Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Classifying Russian Political Opinions

Speech to International Peace Bureau, Oslo, September 2010

In 1982 I began visiting the Soviet Union and then kept returning and interviewing hundreds of people for the next 28 years. Today my book The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy is supposed to be released. I’ll give you a peek.

In those days it made sense to classify Eastern public opinion in four categories: Sheep, Dinosaurs, Barking Dogs, and Termites. It’s only the last two that interest me.
  1. Sheep—the ordinary Soviet citizens who overtly accepted whatever their government said;
  2. Dinosaurs—the official, government-sponsored Communist bureaucracies who criticized Western policies, but never their own. This reactionary bunch included most military officers, the KGB, the Soviet Peace Committee and the World Peace Council;
  3. Barking Dogs—dissidents who accepted the risk of speaking honestly. They didn’t like to be called dissidents, so I call them “Barking Dogs” because they made a lot of noise, trying wake up the general public, though they couldn’t bite;
  4. Termites—reformist, democratic members of the CPSU who were secretly burrowing silently within the party.

Barking Dogs (Dissidents)

Most dissidents were refuseniks or numan-rights protesters, but I used to visit an independent peace group that I’ll call the Trustbuilders.

Lacking access to Soviet military data, the Trustbuilders concentrated on building people-to-people relationships between Russians and Westerners. I now believe that this is still important for building peace. Because of their totalitarian history, Russians are culturally mistrustful, but getting to zero nuclear weapons will require us to cultivate trusting relationships with them.

To avoid being provocative, the Trustbuilders used such mild actions as exchanging family photos with Americans. Nevertheless, as dissidents, they were beaten up, sacked from their jobs, sent to prison, and eventually allowed to emigrate. By 1988 most of the Trustbuilder founders were living in the United States.
Besides the Trustbuilders, a few courageous individuals such as Andrei Sakharov criticized Soviet military policies independently and publicly. Sakharov was a truculent man who berated his scientific colleagues for not supporting him, though they were in fact working quietly on his behalf. He never repented having invented the Soviet hydrogen bomb, yet he constantly tried to stop the arms race. As the most prominent Soviet Barking Dog, he performed great services for his country—but also great harm. If one group deserves special blame for the breakup of the Soviet Union, it is the radical successors of the Barking Dogs. Inspired by Sakharov, it was they who defeated Gorbachev’s best efforts.


Next, the Termites. When I spoke in peace dialogues in Moscow or Vienna, I often emphasized the connection between democracy and disarmament. For example, I said that any Western arms control negotiator who knows how the Soviet Union mistreats its citizens probably will hesitate about making any deals.
The Soviet officials would reply with a standardized response, but during the coffee break they would come up and praise me for raising this issue, and for putting it so politely. Their “onstage” and “offstage” responses were miles apart.

If my friends or I passed a high-level Soviet official in the hallway there might be a startling moment of nonverbal communication. Without winking or giving a thumbs-up sign, the official’s warm, prolonged gaze would convey an unmistakable message: that we were secret allies. This, I learned, was how Termites expressed themselves when they could not choose their words freely. But how many such “closet democrats” were there?

In the 1980s, there were 270 million Soviet citizens, of whom almost 20 million were members of the CPSU. Of those, probably one million were Termites—members covertly opposing the regime. What were their social backgrounds?

Many of them had traveled abroad, knew many foreigners, admired Eurocommunism, and had worked in Prague at the journal, Problems of Peace and Socialism, and later worked in the International Department of the CPSU. When Gorbachev, the master Termite, came to power in 1985, this community of experts became his advisers, the most powerful decision-makers in the country.

Transnational Civil Society

Gorbachev and his advisers adopted four guiding ideas that moved us toward peace. Together these were called “new political thinking.“ I have only enough time to name these principles: (a) common security, (b) reasonable sufficiency, (c) non-offensive defense, and (d) unilateral initiatives, all influenced by Western peace research. Several Termites had picked these ideas up while studying abroad or serving in foreign embassies. Most had participated in elite transnational civil society organizations such as International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Pugwash, the Dartmouth Conferences, and the World Order Models Project. Termite scientists worked closely with Western scientists and weapons designers, and promoted such policies as a moratorium on nuclear testing. By 1994 both Dr Bernard Lown of IPPNW and physicist Frank von Hippel had visited Russia over 30 times. My main point is that transnational relationship were among the most influential factors behind the ending of the Cold War.

But Gorbachev had opponents too. He had expected to be opposed by the 19 million Party members who were Dinosaurs, as well as many Sheep. His challenge was to hold together the opposing political wings—Dinosaurs and Termites—and prevent civil war. He would compromise when necessary, lest the Dinosaurs (who still had considerable power) force him out of office. He would move cautiously toward democracy and peace, steering between the right and left wings. But this strategy proved harder than he expected.
All three categories of peace groups were hostile to each other. The official peace committee were mostly Dinosaurs who resented both the Barking Dogs and the Termites, regarding them alike as traitors who were “giving away the store” to Western countries without getting anything in return. This was an entirely predictable clash between hard-line Communists and flexible reformers.

What was surprising, however, was the extreme hostility between the two progressive groups, the Barking Dogs and Termites. Both groups shared the same goals—democracy and peace—so they should have been allies, but in reality, they despised each other—and still do today.

The conflict was not about goals but methods. Barking Dogs believed that change could only come from below, from democratic rebellion, as in Poland or the Prague Spring. They had risked their lives on that theory, and Gorbachev had disproved it. They regarded the Termites as a privileged gang of cowards who had never stood up for their own principles. Some of them called the Termites “whores. ” They especially despised Gorbachev—that Termite reformer, that slick politician!
For their part, the Termites regarded the Barking Dogs as naïve extremists incapable of the compromises required by democracy. Termites believed that freedom could only come from above, from the Party’s leader. On the basis of this theory, Gorbachev indeed had held his tongue all his life and manoeuvred adroitly to reach the only post from which to change the Soviet system. But having reached it, he still could not win the support of the old dissidents.

The new glasnost policy allowed everyone to speak and act freely. By about 1988, civil society was forming, including a mass political movement called Democratic Russia, which backed Yeltsin. In 1990, the Termites—indeed, virtually the entire Soviet intelligentsia—deserted Gorbachev and joined the remaining Barking Dogs, who began to attract a mass following because it was now safe for anyone to join. They called themselves “radical democrats” and demanded faster changes than Gorbachev thought wise—at least until he could remove the Dinosaurs from power.

Yet he was implementing dramatic reforms. He almost reached an agreement to abolish all nuclear weapons, and did achieve the remarkable INF Treaty. He let the Eastern Europeans oust the Communist rulers. He let East and West Germany reunite, inside NATO. He allowed some private ownership of businesses. He removed Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. He began work on a new Union Treaty to reconnect the various Soviet republics. That constitution would have no role for the Communist Party.
All these changes antagonized the Dinosaurs, who threatened him. He placated them temporarily, knowing that the New Union Treaty would soon leave them high and dry. By appeasing them, however, he alienated the rest of his former Termites—his centrist base.
By August of 1991 the Dinosaurs attempted a coup for the Right. It failed, but Yeltsin promptly made a coup for the Left by dissolving the Soviet Union and leaving Gorbachev without a job. The breakup led to separatist wars in several republics, most notably in Chechnya, and to economic chaos. Yeltsin gave most state industries away; shelled his own parliament, killing perhaps 1,000 persons; imposed a constitution giving himself almost complete power; and conducted fraudulent elections. By the end, less than five percent of the population approved of his presidency.
What caused such disasters? First, the groups that had worked from below and from above, respectively, refused to join together when their cooperation was needed. The Barking Dogs would never support the ex-Termites.

But in 1990 they did join together—as Gorbachev’s opponents, not his supporters. The Termites went over to the Barking Dogs, thus replacing Gorbachev’s presidency with something far worse. 

Today Barack Obama is learning what Gorbachev discovered in 1991: that a crisis increases polarization and eliminates common ground, perhaps making it impossible to move forward with a progressive policy.

In August 1991 END held a big conference in Moscow. At last, thousands of authentic new peace organizations were flourishing throughout the Soviet Union. But two days later came the coup. Although Muscovites defeated it with non-violent means, few of them understood what they had done. In contrast to the Poles, few Russians comprehend the power of nonviolence. They even tried to account for their success in terms of other factors.

In 1997 there was an IPB conference in Moscow. Russian peace groups were still numerous but now confused. They had supported the US-led Gulf War, and they still hated Gorbachev. Bruce Kent took the floor and explained to them how much Gorbachev had contributed to world peace, but the Russians weren’t impressed. They still hate him now.

From Below and Sideways

Today the Russian peace movement and the transnational groups are moribund. Putin enacted controls over civil society to prevent a “color revolution” in Russia. Now NGOs are regulated and inspected constantly, and protest marchers are often jailed. There are, nevertheless, new pro-democracy Barking Dogs in Russia who deserve our support.

Russia is an authoritarian state again, but not totalitarian. That is progress. But the opportunities that Gorbachev had created are long gone. Russian activists today no longer expect to change the society from below, by their own efforts. They admit to needing outside help.

Fortunately, there are some new technological possibilities for creating numerous transnational civil society organizations, even at the grassroots. Most young Russians now study English and most have computers with webcams. For advice, see the handout I’ve distributed. We can form videoconferencing discussion groups with four Russians sitting at a computer once a month for an hour discussing world affairs with, say, four Canadians or Norwegians. That builds trust, a precondition for further cuts in nuclear weapons. If 1,000 or 2,000 such dialogues continue for a year, I’ll bet that relations will visibly improve between Russia and the NATO countries.

Let’s begin a new sustained dialogue with Russians. We need, not only the fervor and integrity of the new Barking Dogs who demand fast results, but also the quiet patience of new Termites with whom to build trust.


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