THE GREAT CRUELTIES of contemporary international life, like the terror practiced by the Soviet army against the people of Afghanistan and the assaults on the Lebanese population by its numerous tormentors, are scarcely overpublicized. Yet they often tend to crowd out consciousness of the small cruelties that are characteristic in so many corners of the world. The victims of these often turn to extreme methods of self-dramatization, despairing as they are of reaching international opinion by any other means.

In Moscow, three Soviet citizens have been on a hunger strike for a month in order to bring foreign pressure to bear on the Soviet government to let them join their spouses abroad. They are Yuri Balovlenkov, whose wife, an American nurse, lives in Baltimore; Josef Kiblitsky, whose wife is West German; and Tatiana Lozansky, whose husband, Edward, is an American University physics professor who emigrated from Moscow in 1976. By making the personal choices that led to their separation from their spouses, they knowingly took a great risk. But that is precisely the point: in no country worthy of being called civilized would these private choices have entailed that range of dangers. Under the Helsinki Accords, which Moscow signed, exit visas should have been granted routinely.

How can the Kremlin conceivably not let them go?