Sakharov and the Soviet government is nearing a climax. Although there are no reliable reports on Dr. Sakharov's physical condition, it can hardly be anything other than very serious. He is 60 years old and has had a heart condition for years. He has been fasting for 17 days. He cannot take his heart medicine while fasting. The Soviet authorities felt it necessary to force him into a hospital five days ago.

The ostensible reason for the fast--the Kremlin's refusal to allow Liza Alexeyeva to leave the Soviet Union in order to join Dr. Sakharov's stepson, to whom she was married by proxy--is not all that this struggle concerns. We cannot speak for Dr. Sakharov, but every indication is that he feels drien to the point where he has little else left to live for. He has been systematically deprived of contact with family, friends and work. He is cut off from the issues he cares passionately about, concerns that won him the Nobel Peace Prize. When he tries to practice physics, a field in which he is one of the world's towering figures, the KGB tears up his papers. He has been surrounded by walls of silence, and so it appears he has chosen this desperate means to resolve his own fate, one way or the other.

Messages mailed before he was hospitalized last week make it clear that Dr. Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, who is also fasting, had squarely faced the possibility of death. "We will not commit suicide," he wrote. "If we come to a tragic end, it will be murder, at the hands of the KGB." The messages imply that Dr. Sakharov would not passively submit to force-feeding, raising the frightening possibility that he is fighting in the hospital against whatever means are being used to force-feed him.

The other players in this deadly drama seem confused. When Liza Alexeyeva tried to travel to Gorki a few days ago, she was picked up by the KGB, warned against trying to visit the Sakharovs, driven 15 miles outside of Moscow and left there. Yesterday there were signs that authorities had changed their minds, but there was still no permission to go to Gorki. Then she was instructed to go to the office that grants exit visas; when she did so, no one would see her.

It may be that the pressure of world opinion and the urgency of Dr. Sakharov's condition have forced the Kremlin's political authorities to take control of Dr. Sakharov's fate away from the KGB. It can only be hoped that these wiser minds understand that his death would be seen around the world for exactly what it would be--the brutal and stupid slaying of a man worthy of universal respect. At least in spirit, it is no great distance from Washington, Paris, Lagos or anywhere else in the world to that hospital bed in Gorki.