Friday, May 30, 2008

Illicit Ideas in Russia

I started coming to Russia in about 1982, during a particularly difficult period in the Cold War. The NATO countries were deciding to install new Intermediate Range Nuclear Missiles and nuclear cruise missiles in Europe in response to the Soviet placement of new SS20 missiles. Both of these developments increased the danger of nuclear war, whether by design or misunderstanding. A great disarmament movement was going on in the West to prevent this exacerbation, and I was totally engaged in it. I had established a voluntary information service to help coordinate the movement in Toronto, and had begun publishing a monthly newspaper, which soon became Peace Magazine. I still edit it.

Several times I was invited to Moscow as a guest of the Soviet Peace Committee, to participate in a dialogue about peace and disarmament issues. For some years thereafter, I kept coming about once a year, often in connection with other peace conferences in Europe organized by the European Nuclear Disarmament movement (END), Pugwash, or the Helsinki Citizens Assembly.

My initial host, the Soviet Peace Committee, was what might be called a GONGO today – a government-organized NGO, and the Soviet participants inevitably spoke in favor of Soviet policies, but guests were free to speak our own minds. Many Soviet citizens donated regularly to this organization, which was therefore vastly better funded than any peace group in the West.

I was aware, however, that there was at least one peace group in Russia that was a counterpart to our own in being completely independent. This was called the Trust Group – short for “The Group to Establish Trust Between the USSR and USA.” However, its members were not allowed to sit in the conferences and discuss policy issues with us, but indeed were severely persecuted for their activities. They might be beaten up on the street; they might lose their professional jobs; they might even be framed for a crime and sent to a labor camp or a mental hospital for a lengthy sentence. Most Trust Group members did not like to be called “dissidents,” and in fact they did not publicly criticize official Soviet policies, but undertook activities that would seem uncontroversial in the West. For example, they once organized a display of peace art, but the police broke it up and confiscated all the paintings.

To do their trust-building work, the group needed contact with Westerners, and I never failed to visit them when I came to Moscow. They rightly maintained that unless citizens of our two countries had some reliable contacts on the other side, we would be too suspicious to support negotiated solutions to threatening military build-ups.

I think that’s still an important insight. Contact and familiar relationships are essential for good, accurate understandings of each other, though authoritarian governments try to suppress such contacts in order to control the population. Hence, though the Soviet Peace Committee officials were perfectly prepared to let us foreigners argue against their positions, they absolutely objected to our contacting members of the Trust Group. Indeed, after the KGB learned of the friendships I had developed with Trust Group members, they expelled me from the Soviet Union in 1985. I did not come back for six years.

By then Gorbachev’s reforms were well under way, and the members of the original Trust Group had also been expelled, so that their group no longer existed. The Soviet Peace Committee had changed too. Its building had been turned into an Italian restaurant, most of the officials had taken academic jobs, and the remaining one or two presented themselves in interviews to me as heartfelt democrats.

By that time, 1991, I had already been conducting interviews in preparation for a book about the transition that Gorbachev was bringing to Russia. I understood that it was greatly stimulated by conversations with foreigners, and I also wanted to explain how alternative ideas had developed in hidden places for many years before they could be freely expressed in public.

The question had captured my attention during the first visit to Russia, when I had found several Soviet officials with whom I had conversed to be unaccountably receptive to the ideas that we Western peaceniks expressed in the meetings. For example, I had mentioned in one intervention some new facts about the “permissive action links,” the safety lock system that prevented the unauthorized explosion of Western nuclear warheads. I had acquired this information only from a newspaper or TV show, since I was no expert on the subject, and I was flabbergasted when a senior military analyst followed me outside, shook my hands warmly, and assured me with effusive gratitude that my news would be carried forward and discussed at the highest levels. Why was I taken more seriously by these Soviet officials than I would have been in Canada or the United States?

In another intervention at that forum, I spoke about the importance of human rights, politely noting that public opinion in the West would continue limiting the prospects of military treaties so long as Soviet citizens were known to lack the freedom that we ourselves enjoy. To my surprise, a Soviet official approached me privately after the dialogue and congratulated me for my insight, urging me to keep speaking about this matter on every occasion, for the topic is immensely important.
Two of my Canadian friends recounted similar experiences. They had spoken frankly in favor of democracy or freedom of speech in a dialogue, and later had received silent but unmistakable signals of approval, such as winks, broad smiles, and thumbs-up.

What was this about? Respectable Soviet citizens were being beaten or jailed merely for expressing support for peace and disarmament, whereas we foreign peaceniks were being treated as secret allies for overtly criticizing the official practices of the Soviet state. What I decided to explore, therefore, was the distribution and sources of illicit ideas among the Soviet population.

As I interviewed people over the next several years in Russia, I was surprised to discover that people who agreed in their opposition to their country’s policies often disagreed strongly on matters of tactics. I considered that unfortunate, since both groups had much to contribute.

I began to classify Soviet individuals within four categories, which I will treat here as a distinct typology, though of course any one person might not fit exactly into any one of these types.

I distinguished four groups: Ordinary citizens, Hard-liners, Barking Dogs, and Termites. I cannot quantify their numbers with any precision. However, in 1985 there were about 287 million Soviet citizens. Most of them we can call “ORDINARY CITIZENS.” Regardless of what views they held, they did not expect them to count and they generally complied with the expectations of authorities. Of these 287 million only a few hundred were overtly dissident – the BARKING DOGS who protested against injustice and foolish government practices, usually without expecting to achieve any real changes thereby.

Also, there were approximately 20 million members of the Communist Party, the great majority – probably 19 million -- of whom supported the official policies. We can call them HARD-LINERS.

However, according to various estimates, there were about one million party members who were dissatisfied with Soviet militarism and political repression, and who wanted democratic reforms. They did not believe it possible to achieve these reforms by expressing their opinions publicly, for they thought that change could only come from above, but they tried quietly to work within the system to prepare for the changes that they expected would eventually come.

We can call this category TERMITES. Like their namesake, they burrowed silently within the power structure. It was the Termites who greeted Western peace activists and supported our ideas. Termites existed in the Party, the armed forces, and the institutes. Knowing that it was dangerous to publicly oppose those in power, they secretly went about their work, generating ideas that might be adopted later, for they supposed that change could arise only from above. Some such private unorthodoxies had been going on at least since the time Khrushchev delivered his famous denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. They became more numerous after the tragic crackdowns in Hungary and especially after the Prague Spring in 1968. The goal of the termites was to outlive their reactionary opponents. Indeed, many of them became the originators of perestroika later on, but they would not have had enough opportunity to develop adequate proposals when their time did arrive.

The Barking Dogs were the dissidents – discontented Russians who believed that true change must arise from the grass roots by changes in public opinion and refusal to comply with immoral or unreasonable orders. These citizens were natural-born democrats. They considered that everyone is obliged to take responsibility for his own actions and tell the truth, whether or not others like what one says.

Oddly, there was almost no contact between the Barking Dogs and the Termites, nor did they have much respect for each other. (One dissident in an interview with me referred to the other group as ‘whores.’) The limited amount of communication that flowed between those two groups was conveyed largely by third parties -- notably certain international peace activists who maintained contact with both sides.
The Dissident community of the 1970s demanded, above all, that human rights should be respected. The basis for their claim was the Soviet Union’s acceptance of an important new document, the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords. Few Westerners realized how much it meant to those living in repressed Eastern bloc societies.

After several years of negotiations, the Soviet government had successfully obtained an important concession as a trade-off for signing the Accords. The Western signatory states agreed not to challenge the boundaries of any European states that had been established after World War II. If this concession disappointed the peoples who had been incorporated into the Soviet empire, they could at least take comfort from the Soviet acquiescence to a number of humanitarian articles that promised::

• equal rights for ethnic groups; the freedom to choose one’s place of residence and to leave and reenter one’s country;
• freedom of conscience; the right to know one’s rights and to act in accordance with them;
• the inadmissability of cruelty or the degradation of political prisoners’ dignity;
• freedom of information and contact among people;
• the right to a just trial;
• socio-economic rights; and
• the improvement of controls over compliance with the humanitarian articles.

The Helsinki Final Act proved useful to the internal Dissidents, who promptly organized groups to monitor the Soviets’ compliance to its terms. In 1976, Andrei Sakharov called the press conference at which Yury Orlov announced the creation of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. This small organization inspired the creation of similar groups throughout the Helsinki region, which comprised all the states that signed the Accords.

The Moscow branch would become the main node of communication among the other Helsinki groups that formed in major cities throughout the republics. Orlov, a physicist who had been exiled from Moscow for 15 years as a penalty for previous expressions of dissent, intended to take the Soviet authorities at their word, for the document called upon the citizens of the signatory countries to help their governments observe its terms. Human rights activists were ready, as citizens, to do precisely that. However, instead of becoming recognized as “helpers” supporting the Soviet government to mend its ways, the Moscow monitors continued to be some of its most prominent victims.

One important task that the Helsinki Watch organization undertook was to expose the mis-use of psychiatry as a means of political repression..The Helsinki Watch organization collected proof concerning these abuses and appealed to the international community of psychiatrists.

A key objective of dissidents was to live much as if they were free, thereby setting a public example for others and, by making conspicuous the abuse heaped on them, show that the state held power by violence, not by the glad consent of the governed. Instead of keeping their activities secret, Dissidents sought publicity and got it, with the help of the Western press.

The most famous dissident was the father of the Soviet Hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov, who was kept under house arrest in Gorky with his wife but who returned to Moscow in time to serve briefly as a distinguished political leader before the Soviet Union was dissolved. He had gained so much respect by then that almost everyone wanted to be considered a dissident.

Later, several important organizations were formed to keep bright the memories of people who had been persecuted throughout the darkest days of totalitarianism. The most important of these groups is Memorial, which not only keeps lists and documents about the victims of the Gulag, but to some extent defends people today against new forms of injustice.

In the dark days, there were certain places where free discussion was somewhat more possible, and in these locations new ideas were explored. In academia, the exact sciences were not suppressed as much as the social sciences, with certain scandalous exceptions, such as the official protection of Lysenko, the persecution of the plant breeder Vavilov, and the limitations imposed on the great physicist Petr Kapitza by Beria.

Access to certain books was granted strictly on a “need to know” basis, and questionable books were kept in a closed section of the library. People working there were able to have especially stimulating conversations because of belonging to this privileged group. Later there was a series of numbered white books that were distributed to a list of only 300 high level Party officers. This exclusiveness made them especially popular. People loved to boast at private parties about the books they had read from this list.

For some years, Academic City, located in Novosibirssk, was a place where social scientists were relatively free to pursue their studies, especially of economics and agriculture. In Moscow there was IMEMO, where some bold studies were done, especially analyzing the comparative military strength of the USSR and the United States.

In Moscow also there was a secret, luxurious, isolated centre called the Institute of Social Sciences, where the students were Party cadres from Third World countries. They were not allowed to socialize with ordinary Russians, but lived in isolation Yet because they were familiar with the real outside world, their instructors had to give them more accurate information than they could have mentioned to students in other academic institutions.

The most important center that developed Termites was in Prague. The Soviet staff of that publication Problems of Peace and Socialism whom I interviewed (including Gennady Gerasimov) recalled it as the best university they ever could have attended. Everything was open for them to read and discuss there, and they formed networks that supported each other throughout the rest of their careers. The staff there included Rumyantsev, Shakhnazarov, Gerasimov, and Ambartsumov, plus:

Georgy Arbatov (Academician, Member of the Central Committee, Head of the U.S.A. and Canada Institute and close adviser to Andropov, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev);

Anatolii S. Chernyayev (who would become Gorbachev's aide);

Ivan T. Frolov (later an editor of Kommunist and also of Pravda, Frolov became a leading specialist in environmental issues);

Timur Gaidar (a reformist economist whose father was a famous writer of children's stories and whose son, Yegor, would become the architect of “shock therapy” economics under Yeltsin);

Richard Kosolapov (later Editor of Kommunist and one of the few people on this list who could not be called a reformist);

Yuri Karyakin (a writer, social commentator);

Otto R. Latsis (reformist historian who wrote a book about Bukharin. He was repressed, then elected to the Central Committee of the CPSU);

Merab Mamardashvili, (a former classmate and friend of Gorbachev's at Moscow State University, who would become an eminent philosopher);

Konstantin I. Milkulski (who would become an academician);

Marina Pavlova-Silvanskaya ( A journalist with important contacts to Eastern European dissidents, especially Polish Catholics);

Vsevelod B. Rybakov (a consultant in the International Department of the Central Committee, who then worked for President Gorbachev);

Aleksandr S. Tsipko (who was later to work at International Department of the Central Committee, and as Deputy Director of Bogomolov’s institute);

Alexander I. Volkov (who would later work at Gorbachev Foundation);

Yegor V. Yakovlev (a journalist who would become head of Moscow News, then head of Russian television after the 1991 putsch attempt;

Vadim Zagladin (Specialist on East-West relations who would become first deputy head, International Department of the Central Committee, part-time adviser to President Gorbachev).

Gorbachev himself never had an opportunity to work at Problems of Peace and Socialism. However, he was a “Termite” par excellence, and had been exposed to the ideas of Eurocommunism. From his university days his roommate was Zdenek Mlynar, a dissident Czech law student who shared his commitment to democratic socialism. Mlynar was active in the Prague Spring and later in the Velvet Revolution. The two men remained best friends throughout their lives and published a fascinating transcript of some of their conversations later as a book. I think it is the most revealing glimpse of Gorbachev’s true brilliance.

For many years, the opportunity to travel abroad was a rare treat permitted to only high-level Party members. There were, however, several international organizations that attracted serious members of the power structure. In these private conversations opinions were shaped in ways that came to be reflected in Soviet policy.

Pugwash was an especially significant venue for discussions of military policy, especially regarding nuclear weapons. In July 1966 Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and nine other eminent scientists had signed a manifesto calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons and proposing that scientists should assemble in a conference to consider the perils caused by these weapons. The industrialist Cyrus Eaton responded by holding such a meeting at his seaside home in Pugwash, Nova Scotia for 22 scientists. This organization has continued functioning until the present. Soviet scientists valued the opportunity for free discussions, which on several occasions led them to change their minds.

One example of this influence involved the discussion of the anti-ballistic missile treaty (ABM). In the mid-1960s, both the US and USSR were considering creating a system for defending against incoming ballistic missiles. Soviet Academician Millionshchikov , who had high status politically as well as scientifically, attended some Pugwash meetings where Western members persuaded him to oppose the idea. As a result, the ABM Treaty was concluded in1972. It helped restrain the nuclear arms race until President George W. Bush withdrew from it and is now planning a missile defence system, to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War was another significant network. It consisted of doctors all around the world who were worried about the impossible health consequences of a nuclear war. The founding co-presidents of the organization were Bernard Lown and Yevgeny Chazov, two cardiologists who had long known each other professionally. Chazov was the attending physician for the Soviet leaders, with whom he could discuss these topics. However, it was mostly Lown who seems to have had the most impact. He kept pressing Gorbachev to adopt a disarmament approach that involved taking “unilateral initiatives” rather than attempting to seek equal concessions from the US negotiators before making any commitment. Lown claimed that the US would reciprocate with comparable concessions, and the result might be something of an “arms race in reverse,” with each party following the example set by the other in reducing its weapons. (Unfortunately, the US was not as quick to reciprocate as Lown supposed and some Rusians reasonably wonder today whether Gorbachev did not give away too much without getting a commitment, say, for the US not to expand NATO.)

After being deported, I waited six years before returning to the Soviet Union, after which time I returned every year or two until 1997 to interview people about the changes, and then, after another hiatus of eleven years, today in 2008. During my absence the coup took place; the Soviet Union was dissolved; people fell into extreme poverty; the state industries were privatized and then essentially stolen by a few oligarchs;;Yeltsin shelled the parliament; stole some elections and a lot of money, then appointed Putin in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. Russia waged two wars against Chechnya. The price of oil increased enough to make Moscow rich and Putin popular; and the budding democracy was replaced by authoritarianism. Russia’s political future appears bleak. There are renewed tensions between it and the West, some of which must be blamed mainly on the United States. The missile defence plan, the expansion of the European Union and NATO, the recognition of Kosovo as an independent country, plus of course the attack on Iraq, all have worsened the prospects for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

But to me the saddest trend since the Soviet Union ended is that democracy and human rights are declining in popularity, both in Russia and even in the West. Democratization takes place in waves. There have been three, and now we are into a period of decline after the post-communist upsurge in democratization.

Where twenty years ago there had been numerous personal contacts between Western peace activists and Soviet citizens, these have declined. In part this is because everyone is now free to travel independently, so there is no special privilege involved in doing so. Also, Pugwash and IPPNW meetings do not appear so urgently necessary as before. (This is a mistaken impression, for actually, nuclear weapons are as threatening today as ever, though few people realize that fact.)

But why the ambivalence toward democracy? Western governments and foundations are as committed to assisting democracy as ever before. There are the Soros and the MacArthur Foundations, plus government funding agencies in the US, Norway, Germany, Britain, and several other countries. These are not, however, trusted in the way that private personal visits to the Trust Group, Pugwash meetings, or IPPNW conferences had been. Instead, these foundations are large bureaucracies, administered by a paid professional staff who work from nine until five, then go home. Foreign funding is often helpful, but it’s no substitute for personal, informal contacts and discussions.

Moreover, the upsurge of nonviolent pro-democracy groups that actually caused the ouster of a dictator has raised fears in Russia that an Orange Revolution will occur here too. To forestall that, Putin’s government has made it nearly impossible for NGOs to receive foreign money for purposes that are in any obvious sense political.

In fact, there is no genuine basis for apprehension about that possibility inRussia. Putin and his chosen successor are too popular for that, however undeservedly. . Besides, “Color revolutions “are not conducted by mercenaries, but instead by citizens who have their own reasons for wanting a democracy. The National Endowment for Democracy does not fund political parties, but only sponsors such democratic capacities as exit polls, trainings for election monitors, and civil society organizations that help stimulate public awareness and participation.

Nevertheless, many liberals in the West remain troubled by the misiguided American attempt to “export democracy” to Iraq. As a result, the notion of “democracy promotion” has acquired a sinister meaning. Because of this ambivalence, even the protection of human rights is often seen now as an infringement or imposition.

But the Termites were wrong: change often does come from below. In fact, Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackermann have carried out a thorough analysis of the 67 cases of democratic transition that had been followed by Freedom House over a 33 year period. They found that “people power” movements do matter, because nonviolent civic forces are a major source of pressure for decisive change in most transitions. In 48 percent of the cases, nonviolent popular fronts were highly active, often steering the changes. Such nonviolent revolutions were far more likely to still be democratic five years or more later, unlike the case with “top-down” transitions that were launched and led by elites.

Notice that Russia, unlike some of the Central European states, received its democracy from the top down. Accordingly, we observe that today, on a seven-point scale of freedom, Russia’s rank is six, just slightly better than China’s, which is seven.
The message is, if Russia is to become truly democratic, it must be done by Russians themselves. Others can help, but the actual work needs to be stimulated by Barking Dogs.