An unprecedented meeting took place on Kropotkinskaya Street in Moscow last January at the headquarters of the Soviet Peace Fund. A group of Western human rights activists, known for their sharp criticisms of Soviet human rights practices, met for almost five hours with members of a newly established, officially approved Soviet human rights commission. That, by itself, was remarkable. Moreover, a dramatic encounter occurred when the Western visitors introduced three former Soviet political prisoners—members of an unofficial human rights group—and insisted that they be seated at the conference table and that one of them be allowed to speak.
The conference table was in the shape of a “T.” At the head of the table sat seven members of the Soviet Public Commission for Humanitarian Affairs and Human Rights, a group with some forty members in all, most of whom are well known in the Soviet Union and are members of the Communist party. The commission was created just a month or so before our January meeting and almost immediately began establishing contacts with nongovernmental human rights groups abroad. In the spirit of Soviet “new thinking,” its members have not sought out pro-Soviet groups in the West; on the contrary, they seem eager to engage in debate with their Western critics. Yet despite its obvious involvement in international diplomacy, the commission claims to be primarily concerned with improving human rights within the Soviet Union. It is thus trying to fill a place that many see as already occupied by longstanding Soviet human rights activists, most of whom have served lengthy prison sentences in the past for attitudes and activities that are now generally tolerated under glasnost.
The commission’s chairman is Professor Fyodor Burlatsky, a philosopher, political observer, writer, and playwright; he describes himself as a proponent of perestroika and he has said that his reformist views cost him three jobs under Brezhnev. Professor Burlatsky was a speechwriter for Khrushchev and is now an adviser to Gorbachev. He accompanied Gorbachev to Washington for the December summit, and it was there that he and I first met and discussed the possibility of a “seminar” when my group visited Moscow in January.
The seminar began at 10:00 AM on Wednesday, January 27, 1988. About twenty of us from ten Western countries—members of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF)—sat along the stem of the “T.” Some in our group had previously been denied visas to enter the Soviet Union because of our human rights work. But now, under Gorbachev, we had been officially invited to discuss our concerns. Our chairman, Karl Johannes von Schwarzenberg, comes from a distinguished Central European family and has the title of prince. A man of tact and decorum, he had to deal with an ostensible conflict over manners that masked the two real issues underlying the meeting—the relations between official and unofficial organizations in the USSR, and the role of private citizens in monitoring human rights.
Some fifty spectators were seated …