He moved with difficulty, skirting puddles in the courtyard like a sleepwalker with arms stretched in front of him.

Yesterday, on the 38th day of his hunger strike, his motions seemed excruciatingly slow and calculated.

Yuri Balovlenkov, 33, does not want to die. For the past three years he has been trying to join his wife, Elena, a staff nurse at a hospital in Baltimore. Although Elena has visited him in Moscow, he has seen their 2-year-old daughter, Katya, only in pictures. "Total despair," he said, led him to gamble his life for the right to join them.

He wrote to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and President Reagan last week, pleading with each to help him. But the silence here has been agonizing. Presumably, letters of this nature rarely reach Brezhnev and get stuck in the bureaucracy, where faceless men have kept Balovlenkov's application entangled in procedural obstacles for three years.

Perhaps the faceless men are waiting for him to cave in. "I don't know how much longer I can take it," he said. But he seemed to have passed the point of no return in his mind.

"I cannot live any longer like this," he said. "I want to be together with my family. Why am I not allowed that? I never broke any Soviet laws, never got involved in politics, never did anything against the state."

It was cold here yesterday, and Balovlenkov wore a down jacket to keep warm and to hide his emaciation. His 5-10 figure is now almost a skeleton: He weighs 117 pounds after a loss of 48 pounds.

But the paleness and weight loss are only surface signs of more destructive consequences of his stand. The body, deprived of nutrition for so long, now dips for energy into the lean body mass--muscles, liver, kidneys and heart.

Dr. Zoa Ruminskaya of the Moscow Polyclinic Number 92, who comes almost daily to check Balovlenkov's health, has warned him that his liver is enlarged and that the fast is entering a crisis stage with possibly irrevocable consequences.

Another personal drama goes on apace in his apartment overlooking the Moscow River near the Krimski Bridge. Balovlenkov's father Vasili, 75, a retired Air Force officer, and his mother Ekatarina, 60, are in despair as they watch their son's life wither away.

His mother has lost 22 pounds since he began his hunger strike, and the doctor has warned her that she has become prone to a heart attack.

"All this is very painful," Balovlenkov said, gazing from a bench up at the windows of his apartment. His parents, who consider themselves patriotic, do not want to admit foreigners to their apartment and do not want to make statements to a foreign reporter.

"It is a serious dilemma for me," Balovlenkov continued. "I don't know where to turn to; I cannot find an official who can talk to me po chelovyecheski man to man ."

It was not clear how he could be denied an exit visa under family reunification provisions of the 1975 Helsinki agreement. He had worked for a secret institute as a radio engineer, he said, but that was eight years ago, and he knows no secrets.

Balovlenkov seemed just as oblivious to the light drizzle that wet the paved courtyard as were six men at a nearby bench sharing two bottles of vodka. His elongated face, framed by a black beard and hair, suddenly froze in purposeful suffering that seemed to belong to a scene from Dostoyevsky's Petrograd.

It was exactly five years ago, he recalled, when he first met and fell in love with Elena Kuzmenko of Baltimore. She was visiting Moscow as a tourist. Subsequently, she returned here several times before they married in December 1978. Since their marriage, she has visited Moscow once, and their daughter was born in the summer of 1980.

Balovlenkov formally applied for an exit visa in early 1979. For three years he "visited various offices, pleaded with officials, wrote letters to the authorities," he said. "They simply laughed at me. I could not live like that any longer."

On the 18th day of the fast, he said, he was taken to the police and told that his actions were anti-Soviet and that he was in fact "breaking the law."

He said he told officials that "it is my right to fast, I have the right to decide about my life." Now he hopes that Soviet authorities will permit his wife and daughter to travel to Moscow Sunday. "I want them to be with me at this time, I hope they will come," he said.

In Baltimore, Elena Balovlenkov said that she expects the Soviet Embassy in Washington to inform her Monday or Tuesday whether her visa has been granted and that she has booked a flight to Moscow for Tuesday. But she was not optimistic. "His health is deteriorating; the visa hasn't been given. Everything is pretty much at a standstill," she said.

Yesterday morning, Balovlenkov fainted and his friends rushed him to a hospital. He was released when he told the doctors that he would not abandon his fast.

There is another agonizing thing about his situation, although he does not want to talk about it. Balovlenkov and four other Soviet citizens jointly began a hunger strike on May 10 in an effort to be allowed to join their spouses in the West.

Three members of the group, including the daughter of a Soviet Army general, have since been promised visas and have stopped their protest. The fourth, Iosif Kiblitsky, 36, who is married to a West German teacher, was taken to a hospital last Monday after West German diplomats persuaded him to abandon his fast. Presumably, this means that the West Germans intend to intercede vigorously, if quietly, with Soviet authorities on Kiblitsky's behalf.

Although a U.S. Embassy official visits Balovlenkov daily and the embassy has expressed formal concern about his situation, there has been no known effort by Washington to seek some easement privately for him that would lead him to abandon his fast.

Not knowing if his wife and child will be allowed to visit, Balovlenkov has written them a love letter.

"I have only one life to give you," he wrote. "I pray to God that he will help us. Let us be brave; this is a trial for all three of us."