Periodically in our turbulent relationship, the Russians will do something that really makes us angry: the invasion of Afghanistan, the shooting down of KAL Flight 007, the persecution of Andrei Sakharov. We will attempt to express our displeasure with an array of punishing acts. There will be boycotts and embargoes and withdrawal from various accords and protocols we know they profit from. Explicitly or implicitly we will indicate that this state of affairs is to remain in effect until the dastardly deed has been reversed or at least until some sort of amends have been made for it. The Russians will snarl. Nothing will happen. A couple of years will pass. The sanctions -- or t least those that the Congress and/or the allies permitted the government to impose -- will be lifted. Very little reference will be made to the cause of their imposition in the first place. All will hail an improvement in the atmosphere. The scene will be set for the next time.

This way of doing business with the Russians has been with us for many decades and marks what must be one of the oddest great-power relationships in history. It is the essential background to last week's news from the summit and helps, at least a little, to explain both what happened there and the mixed-up feelings Americans have about our principal antagonist. That Soviet-American relationship -- intense, full of risk and dramatic episode -- seems to exist in a world without history or memory or cause and effect or connectives of any kind. There are no "therefores" or "becauses" or "in spite ofs" in the record we have written. There is only sequence: "then," "and" and "after that."

I'm not advocating a policy of grudge bearing unto the 10th generation. In the era of nuclear weapons there is surely strong reason for trying again and again to increase communication and diminish the likelihood of war between the two nuclear giants. But I do believe that our start-from-scratch, episodic approach has consequences that we should at least be aware of. One is that the Soviets (can anybody blame them?) do not take our righteous indignation or the various penalties we seek to impose as seriously as we would like in some cases or seriously at all in others. They assume these will in time wither away, to use one of their preferred phrases.

Often the reason for this will be that the putative punishment adversely affects some American group's interest -- farmers who live on exports or intellectuals involved in exchanges or industries with deals to make -- and these groups will bring pressure to get back to business as usual. They will be able to wed their interest to the larger public anxiety about the dangers of confrontation with the Russians, and all this will in turn feed into an administration's understandable desire after a certain period of time to warm up the U.S.-U.S.S.R. relationship again. So the original provocation will be buried.

I don't say this always happens, but it often does. A lot of American scientists who showed early indignation and an inclination to withdraw from U.S.-Soviet exchange programs because of the way Sakharov was being treated later wanted to get back into those programs at a time when Sakharov was in fact receiving some of his worst treatment. The SALT II accord, withdrawn from Senate consideration by Jimmy Carter on account of the Afghanistan travesty, is now back in favor and highly endorsed as a course to follow, even by some in the Reagan administration.

Americans' attitudes have been somewhat deformed by this disconnected, cyclical change of emotions displayed by their government. If we set out to penalize the Russians when they are especially bad, does the lifting of the penalty mean that they are good or not bad or at least OK? What is the current burst of better feeling owed to? To some extent the off-again, on-again nature of the relationship is a result of our cooking up sanctions that are impractical or unenforceable in the first place, sanctions that cry out to be dropped. But it is also, I think, a result of the exceptional difficulty we have had in this country in figuring out how to live in a world in which we must do immense amounts of business with the leaders of a system we regard as sinister. Should we hate them all personally? Should we trust anything they say? Something they say? Nothing they say? How do you smile and make small talk with someone who has just locked up Poland? If we smile and make small talk, might that make them less likely to do things like lock up Poland in the future?

Americans have wrestled with all of these questions over the years and tried out a variety of answers to them, some reasonable, some crazy. But by and large we have been fitful in our responses, dancing from one unsatisfactory assumption to another. It is interesting to note in this connection that some of our deepest hypocrisy concerns those "lesser" cultural and scientific agreements that are thought of as harmless tokens of good faith between us and the Soviets. Some of them require an immense pretense on our part that when we say "journalist" or "doctor" or "intellectual" we are talking about the same kind of independent animal in both countries.

Reagan, like all of his predecessors, sort of slid over the logic and the assertions of the past to reach his "fresh start," as he called it. What I liked about his performance was that he did seem to be looking for exactly what we have needed all this time: a way of behaving toward the Russians that was consistently civil without being sentimental or glossing over the reality. He wants to keep it up, privately and publicly, in meetings and in direct communications. Given the history we have of petered-out sanctions and yanked-back arms agreements and hot-and-cold running invective, I think that is the essential precondition of any useful agreements we may reach. It was the best thing that happened at Geneva.