Alexei Nikitin said he never thought of himself as a man looking for trouble or as a man with a mission. At first, he said, he only wanted to right a wrong.

But when he took up the cause of fellow workers who had been cheated of wages and who worked without adequate safety precautions in the pit, Nikitin came into a conflict with the authorities in this coal-mining city. He eventually was judged insane and kept in psychiatric hospitals and prisons for seven of the last 10 years. This is his story. Sovient authorities have refused to discuss his case.

Freed in May from a police-run mental hospital, where Nikitin said he was injected with hallucinatory drugs meant to bring on a robot-like submissiveness, Nikitin was examined by Dr. Anatoli Koryagin, a psychiatrist from Kharkov who has aided political activists imprisoned on grounds of alleged mental illness. Koryagin pronounced the mining engineer perfectly sane.

"He is totally healthy," Koryagin said in an interview last week, adding that he had studied Nikitin exhaustively using every available and accepted test of modern psychiatry.

In contrast to the enormous successes achieved by Poland's Lech Walesa in establishing trade unions to defend workers free of party control, the harsh treatment meted out to Nikitin underscores the futility of similar labor activism under Soviet conditions.

Nikitin, 41, is a stocky, balding mining engineer who spent most of his working life at the Butovka-donetsk works, one of 49 coal mines in this eastern Ukrainian city of 1 million residents.

But apparently because of his stubborn pursuit of vindication, he lost his family, as well as his freedom. He has seen that there are many ways to break the human spirit and that after 63 yars in power, the Soviet state knows many of them.

Nikitin's early biography is the stuff of state propagandists -- 10th child of a collective farm peasant, pioneer and League of Young Communists member with good grades. He spent two years in military service, earned a degree in electro-mechanical engineering from Donetsk Polytechnic Institute, married and had one daughter. He also belonged to the Communist Party.

"I was raised in the idea that the party really senses people in the best spirit. I never listened to foreign radio stations; I read Soviet newspapers and assumed they were truthful," he remarked during a series of exhaustive interviews here several weeks ago.

By the mid-1960s, Nikitin was working full time at the Butovka mine. He was a trade union and party activist seemingly headed for some of the privileges and power available to successful bureaucrats. But life was not that simple or satisfying. Party meetings seemed meaningless, for workers' concerns were deflected or rudely shoved aside by the leaders.

"I began to understand that all questions were decided in advance," he said.

As his views matured, he began to stand up for men arbitrarily fired.

"I had nothing against the Soviet Union," he explained. "From childhood, I defended the downtrodden and humiliated, out of my Russian hear. I had always helped people in trouble."

He warned of a possible disaster from lax safety precautions, such as improper use of explosives and inadequate tunnel shoring. Mine leaders rebuffed him, he asserted, talking "only of the need to fulfill the plan. They said, 'Victors aren't judged. Nothing else is important.'"

When he pressed higher, Donetsk Central Committee officials said: "How could you, a simple engineer, predict an explosion? We sent experienced safety engineers to the mine, and we trust them."

The showdown with mine director Viktor Savitch, an in-law of a powerful Donetsk party member, came in June 1969, when Nikitin and 19 other miners complained about unpaid bonuses, a practice that continues here today.

Savitch threw the petitioners out of his office. With 129 others, Nikitin sent a collective letter to Communist Party Central Committee headquarters in Moscow. Moscow bounced the letter back to the Donetsk party, which promptly expelled Nikitin. In February 1970, he was fired. Threatened with similar reprisals, most of the others renounced their signatures.

Repeated attempts to contact Butovka mine officials to get their side of this story have been unsuccessful.

Unable to find permanent work Nikitin did odd jobs and searched for vindication repeatedly in Moscow, being shunted to the Soviet Supreme Court, the national legislature, procurator's office, Central Committee and back again.In turn, each claimed no knowledge of his case.

There were always new forms to be completed, long lines for officials who then proved to be "unavailable." Or they told him to "settle this in the local organization," which had originally fired him.

In the endless lines, Nikitin found himself part of the hidden army of "truth-seekers," a derisive czarist-era term, come to Moscow in fruitless search for justice.

Once, he got to see Poliburo member Arvid Pelshe, now 81, the gaunt Latvian who heads the party's Contro Commission to review such complaints. Pelshe's severe expression and utter silence, Nikitin said, "betrayed a desire to punish." An assistant proclaimed, "Your appeal is not satisfied."

Meanwhile, his marriage rapidly deteriorated under what he belives were pressures from party officials on his wife, herself a party member, and her relatives. After months of domestic tension because of his inability to find a good job and his single-minded pursuit of getting his name cleared, his wife left him, taking their five-year-old daughter. Nikitin has not seen them since and has not tried to contact them, for fear it would only bring trouble to his child.

Clinging to hope of finding a meaningful response somewhere, the stubborn Nikitin next took an extraordinary step for a Russian.He slipped into the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow with written appeals to the United Nations and world labor agencies. The diplomats took his petitions and showed him out.

"I am a Russian, and I was raised in a patriotic family," Nikitin said. "i deeply love my people, our land, our folk songs.But I began to believe that to live in this country is impossible. There is unlimited control by the authorities, without any law. This happened to me because I started to defend workers without official permission."

A short time later, he was seized by Moscow police, sent to City Psychiatric Hospital No. 14 for brief observation "to frighten me," then shipped back to Donetsk.

There, the city party leader, a man named Kubishkin, had jeered: "You defend the people! You're a literate fellow, you've read history. Well, in history, it's written that those who tried to lead the masses [such as Cossack rebel heroes Stenka Razin and Yemelyan Pugachev], they cut their head off!"

One morning in late December 1971, when the Butovka night shift was leaving and the morning crews had not yet descended, Nikitin recalled, a powerful blast shook the mine. Families and friends rushed to the shaft, some of them screaming, "Nikitin warned you!" KGB security agents and police assembled and, without violence, cleared the grounds. Seven miners had died, and more then 100 were injured. There is no known public mention of the mishap in Soviet records. The official media does not make public such matters except when many have died, or when foreigners lose their lives, thus forcing the authorities to acknowledge that an accident has occurred.

An effort last week to verify the story failed when a secretary in the office of the chief safety engineer of the Ukrainian Coal Production Ministry in Donetsk said on the telephone that none of her superiors was available for comment and that all were out of town until further notice. She refused to give the names of the officials and abruptly hung up.

When former Butovka workers began seeking out Nikitin to tell him he had been right after all, he knew his own days of freedom were numbered.On Jan. 13, 1972, police arrested him at a relative's apartment where he was sleeping. He was charged with spreading anti-Soviet propaganda.

He sat undisturbed until June 19, when he was suddenly driven in a padlocked vehicle to a forbidding place he had never known existed: the Dniepropetrovsk Special Psychiatric Hospital, established in 1968 by the Interior Ministry inside the double, barbed-wire-topped walls of the city's prison. It is one of 13 such police-run hospitals for criminally insane known to exist in the Soviet Union.

He learned the charge of antistate activities had disappeared. He was now diagnosed as dangerously insane, even though he had never been seen by a psychiatrist.

As attendants dressed him in black prison trousers and striped prison shirt, he was told, "Dear comrade, you're going to be here for life."

"How do you know this is for life?" Nikitin recalled asking.

"Little friend, they've decided you're a fool and you've got a political offense. So don't worry, you're here for life."

It took the hospital prison two weeks, by Nikitin's recollection, to conform their opinions to this judgment. He said he was subjected to interviews by three white-jacketed men who said they were psychiatrists. One of them customarily took off his doctor's outfit at the end of daily sessions to reveal a KGB colonel's uniform underneath, Nikitin said.

After two weeks of tests, he was diagnosed as "psychopathological -- simple form," he said.

Nikitin said he was confined to a 26-by-20 foot room where 30 men lived, with not enough beds for all. Yellowed from long incarceration, the inmates had contorted limbs and faces, lolling tongues and vacant stares from compulsory drug treatments. The room was alive with groans, cries, sobbing and aimless murmurs, he recalled. "It was horrible to look at them."

He spent four years there. The most dreaded treatment was injection of sulphazin, a form of purefied sulfur that brings on intense fever, excruciating pain, convulsions and disorientation.

In their authoritative 1977 work, "Russia's Political Hospitals," Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway report that sulphazin was used for psychiatric treatment in the West in the 1930s, "but fell into disfavor when it was shown to have no therapeutic effect. Sulphazin has no place in contemporary medicine, and certainly does not feature in Western pharmacopoeias."

They add, "Its application as a punitive measure has been cited by many dissenters."

According to Nikitin, the drug was an effective punishment in the prisons because "if they torture you and break your arms, there is a certain specific pain and you can somehow stand it, but sulphazin is like a drill boring into your body that gets worse and worse until it's more than you can stand -- it's impossible to endure."

He remembers seeing inmates injected with sulphazin "groaning and sighing with pain, in horrible convulsions, cursing with everything in their hearts, cursing the psychiatrists and Soviet power."

Nikitin said that the doctors, nurses and orderlies seldom failed to threaten the use of various drugs against patients who were caught discussing political matters and that he thus came to know the names of each of the substances used.

He said that in addition to sulphazin, used to control and disorient the patients, he was forced to take aminazin (largactil or thorazine in the West) and haloperidol (serenace and haldol in the West).Both are used to treat severe schizophrenia and other mental disorders and they frequently disrupt normal body movements.

He said he believes that up to 85 percent of all the inmates were sane. Most were murderers, he said, "convinced they were imprisoned to be used as guinea pigs in experiments." Some of these men, who frequently admitted their crimes, dreamed of getting their hands on an AK47 assault rifle.

"'Give me that "balalaika," [a musical instrument] and I'll settle with them,' they said."

He also met Ukrainian nationalists, Baptists who had circulated religious tracts and a Soviet marine who said he had shot several pursuing Soviet soldiers while trying to escape to Israel from Egypt when he was stationed there.

Nikitin also found other worker activists like himself there, including Vladimir Klebanov, a former Donetsk miner, who was imprisoned after trying to organize the first independent trade union in modern Soviet times in 1977.

In March 1976, Nikitin was released and he returned to Donetsk. He moved in with a relative and tried to have himself declared an invalid because of his drug treatments. Officials refused to sign any documents admitting he had ever been at Dniepropetrovsk, he said.

Again, he could find no permanent work, and he returned to Moscow and the Norwegian Embassy, where he sought political asylum in February 1977. The embassy refused.

When Nikitin left, he was arrested and within days, sent back to the prison hospital. He spent three more years there and at a Donetsk psychiatric hospital, a Health Ministry facility and was released from there in May.

Last autumn, Nikitin went to Moscow to see friends, and during that time, invited me and a Western colleague to visit him in Donetsk, where he offered to show us his city, tell us of his life in detail and have us meet other mine workers willing to speak candidly of their lives.

We came to Donetsk in early December and found him living with one of his relatives in a small, spotless apartment in a rundown building in a small community of miners here. We spent 3 1/2 days with him and said goodbye on Dec. 8.

Four days later, Nikitin was arrested again. According to reliable sources, authorities arrived in an ambulance at the apartment on Denisenko Street in Donetsk where Nikitin was staying and ordered him taken to Donetsk Psychiatric Hospital No. 2 to undergo a new psychiatric evaluation.

"Something was done to him," the sources said, and instead of vigorously defending himself, Nikitin was said to have fallen into a sudden unconsciousness. He was "swaddled like an infant" by the orderlies and loaded into the ambulance.

These sources are convinced Nikitin was drugged. They said that when the engineer's relatives finally got to see him a few days later at the hospital, they found him in poor condition, unable to eat, dazed and suffering from an extremely high temperature after a series of injections he said he had been forced to take.

Since then, the family has not heard from him or been allowed to see him again and they do not know his whereabouts. Soviet authorities refuse to discuss the case.

Observers here believe that the Kremlin, agitated by the Polish crisis and uncertain of its long-term impact on the cowed Soviet labor force, has no intention to permit open calls for independent trade unions here. Psychiatric imprisonment seems almost tailor-made for the authorities in dealing with dissident workers.

By using this form of repression, they preclude the possibility of dissidents using the courts to question overall economic goals or such practical issues as food shortages, workplace safety and arbitrary firings. It also eliminates the need to call witnesses and thus spread the knowledge about dissatisfaction.