The Soviet regime’s current assault on dissent—of which Dr. Sakharov’s exile is part—poses a serious new challenge to the West. The challenge overlaps with that of Afghanistan but is by no means identical to it. During 1980 we will see whether or not Western protests are determined enough—as they were during the last crackdown on dissent in 1977—to compel the Soviet leaders to draw back and bring the current purge to an end.
While protests and sanctions can seem ineffective when made, they usually have a salutary impact before very long, provided that they are strong and persistent. This is because the Soviet regime both needs the West economically and—Afghanistan notwithstanding—craves international respectability and prestige. Needless to say, the current power struggle in the Kremlin will affect policy toward dissent and make it less predictable. But when the dust settles and the post-Brezhnev leadership emerges, the new men will have to deal somehow with the governments and organizations that have been making their protests and imposing sanctions. In this way the damage done to the dissenting groups and movements can be substantially limited, and the flow of information about their fates maintained.
The present purge is basically a pre-Olympic exercise, and well illustrates the inseparability of sports and politics in the Soviet Union. For many months the KGB has been striking against people in the provinces. Far from stopping political oppression when the trials of Orlov, Shcharansky, and others ended in August 1978, the authorities simply turned their attention away from Moscow to individuals and groups whose fate aroused less interest abroad. Simultaneously they distracted Western attention from provincial arrests by allowing Jewish emigration to rise to the unprecedented annual rate of 50,000 and releasing a handful of well-known political prisoners and deporting them abroad.
In fact since August 1978 no fewer than ninety-seven trials have taken place on which reliable information has reached the outside world. Two hundred and seventeen people have either been sentenced at these trials, or forcibly interned in mental hospitals without trial, or are now in pre-trials, detention. This figure includes only people jailed as a result of the peaceful expression of their beliefs, and for a considerable period. Excluded are a few cases of violent dissent and several hundred of imprisonment for short terms of a few months or less, or of people being fined. Only Dr. and Mrs. Sakharov, incidentally, have been exiled without trial—a measure apparently without legal foundation.
Beyond these cases, which mostly involve the court system, thousands of people have been interrogated during the last seventeen months in connection with political cases, and nearly a thousand have had their homes searched by police. Many of these have also been dismissed from their jobs, threatened with arrest, subjected to KGB blackmail, forced into emigration, or assaulted by officially sponsored thugs. About five hundred Crimean Tatars have been forcibly evicted from their homes and deported from the Crimea. Two people have committed …