JUST 10 YEARS ago a handful of Soviet citizens put into effect a simple and audacious idea. It was the day of de'tente, and the Soviet government had signed a package of commitments on security, trade and human rights -- the Helsinki Accords. The accords represented a rare Kremlin acknowledgment that human rights inside a state are a central element of relations between states. They asserted, moreover, a "right of the individual to know and act upon his rights and duties." On this basis, a few souls undertook to keep the world informed of how the Kremlin was delivering on its pledge.

We know how the authorities reacted to the Moscow Helsinki Group. Forced to choose between respecting their international word and asserting their authority, they asserted their authority. By 1982 the group had been decimated by harassment, imprisonment and exile. So many had been arrested, one founder, Yelena Bonner, wife of Andrei Sakharov, said this week, that "finally, when it was the annual political prisoners' day, I had to spend it all by myself." Mrs. Bonner, who was allowed to interrupt internal exile for a few months' medical treatment in the United States, was observing the Moscow Group's 10th anniversary in the company of another founder, former prisoner Anatoly Shcharansky.

Repression provoked a debate that still goes on between those who believe Moscow has undercut any valid basis for perpetuating the Helsinki Accords and those who feel, as we do, that the accords at least allow an international spotlight to be kept on Soviet abuses. This in turn feeds into another debate over whether "quiet diplomacy" or direct pressure will better bring relief to the victims of arbitrary Soviet power. President Reagan, an erstwhile direct-pressure advocate who unhappily declined to receive Mrs. Bonner last month, found a satisfactory way to split the difference between the two approaches yesterday, receiving Mr. Shcharansky privately.

sk,3 In fact, there is a time and place for both approaches, and both need to be taken in the case of Yuri Orlov. A physicist who fought for his country in World War II, he as much as anyone created the Moscow Helsinki Group. In 1978 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for defaming the state -- by telling the truth about its human rights policies. His life in exile to which he was subsequently sentenced was detailed in The New Yorker magazine of April 7. He lives on a small pension in a rough shed -- rat-ridden until he acquired a cat -- in a remote village near the Arctic Circle. Hooligans have beat him up, and he is miles from medical care and only sparingly allowed family contacts. This is the way a supposedly proud nation treats someone who asks it to obey its own laws and international commitments.