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 suicide as a direct consequence of KGB persecution, and two more have been murdered in circumstances strongly suggesting official direction.

These figures—about twice as high as can be expected in a normal period of similar length—come from my own review of the available documents. The total figures must be higher still—perhaps by a factor of two—as the reporting of the dissident groups is still far from covering all areas of the world’s largest country. The fact that very few of the trials have been reported in the Western press can largely be explained by the severe restrictions placed on foreign correspondents in Moscow.

The samizdat documents which the dissident groups have compiled on the trials and oppression since August 1978 are a major source of information. Some 2,000 pages have reached the West. In addition I have used an invaluable new publication, USSR News Brief: Human Rights, which is issued fortnightly in Brussels and edited by Dr. Cronid Lubarsky, a prominent dissenter forced into emigration.*

Of the 217 Soviet citizens tried or otherwise imprisoned, sixty-four were actively exercising or promoting basic human rights—rights for workers, intellectuals, artists, would-be emigrants, political prisoners, and so on. Fifty-eight were primarily defending the rights of the national minority to which they belong; and ninety-five were concerned with their rights as religious believers. Among the latter, forty-two are Baptists, twenty-three Adventists, and fourteen Russian Orthodox, with lesser numbers for Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. The national minority victims are Ukrainians (14), Crimean Tatars (13), Jews (9), Lithuanians (7), and Germans (5), with an admixture of Armenians, Georgians, and Estonians.

Against this background the main KGB targets of recent weeks have been members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and key dissenters in Lithuania and Moscow. In the capital the following groups have suffered arrests or received serious warnings: the Moscow Helsinki Group, the “Working Commission” on political abuse of psychiatry, the Christian Committee to Defend Believers’ Rights, the religious philosophy seminar founded by Alexander Ogorodnikov, the Moscow group of nonconformist artists, the Group to Defend the Rights of the Disabled, and the samizdat journals Searches, Community, A Chronicle of Current Events, and Jews in the USSR.


None of this is yet sufficient to force the various groups to mute their statements, let alone silence them. But a further fifty well-chosen arrests could do much to keep the dissidents quiet, at least until after the Olympic Games and the subsequent Madrid conference to review the working of the Helsinki accords. Everything suggests that this is the minimum goal the Kremlin has now set, and that it would dearly like to achieve a more radical outcome if possible.

The Soviet leaders are not of course worried about their regime’s stability, at least for the time being. Dissent, though endemic and spreading, still involves only a tiny fraction of the population. But since official propaganda portrays the USSR as virtually perfect in every respect, this illusion needs to be preserved for the many thousands of visitors to the Olympics. And this requires the silencing, if possible, of dissent. Those who oppose a boycott of the games, seeing them as a chance for foreigners to talk to Russians, might ponder, among other things, the terrible price that dissidents are being forced to pay by the regime.

In January 1977 the Soviet authorities intensified their previous big crackdown in a way that resembles what they are doing now. They aimed then at suppressing dissent—and especially among the Helsinki groups—before the Helsinki review conference in Belgrade during the summer of 1977. Policy was spelled out at a closed, high-level party meeting, where the main speaker said: “It has been decided to imprison the fifty most active dissidents and deal severely with their associates. It is time to show strength and not pay attention to the West.”

However, just at this moment President Carter launched his human rights campaign, and the first arrests (of Orlov and others) provoked an unprecedented chorus of world condemnation. With only twenty of the “most active dissidents” arrested, the Soviet leaders hastily retreated. As a result, almost all the Helsinki and other groups survived. In subsequent months they often expressed gratitude for the foreign support which had saved them from much heavier losses.

Ironically, many Western commentators misread events and concluded that Carter’s policy had been of doubtful value, or even counterproductive. Carter himself seems to have thought likewise. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cost to the Soviet leaders of all protests and sanctions—the loss in economic and political advantage, in scientific benefits and international prestige—was carefully counted and weighed, and policy adjusted accordingly. The same process has now begun again. This is why many governments and national and international organizations—scientific, literary, religious, ethnic, humanitarian, libertarian, cultural, and medical—now need to appreciate their power and responsibility and to take action.

This Issue

March 20, 1980