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The East: Three Reports

George Konrad, Peter B. Reddaway, and Barbara C. Sproul, translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders

1. Letter from Budapest

It’s here in East Central Europe that Eastern and Western culture collide; it’s here that they intermingle. Here we see side-by-side the physical and psychic baggage of industrial and preindustrial civilizations. Our heads, like old radios, hiss and buzz with the claims of Soviet-style state socialism and Atlantic liberalism; we try to adjust the tuner, but get the same static again and again. As intellectuals we groan under, and revel in, our own authority. Personified contradictions, we’d like to see ourselves in a clearer light. But that’s hard and risky to do. So we drink instead. Nowhere in the world are there as many drunken thinkers as in Eastern Europe.

* * *

Neither Westerners nor Russians, we Middle Europeans never became true bourgeois, and it seems we never will. The answer to what we really are is forever stuck in our throats. Even our status in society doesn’t reveal much about us: whether we are on the top or the bottom of the social scale, the state hangs over us, and always has. We have been under pressure so long, the constant, senseless weight has conditioned our feet to giving way. We have been argued over, agreed upon, traded, sold, dismembered; we have been the subject of peace conferences and settlements. The First World War began in Sarajevo, the Second in Gdansk; the world had better pay attention to us.

We are all unresolved, still pending questions, “popular democrats,” which means neither one nor the other, but something else. We are not liberal democrats and we are not Soviet communists; we are not even social democrats. That would be too rational for us, we are much crazier than that. There have always been too many secret anarchists among us: rebels, outlaws, partisans, insurgents, terrorists. We’ve had more than our share of murderers and suicides, and we never lacked for gendarmes and political prisoners either. We cursed our kings under our breath, then one day we stung them. The truth is, we became sneaky—it would do us good to be treated like human beings for a change. However, we do not want kind words wedded to loaded guns.

* * *

When we Eastern Europeans arrive in the West, we stick together and protect our own. We listen to what our Western friends have to say, but don’t believe half of it; and when alone, we have a good laugh. We are bad boys, skeptics, rogues, con artists, wheeler-dealers, survivors. Deep down we love destruction and derision; our historical legacy, our stock in trade, is cynicism. We are always thinking of ways to clear out, or show up, if we must, with one foot in the door. How could we not be artful dodgers, long-shot players, sneaky idlers, rascals? We paid a price for being honest more than once. Those of my generation who respected the law had a much smaller chance to stay alive than those who broke it. We’d be crazy to give ourselves away; where would we be if we didn’t have alternate strategies up our sleeves?

We learned in school, from our history books, how to respect rebels: those who would take it no more, who would jeer at liars and fight with bare hands, who, even when backed up against a wall, would say what they thought. Breakout, riot, getaway: in our countries these are beautiful words. Rebellions are holiday revels with us; we know better not to rebel on weekdays.

The communist world is highly sensitive to ideas. Here religious, meditative, critical attitudes carry more weight. The ideas in whose names the rulers rule and the people obey, or grumble, or criticize, are of paramount importance. The mainstay of the system is the prevailing written and unwritten ideology, which the people are cajoled or coerced into supporting. And they support it not only by casting a ballot for it, but by learning the strange and complicated rules of the game. State ideology creates, and conforms to, its own mores. Thus from the point of view of both the state and its citizens it is as risky to sing loudly on the street as it is to question the leading role of the Party.

* * *

Westerners are untested and may therefore be more fragile than Eastern Europeans. They have more possibilities, which doesn’t necessarily mean they are freer. Daily training for grimmer times keeps us in shape; we are consoled by our pessimism.

Capitalists and state bureaucrats have a monopoly on decision making; how nice it would be to break up this monopoly and socialize the centers of power. Western officialdom brings up the horrors of the Eastern secret police, and Eastern officialdom the dire prospect of unemployment, in order to frighten those who demand more democracy in both the economic and political spheres. With moralistic scare tactics they discourage an objective comparison of capitalism and state socialism. But we must persist in asking: which are the institutions that allow us to worry least about dismissal notices and police summonses?

* * *

Hard dictatorships are out, soft dictatorships are in. Gradually, the state phases out its harsher means of persuasion. If it doesn’t hard people in camps, it has to begin making concessions. Suddenly people appear for whom not being able to say what’s on their minds is a greater loss than not being able to count on privileges. Such people are liberated rather than intimidated by punishment. They really have nothing to lose: they’ll find well-wishers wherever they end up, and will get by, if need be, on their own.

If I write what I think; if I am not afraid of what people are usually afraid of; if my book interests me more than its reception; if I don’t mind that my opinions do not remain confidential; if I don’t confuse a slightly milder form of oppression with freedom, and know that my freedom will never be presented to me as a gift, then, chances are, some people will hate me and consider me crazy, others will like me but consider me crazy, and still others might like me and not even think me crazy. It’s possible, of course, that this last group of people are themselves crazy.

* * *

We Eastern Europeans should be longdistance runners, with stamina enough to declare at the end of each race that our countries need us, we need our countries, and we won’t be excluded from their affairs. Eastern European conservatives would love to export their independent-minded intellectuals to the West. They no longer wish to lock them up, but simply send them where they feel they will blend in. If they do, then the conservatives are right and the dissidents belong elsewhere. The guarantee of our independence is that we won’t become export commodities and we won’t blend in anywhere.

We need those patient, long-term strategies. Things will work out eventually; and whoever is freer has a better chance of winning. The state and we are not adversaries but partners in a game. Our lives are played out in stadiums, not combat zones, though sometimes we do get kicked around in the field. The oppressor is in love not with oppression but with the oppressed. He puts his subjects out of commission so he can function that much more smoothly. Of course he wants to seduce us, get us into bed; he wants us to praise him, pet him; he gives us a whack to get us to give him a kiss. He could be more refined and more generous, but he could also be rougher and pettier. Even in civilized games it’s not just sportsmanlike respect that keeps the players going. Power politics, like sexuality, has a metaphysical dimension. In Eastern Europe abstinent cardinals and lascivious heretics keep laughing at each other’s face.

* * *

Freedom can be practiced wherever you are. Talk to others and don’t dissemble; go public. You are surrounded by secretive section chiefs, department heads, assistant heads. The lowliest official is proud of his secrets, even kindergarteners learn to watch what they say. In our region a revolutionary is one who shuns secrets. So go public, be naïve, and catch your friends at their naïve best. Choosing between two aging, self-satisfied gentlemen every four years does not make you free. Whether you are free or not will always be decided in the very next minute. You could be on a street corner waiting for a bus, in your room waiting for a telephone call, in bed waiting for a dream.

The complacent citizen, just because he lives undisturbed, is not free. Our freedom is an impatient master; it doesn’t give us much time to rest. It likes to see inspired, rather than sensible, acts. “This is what I am; this is what I can do,” we complain. “You are more, you can do more,” the master says calmly. Make room for light in you, for you are the room and you are the light. When you get tired, the room grows dark.

Translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders

2. Russian Roundup

During the last six months an average of four political arrests or trials have taken place every week in the USSR. Since the end of February at least forty-eight people have been arrested and eighty (most of them different people arrested earlier) have been sentenced at fifty-four political trials in many parts of the country. The complete figure must be considerably higher, since details of many cases reach the West either with delay or not at all.

The above statistics, compiled from over one thousand pages of samizdat documentation that have reached Western Europe, make it clear that the KGB’s purge of all types of public dissent—religious, humanitarian, nationalist, cultural, political—is continuing without interruption. The tempo of events has in fact been roughly constant throughout the last two years. In all, some 500 dissenters have been arrested.

The authorities’ apparent aim is to suppress all criticism and protest which can be safely silenced without provoking the sort of demonstrations and riots which have sometimes occurred in Lithuania, Georgia, Estonia, and a few large cities. The quiet, steady approach seems designed to attract as little attention as possible both at home and abroad.

While the average sentence handed down is four to five years, severer terms of between ten and fifteen years have been quite common in the Ukraine. About one in ten of all defendants has been induced—while being held incommunicado during the usually lengthy pretrial detention—to recant his views in return for a mild sentence.

The documents also give details about numerous short-term arrests of dissenters, on hundreds of house searches and interrogations, and on a continuing increase in the amount of officially sponsored violence. Prison beatings and street attacks are now quite common, and murders less infrequent than before. Those who commit such violence are only rarely apprehended and are never brought to trial.

A recent such case involved a retired doctor, Mrs. Sofia Baazova, who is seventy-one years old, and who was once named “Outstanding Scientist of the Georgian Republic.” Soon after announcing that she intended to emigrate she was attacked near her house and hit over the head with a chair leg. She was lucky not to be killed but suffered a concussion and twelve stitches were necessary. However, she recognized her attacker as a certain A. Medvedev, whose father was a retired KGB officer and whose mother was a judge of the Georgian Supreme Court. A charge was brought against Medvedev, but quickly dropped “for lack of evidence.”

Among the many trials not yet reported in the Western press, the most unusual is that of a leader of the Latvian Social Democratic Party, Mr. Juris Bumeisters, aged sixty-three. In June the Latvian Supreme Court sentenced him in closed session to fifteen years in a “strict-regime” labor camp for “betraying the Motherland.” His colleague Mr. Dainis Lismanis received ten years on the same charges.

The Latvian social democrats have been forced to work underground ever since the government of independent Latvia banned them in 1934. Following the Soviet occupation in 1940 many party members were either killed or deported to Siberia, or escaped abroad. The party’s foreign organization still belongs to the Socialist International. The last leader to be prosecuted in the USSR was an eighty-four-year-old man who was banished from Riga for five years in 1969.

Mr. Bumeisters is an electrical engineer who worked at the Baltic Fisheries Institute in Riga. He is a leading specialist on the use of electronic technology in deep-sea fishing and belonged to the Latvian establishment. His work was classified as secret. This reportedly made it easier for the prosecution to charge that he had provided “secret information” to foreign groups, and of presenting a purely political case as one involving treason.

In the Ukraine Mr. Genrikh Altunyan, aged forty-seven, was sentenced in Kharkov to twelve years of imprisonment and exile for alleged anti-Soviet propaganda. He pleaded not guilty, declaring in his final speech: “The written word should be combated only with words, not by the secret police.” Altunyan was a communist and a major in the Soviet army until, in 1969, he got a three-year sentence for helping to found the first Soviet human rights group. This time he was charged with circulating the best-known samizdat journal on human rights, the Chronicle of Current Events, and other similar literature.

The most notable recent arrest in the Ukraine was that of Mrs. Raisa Rudenko in Kiev. She is the wife of the leader of the Ukrainian Helsinki monitoring group, Mykola Rudenko, a well-known writer and communist who was sentenced to twelve years in 1977. During searches, Mrs. Rudenko was found to be carrying materials from Ukrainian political prisoners which had evaded the camp censors and which included some poems by her husband. She has campaigned persistently for his release, stressing that he has serious spinal damage, caused by war wounds, as well as other physical ailments that have been aggravated by the severe camp conditions. He has conducted several hunger strikes and recently underwent an operation in a camp hospital.

Mr. Ishkhan Mkrtchyan, aged twenty-four, was one of five members of the League of Young Armenians to be tried by the Armenian Supreme Court for creating an “anti-Soviet organization.” The league had called for Armenian independence—secession is specifically permitted by the Soviet constitution, though in practice it is regarded as taboo. Mkrtchyan was sentenced to seven years in prison, plus five in exile. He then escaped from a transit prison in Rostov while on the way to his camp and is still at large.

—August 27, 1981

3. Czechs in Trouble

Two recent and troubling events in Czechoslovakia:

—On July 27 and 28, Rudolf Battek, a sociologist aged fifty-seven, was tried and sentenced to seven and a half years imprisonment. This is to be followed by three years of “protective surveillance,” for “causing bodily harm” and for “subversion.” The first charge referred to his allegedly having knocked off the cap of a police officer; the second charge—subversion on a grand scale—involved his participation in the collective authorship of a book entitled On Freedom and Power (to be published in the US this fall).

Amnesty International believes that Rudolf Battek is a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned because of his political beliefs. He has a long history of harassment and imprisonment since 1969. In January 1977 he signed the manifesto of the unofficial Czechoslovak human rights movement, Charter 77, and became one of its most active members. In 1978, he joined VONS (Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted). At the time of his arrest, and during the thirteen months of his pretrial detention, he held the office of spokesman for Charter 77.

Rudolf Battek is seriously ill with chronic asthma and other maladies contracted as a result of his three-and-a-half-year imprisonment in the early Seventies. There is real concern that he will not live to serve out his current sentence.

—On May 6, thirty Czech citizens, members or supporters of Charter 77 and/or VONS were arrested in connection, allegedly, with the detention of two French people—Gilles Thonon (an attorney) and Françoise Anis (a law student). These two men were detained for several days by border authorities and were alleged to have used a specially adapted vehicle to carry various materials and money for the use of some Czech citizens for “subversive purposes.”

According to Amnesty’s latest information, eight of the thirty Czechs arrested in early May are still in prison on charges of subversion in collusion with foreign powers and on a large scale (Article 98, sections 1 and 2, paragraphs a and b, of the CSSR Penal Code). If convicted, they face prison sentences of up to ten years.

Of these prisoners, Karel Kyncl is in particularly grave condition. A fifty-four-year-old radio and television journalist, Mr. Kyncl was a supporter of the 1968 Reform Movement. He was expelled from the Czech Communist Party in 1969. In 1972, he was arrested and imprisoned for twenty months for signing a leaflet reminding people of their right to abstain from voting in the national election. After his release he underwent a stomach operation and was granted a disability pension.

Driven from one menial job to another, Mr. Kyncl decided to emigrate. In 1980, he was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom, but he was arrested in May 1981 before being able to leave Czechoslovakia. Since his detention, he has lost 13 kilograms in weight. During two operations, two-thirds of his stomach was removed, and he suffers from a serious kidney disease. His request for hospitalization was dismissed on the grounds that there was no time to attend to him and there was no room in the prison hospital.

I hope your readers will make strong appeals to the Czech government to release these people immediately. Letters and telegrams should be addressed to Dr. Gustáv Husák, President of the CSSR, Praha-Hrad, CSSR, and Dr. Ján Fejes, General Procurator of the CSSR, Praha 4-Nusle, Nam Hrdinu 9, CSSR. Copies of appeals should also be sent to Czechoslovak diplomatic representatives in Washington, DC.

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