1977 when he made his commitment to human rights a lever to use on the Soviets. But the approach backfired because the KGB cracked down and all Washington could do was fume. Still, the Kremlin doesn't seem completely insensitve to Western pressure. The Soviets brought the Madrid meeting to review the Helsinki Accords on human rights to the brink of collapse and then backed away.

Like many bullies, the Soviets back down when the resolve they face is firm. Andrei Amalrik made that resolve his life's work.