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Soviet Heroes

Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights

by Joshua Rubinstein
Beacon Press, 304 pp., $12.95

A Chronicle of Current Events

No. 54 Journal of the Human Rights Movement in the USSR
Amnesty International, distributed by Routledge and Kegan Paul, 171 pp., $4.50

The continuing interest in the West in the lives and fates of the Soviet dissidents who are engaged in a desperate and lonely struggle for elementary human rights shows that, even if at times precious little is done by the West to help these brave men and women, at least they are not forgotten. The latest account to appear, which in its lucid brevity and readable quality is probably also the best, is by Joshua Rubinstein, who is the New England coordinator of Amnesty International, USA.

The title of his book is, perhaps, misleading, since Mr. Rubinstein does not deal with the numerous and important dissidents within the national minorities, with the religious dissidents (who were the pioneers of the struggle), nor does he deal with the right-wing and nationalist Russian groups (which some Western scholars consider the most likely to have an impact in the future on the transformation of Soviet society). Mr. Rubinstein confines his account to the struggle for civil rights, but includes in his account the Jewish movement for emigration.

His narrative is historical—from the gradual awakening after Stalin’s death to the arrest and exiling of Dr. Sakharov and the pre-Madrid Conference drive against dissidents which is still in full progress at the time of writing (early October 1980). In addition to studying published sources, Mr. Rubinstein has interviewed over forty prominent activists in the democratic dissident movement who are now living outside the Soviet Union. His narrative is sympathetic, scholarly, and comprehensive, and can be recommended to all who want to get a fair picture of the development and tribulations of the movement, and of the experiences of some of its most prominent protagonists. It is, however, a pity that the author, although he provides a good bibliography, gives no indication of the sources of his often quite lengthy quotations.

Actually, like all who write on this subject, Mr. Rubinstein owes much, if not most, of his information to the remarkable Chronicle of Current Events. This triumph of courage and ingenuity which the KGB has not so far succeeded in suppressing except for one period of nearly two years, has appeared as a samizdat compilation since 1968, and since 1973 has been published in Russian by Khronika Press in New York. Since February 1971, from issue sixteen onward, the Chronicle has been produced in English translation by Amnesty International, and is a mine of information on a side of life in the Soviet Union which the authorities would like to pretend does not exist. It gives news of arrests, interrogations, and trials, of psychiatric hospitals where dissidents not put on trial are often detained, of life in the camps and in exile, of samizdat and of the persecution of believers.

The authenticity of the information has been repeatedly confirmed by an ever-increasing number of scholars who find that this material provides an illuminating picture of the behavior of Soviet officials and courts, and an exposure of the insecure and arbitrary basis on which the regime rests. The latest issue, No. 54, contains the usual features, including forty-three photographs. It also provides a detailed index of all photographs and illustrations published in Chronicles Nos. 1 to 54—including those of camps, psychiatric institutions, facsimiles of documents, groups, and hundreds of individuals. It is to be deplored that this material, which is at least as important for understanding Soviet reality as the economic and political facts and statistics to which so much study is devoted by academics, is seldom to be found in university libraries.

But why, it may be asked, does this unsavory aspect of Soviet society, which touches the lives of a minority of the population only, and which does not seem to affect the actions of the Soviet government, call for study? It is probably true that much of the population of the country has come to terms with the regime, has learned to fiddle the system and to conform to its requirements in order to benefit from the privileges that the regime dispenses as a reward for conformity. Alexander Zinoviev in his satirical novels has painted a devastating picture of the way in which the intelligentsia has, for the most part, learned to work the system to its own advantage and to keep its head down, while remaining fully aware of its shortcomings, and completely cynical about all official claims.

Vladimir Bukovsky, who, along with Solzhenitsyn, has probably made a greater impact on Western opinion than any other dissident, in a recent interview program on BBC television listed, with his usual brilliance, some of the excuses with which Soviet citizens, well aware of the way in which the regime tramples on elementary civil rights, justify their silence: “What can I do alone? If everyone acted, so would I”; “You have to make compromises for the sake of the main cause”; “We must live for Russia. The Communists will one day disappear of themselves.” (This is a favorite excuse with scientists and the military, according to Bukovsky.) “Open protest is a provocation which merely enrages the authorities and brings suffering to the innocent”; “Yes, but not now. This is the worst possible time”; “You won’t achieve anything from the bottom.” And so on. One is reminded of the saying attributed to the Jewish sage Hillel: “If not I, then who? If not now, then when?”

But this is not the whole story. The history of communist regimes has shown the way in which the fear which holds people in silent subjection for years can all of a sudden disappear and turn to protest. Soviet Jews, for example, who suffered anti-Semitism in silence for years, almost suddenly about ten years ago found the courage to demand the right to emigrate to Israel—with the remarkable result of over 200,000 emigrants that we have seen. The Russian movement of protest for democratic rights may not have comparable successes to show. But it has certainly proved that the silence engendered by fear can be overcome. The moment when the rumblings of a few stones becomes an avalanche is as unpredictable in politics as it is in the mountains.

Recent events in Poland, whatever the ultimate outcome may be, have proved one thing beyond doubt: that the millions of protesters are completely without fear of the Polish authorities. The only restraint upon them is apprehension that they might provoke a Soviet invasion. The situation is of course different in the Soviet Union where the regime is not an imposed, foreign one but native, and probably a good deal tougher, and certainly more experienced. But even here the avalanche, the result of the loss of fear which loosens the first stones in the fabric of constraint, cannot be entirely discounted as a possibility. The Soviet authorities certainly appear from their conduct to live in constant terror of it, to judge by the extent of the effort which they make to silence, stultify, and confuse the population of the country.

The democratic dissenters in the Soviet Union are a matter of direct interest to the West. It is, of course, easy to make a case for the West to support their struggle on humanitarian or sentimental grounds—as easy as it is for our politicians and journalists to find high-sounding reasons for not giving them strong support, and for ignoring the nature of the Soviet regime in our dealings with the Soviet government. In his recent BBC interview Bukovsky listed some of these excuses: “If I don’t sell them, someone else will”; “Sport has nothing to do with politics”; “Making a fuss is dangerous—it only helps the hawks in the Kremlin to strengthen their position”; “We were guilty in Vietnam, so we are in no position to preach”; “If we sell them more goods they’ll become more like us and more dependent on us.” And so on.

Humanitarian arguments are always suspect in the mouths of politicians, it is true. But support by the West of the cause of the democratic dissidents and of individual cases can be justified as a matter of self-interest. Their courageous voices in making the realities of the Soviet regime known outside the Soviet Union have had a considerable effect on undermining the façade of lies behind which the Soviet regime has existed since its inception, and on which it to some extent depends for its survival. The results have been perhaps particularly striking in the weakening of the chorus of unanimous support from the Communist parties outside the USSR for everything the Soviet Union says and does, from which the Russian party draws much of its strength. It is naïve to see “Eurocommunism” (if this still exists) as a conversion of some European Communist parties to the principles of democracy. But the Eurocommunist movements (if that is what they are) provide striking evidence of the way in which these parties, with their own electorates in mind, were forced to voice some criticism of the Soviet regime and to proclaim their independence from Soviet control. All this is in overwhelming measure due to the revelations provided by the democratic dissent movement inside the Soviet Union, and by the disclosures of its adherents who have been forced into exile. It is in the direct interest of us in the West to do what we can to ensure that dissent in the USSR is not silenced.

The question is urgent, because an intensified effort to silence dissent is in progress in the Soviet Union at this writing. The success or failure of this Soviet effort may in considerable measure depend on the actions of the West—at the 1980 review of the Helsinki accord in Madrid, in particular. It is one of the comfortable excuses frequently advanced in the West that the Soviet authorities are indifferent to outside protests, and that in any case public protest only intensifies the determination of the Soviet authorities to pursue their own course. The evidence does not support this view. In a detailed analysis of Soviet policy against dissenters just published, Peter Reddaway has mustered evidence to show that the Soviet authorities can be influenced by Western protest.* He notes in particular how the Politburo was forced in the autumn of 1973 to change its repressive policy against Sakharov for fear of losing the economic and scientific fruits of détente; and how President Carter’s initial statements on human rights, and subsequent actions, caused a modification of Soviet policy in cracking down on dissenters.

Of course one cannot exaggerate the influence which the West can have on Soviet internal policy—nor does Mr. Reddaway attempt to do so. Domestic security, in the inflated or distorted way in which the Soviet authorities see it, always has first priority in their minds—in what they regard as an emergency, home affairs will come first, and if these should have unfavorable repercussions on foreign relations, this cannot be helped. But within this limitation concern for its image abroad will continue to influence the Politburo, for two reasons. One is the fear of loss of support from foreign communists and left-wing parties which a tarnished image of Soviet domestic realities might encourage. And the other is the apprehension that conduct at home might endanger the flow from abroad of the technology, grain, and credits on which the Soviet economy will continue to depend, at any rate for so long as it maintains its mammoth expenditures on armaments.

  1. *

    Authority, Power and Policy in the USSR: Essays Dedicated to Leonard Schapiro, edited by T.H. Rigby, Archie Brown, and Peter Reddaway (St. Martins, 1980).

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