BY LAST August and September, according to information getting out to Andrei Sakharov's relatives abroad, the Soviet scientist and dissident had endured a hunger strike of at least six or seven weeks, plus bouts of forced feeding and drugging, and was either threatening or conducting a new hunger strike. On Sept. 7, however, the family believes, he was returned to his apartment in Gorki and reunited with his wife, Yelena Bonner. He began to emerge from a condition of depression, and by November he was able and allowed to discuss scientific work with visitors from the Academy of Sciences. He is now "probably in reasonable physical and mental condition, considering his recent ordeal and chronic medical problems," according to the emigr,e Khronika Press in New York.

Why the evident change in the Kremlin's handling of this brave and prickly symbol of conscience? The change coincides with the period when, we now know, the Kremlin was deciding to strike out for improved relations with the United States. It could not easily turn a new face westward while it was pushing one of its most distinguished and best-known citizens toward the grave.

It is possible, of course, that the whole recent picture of improvement in the Sakharovs' circumstances is a KGB concoction. The link to Soviet foreign policy, however, seems plain. Hidden-camera photos of the Sakharovs were released in the West just as Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in England in December. They have been permitted to exchange telegrams and mail with friends in Moscow and relatives abroad.

The basic fact of the Sakharovs' isolation and vulnerability, however, remains unchanged. They are still pawns of the regime, pinned in Gorki and removed from all of those whose independent word alone could establish their condition credibly. The Kremlin cannot expect people who care for the Sakharovs to be reassured as long as it continues to monopolize all information available about them.

Their status as pawns is cruelly underlined by the way they are being treated under Soviet law. Yelena Bonner, a sick woman, was tried and sentenced to five years' internal exile last August for "anti-Soviet activity" -- her human rights work. Andrei Sakharov completed five years of exile -- under Soviet law, the maximum term -- in Gorki yesterday. But he was never sentenced -- nor charged nor tried. If his detention now continues past this grim anniversary, he will be paying a harsher penalty outside the law than he would have paid if he had been tried and exiled under the law. Such is Soviet "justice."

Does not the Soviet government have the sense, even if it lacks the mercy, to let these two much abused souls live out their lives where they please?