IN HELSINKI, 35 governments are attending the 10th anniversary of the Helsinki agreement, and most of the democratic governments there are wondering why. For the West, the whole appeal of the 1975 agreement was that it made the Soviet bloc's commitment to human rights, heretofore regarded by bloc countries strictly as their internal affair, open to international review. The West dutifully demanded that these countries respect their new commitment, but most of the countries, and most of all the Soviet Union, refused. In some cases, the Russians perhaps got nastier than they otherwise might have been -- hard as that is to imagine -- in order to spite those leveling the human-rights demands.

So no one is enthusiastic about Helsinki, but all the original signers seem to be there, including those that are least enthusiastic. There are three good, if modest, reasons. Helsinki is a way for those who care in the West to keep faith with the victims of state repression in the East; these people are not only brave but also lonely -- if they cannot have relief, they crave not to be forgotten. The agreement allows Westerners an opening to put a certain pressure for human rights on Eastern governments. And it lets East European governments so inclined -- and all of them are at least mildly inclined from time to time -- to distinguish their human-rights style from the well-oiled despotism practiced by the Soviet regime.

The painful question remains of what the West can do to reach into the Soviet Union and nurse the cause of human rights there -- to do so effectively and not just for show, and to do so without seriously undercutting other substantial Western interests.

Here Western impulse, pointing toward intervention, vies with Western experience, which counsels not neglect but care. In raw East-West times, things get worse, but in easier East-West times they do not necessarily get better, or stay better. "Human rights" in the Western sense is in the Soviet sense a code word for challenge to the communist system. Western governments know this, although not all well-meaning Western individuals take it into account. The Soviet government can be shamed, but its capacity to resist shame is strong. This distinguishes it from East Europe, which shares in the Western humanistic tradition. All this is the bitter lesson of Helsinki.