"I was again pushed down onto the bed without a pillow, and my hands and feet were tied," writes the prisoner. "A tight clamp was placed on my nose so that I could breathe only through my mouth. Whenever I opened my mouth to take a breath, a spoonful of nutriment or a broth containing strained meat would be poured into my mouth. Sometimes my jaws were pried open by a lever. They would hold my mouth shut until I swallowed so that I could not spit out the food. When I managed to do so, it only prolonged the agony. I experienced a continuing feeling of suffocation, aggravated by the position of my body and head. I had to gasp for breath. I could feel the veins bulging on my forehead. They seemed on the verge of bursting."

So writes Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident and Nobel peace laureate, in a letter of October 1984, that was published in the Western press over the weekend. Isolated in Gorki, he was using the only means available to him -- the threat to embarrass his captors by taking his own life through a hunger strike -- to force the Soviet government to allow his wife to travel abroad for medical treatment. She was later allowed out, apparently for reasons having nothing to do with her husband's devotion, and is in this country now.

In May of 1984, Dr. Sakharov had accompanied his wife to the prosecutor's office in their Gorki exile. He was "seized by KGB men disguised in doctors' white coats," taken by force to Gorki Regional Hospital and held and tormented for four months in ways like the one depicted above.

The physical abuse had a brutal psychological counterpart. Dr. Sakharov, having finally asked that the clamp on his nose be removed, was overcome by guilt for having failed to carry his hunger strike through. As in "1984," he recalled, "the torturers sought to make a man betray the woman he loves. The part played by the threat of the cage full of rats in Orwell's book was played for me in real life by Parkinson's disease . . ." -- the likely result, his KGB doctors told him, of resuming his protest.

But let us not single out the KGB. It is an instrument of the political leadership, and the top leader thrust himself into the Sakharov equation in an interview on Feb. 8. Mikhail Gorbachev all but cut off the single slim possibility that Andrei Sakharov might be freed by putting his personal stamp on an assertion that the physicist, who has not been near military work for 20 years, "still has knowledge of secrets of special importance to the state and for this reason cannot go abroad." As Mr. Gorbachev attempts in the months ahead to reach out to the American public, this will be a good statement to keep in mind.