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 in the gallery, mainly Jewish refuseniks and members of the persecuted Hare Krishna movement. About twenty journalists were also present, including several Western TV crews. Under the glare of the television lights we asked Professor Burlatsky to intervene when irate Soviet officials in the room tried to prevent the three former political prisoners who arrived at the meeting with us from sitting at the table with our delegation. Taking in the scene at a glance, Burlatsky quickly agreed with us that they should be seated. The officials grudgingly backed off, making it clear, however, that our guests would not be allowed to speak. They even called Mr. Schwarzenberg from the table and threatened to bring the meeting—and possibly our entire visit to Moscow—to an abrupt end if we gave the floor to our Soviet friends.
The three whose presence was in dispute—Lev Timofeyev, Larissa Bogoraz, and Sergei Kovalev—are members of the Press Club Glasnost, founded in 1987, one of thousands of new clubs that have sprung up in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. The Press Club continues the tradition of monitoring human rights that was established by the unofficial Helsinki groups that were suppressed by the Soviet government in the late 1970s. The Press Club Glasnost holds regular meetings and periodic seminars to which it invites the Soviet and foreign press. It also publishes Referendum, an unofficial journal of political and social commentary. Among its chief concerns are the close to four hundred political prisoners who remain in Soviet camps today, many of whom are known to its members from their own days in prison.
The Press Club Glasnost had become an affiliate of the International Helsinki Federation at our annual meeting in Vienna in October 1987. This occurred after the IHF had been invited to send a delegation to Moscow in January, but the Press Club’s membership in our organization was no secret to the Soviets. It was, in fact, announced at a public meeting in Vienna in the presence of Soviet officials. At the time, no one seemed to pay much attention to the announcement.
But in Moscow this past January the Press Club’s relationship to the IHF became the central issue. The Burlatsky group claimed that we were creating a “scandal” by slipping new people, “unknown” Soviet citizens, into our group. We said that they were there as our Soviet affiliates and that they were in a much better position than we were to discuss human rights problems in the USSR. We asked that the floor be given to Lev Timofeyev, the group’s bearded leader, a writer, economist, and prophet of perestroika, who was sent to prison in 1985 for writings that may have been ahead of their time. I suspect that he had been awake a good deal of the previous night, preparing the remarks that he now wanted to deliver. He sat at my side, tense, controlled, uncomfortable in his three-piece suit. Would our hosts accept him as a member of our delegation? Would they allow him to speak?
Following are excerpts from the record of the meeting prepared by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, research director of Helsinki Watch, and Hester Minnema, associate director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.
Professor Ole Esperse, former Danish minister of justice, now member of parliamentn: I feel a striking sense of glasnost in this room. We have had a period of confrontation and hope that now a period of cooperation will follow. However, behind me is sitting a seventy-two-year-old lady who has tried for many years to join her son in Denmark. You may think that the Western press writes too much about individual cases, but I believe that human rights issues can be best illustrated by the fate of human individuals…. One final advice I would like to give your commission. Make sure that you will have a staff. This is of crucial importance. Otherwise it will be very difficult to deal with all the problems you are facing….
Max van der Stoel, former Dutch minister of foreign affairs: Mr. Burlatsky mentioned the Washington summit. We have seen with pleasure that American inspectors are allowed to visit missile factories and vice versa. Giant steps have been made forward in arms control. But don’t we lag behind in the human rights field? We have all committed ourselves in the Helsinki Final Act. But what about verification? Mr. Burlatsky mentioned himself in December that cooperation in the humanitarian field should accompany cooperation in the political and military realm….
On the issue of political prisoners: according to our lists, 329 were released in 1987. Yet 360 known prisoners are still behind bars, including thirteen Helsinki monitors. Will your commission, in the spirit of the new developments, plead for their early release?…
Professor Fyodor Burlatsky: At present you have the possibility of engaging in monitoring. You meet with people at a high level. We can use your advice for our organization. If we come to your country, we hope to visit your ministers as well. We should start cooperation on the basis of mutual control. And we are ready to facilitate your work in Moscow…. Mikhail Krutogolov, professor of law at the Institute of State and Law of the USSR Academy of Sciences: Ten years ago we in the Soviet Union focused excessively on social and economic rights. This was exaggerated. The West focused too much on political rights. Now we are speaking the same language. If we talk about human rights we talk about all human rights, on an equal footing. If one right is being violated, all rights are. The right to emigrate, the rights of political prisoners are essential. But 99 percent of the population in the Soviet Union have a different concept. For them the right to emigrate or to demonstrate on Red Square is not the most essential. Essential is that the militia does not raid your home, that there are sufficient apartments, etc.
We will solve the right to emigrate, that is imperative; we will also solve the problem of political rights. But for Ivan Ivanovich living five thousand miles from Moscow, it is essential to have his basic rights protected.
My colleague Nazarov works for the militia academy. They have established a new chair for human rights. That is the most essential: they teach human rights to the man on the spot. In many aspects our country is lagging behind in the implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. It is therefore imperative to change the law. It would, however, be naive to think that we will solve all our problems by changing the legislation. Priority should be given to the implementation of legislation. Institutions should be established to guarantee the absence of violations of human rights. So our attention goes therefore to human rights mechanisms in other countries, such as the ombudsmen in Scandinavian countries and the protecteur des citoyens in Canada. Of key interest are our efforts for constitutional verification of individual rights….
Irwin Cotler, professor of international law, McGill University, Canada: I totally agree with your remarks on implementation. You also have the task of monitoring human rights in our countries. May I give you three recommendations: 1) Work for the betterment of emigration legislation, in order to facilitate rather than impede emigration. 2) Facilitate access to decision-making bodies. 3) Involve organizations like Press Club Glasnost in your work and help them to become registered as independent organizations.
The representatives of Press Club Glasnost themselves are the most appropriate to discuss these matters, and therefore I would like to give Lev Timofeyev the floor.
The room becomes very silent. Timofeyev remains seated in his chair.
Professor Burlatsky: What are we up to? What do we want? A scandal, a confrontation? A show? I did not mind the presence of all those who wanted to come. But this is an open meeting of the delegates of the Helsinki Federation and our Soviet Human Rights Commission, and not a meeting with all organizations existing in Moscow. It is our prerogative to meet with those whom we invite. This is a meeting of the commission and allow me to kindly request that you follow our procedure.
Now about the questions put forward by Professor Cotler. None of the members of the commission is against reunification of families. On the contrary, we are placing these problems here for discussion. I believe that our government will manifest due attention to these issues. We support the idea of new legislation to regulate the activities of nonformal organizations.
About Press Club Glasnost: we do not know this group. We do not know their purpose, tasks, methods, or platform. We have a right to get to know such a group. I cannot pledge that we will cooperate with all groups. I will not, for instance, cooperate with Pamyat [an unofficial right-wing anti-Semitic organization]. In addition, this is not by any standards the best place to solve this problem. My commission is not fully prepared for it.
Professor Burlatsky gives the floor to the professor of law Boris Krylov, who diverts the discussion to activities of the commission.
Karl Johannes von Schwarzenberg, Austria, head of the delegation and chairman of the International Helsinki Federation: You asked me if I wanted to have a show, a scandal. My answer is “no.” Under other circumstances I would have probably taken your remark as an insult. As a rule I am the most discreet person in the world. For our part we are glad to hear different voices—from our delegation, and from the Soviet Union here—and I would like to give anybody the opportunity to speak. Concerning Press Club Glasnost: we know the members of the press club. They are very knowledgable and sincere persons, who have suffered a lot.
Professor Burlatsky gives the floor to Professor Nazarov. At this point Ms. Jeri Laber, executive director of the US Helsinki Watch, makes a point of order.
Jeri Laber: I believe our chairman has made a request for Press Club Glasnost to make a short presentation of its activities. They are members of our organization and they are part of [the Helsinki Federation]. I must say that I am surprised to hear that you do not know them. Last month they organized a seminar which was discussed in the press all over the world. But if you indeed do not know them then I believe that this is an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with them.
Professor Burlatsky: I can honestly tell you that I do not know those people. What do they represent? If you had told me before, they could have introduced themselves and their cause. We are willing to get to know this group in a separate meeting in order to see whether there is a common basis for cooperation. You have presented us with a list of your delegation and they were not on it. It is not exactly polite to settle the matter by force.
Robert Bernstein, president of Random House publishers: Press Club Glasnost was adopted into the IHF after our request to visit Moscow had been made. We are very happy that you allowed them to sit here at the table. Frankly, I am baffled. It seems to me that they are not just any group. They are members of our organization. Why is it such a big matter, now that they already are here at the table? They will speak responsibly; I have heard them speak at other meetings and you will be proud of them. They have a very long record in human rights work and those here from our countries would like to hear what they have to say.
At this point, several IHF members notice a member of the Soviet group who had left the room return and whisper something in Professor Burlatsky’s ear.
Professor Burlatsky: I will give the floor to the representative of this group, Press Club Glasnost. But I tell you that this is not the appropriate moment. It is like forcing a bride on us in a marriage we do not want. It is not polite.
Professor Veniamin Yakovlev, director of the All-Union Institute of Soviet Law: We received guests and want to hear the guests. My advice is to observe procedures of normal human relations. Let us follow previously agreed principles. The quintessence is cooperation. We should all be polite and tactful.
Karl Johannes von Schwarzenberg: We politely ask you to give Mr. Timofeyev a chance to speak.
Professor Burlatsky: If you don’t mind I will give Timofeyev the floor. I do not think that this will be such a calamity. Since I have spent some time in China, I would like to quote Mao Zedong. The sky will remain clear, the birds will go on flying, the fish will keep swimming in the river, if Timofeyev speaks.
Karl Johannes von Schwarzenberg: We politely ask you and we will be very grateful if you could give Mr. Timofeyev the floor.
Professor Burlatsky: Well, let the cameras roll—everyone on Timofeyev!
Lev Timofeyev: To be honest, I did not want to be the first among my friends to speak. I thought Larissa Iosifevna Bogoraz would be the first to speak, since she is the veteran participant of the independent human rights movement in the USSR. Professor Burlatsky had some difficulty in addressing me. He could not decide whether to use “comrade,” as it is accepted here, or “mister” as is customary in the West. He just called me by my last name, Timofeyev. Well, all right, during the two years I was in labor camp, I got used to being called by my last name by the labor camp wardens.
My colleagues and I came here with very friendly feelings. We really came to speak to you about what the respected colleagues spoke of today in particular, that social institutions for guaranteeing and monitoring human rights are not only desirable in our country, they already exist. They have existed at least from the moment that the Moscow Helsinki Group was founded, and even earlier.
Thanks to the reasonable policy of the current Soviet leadership, these institutions are not losing their opportunities but, on the contrary, are developing into a widespread social movement dealing with all the problems that concern independent public opinion. I will say that first and foremost no matter what the conversation is about, we are concerned about the fate of our comrades who still remain in labor camps and, by the way, are really guilty of nothing more or less than what the respected professors said in their speeches today. It was just that it was said at another time, five years ago, for example, when perhaps one did not speak so openly and publicly.
We would like to submit to the Public Human Rights Commission a list of political prisoners which a week ago was handed to Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev during a meeting with the Fund for Survival. It can be found in the fourth issue of our new independent journal Referendum; it differs from the one given to the General Secretary in that we took the liberty of providing some footnotes and explanations about the offenses of some of those listed. But the list has been maintained as it was in the original. [Lev Timofeyev passes the list to Professor Burlatsky.]
I must say that the reception given to the representatives of the Press Club Glasnost is regrettable. It is distressing because in our time, nothing is more important than recapturing a common conception of those well-known words that are so differently interpreted in the world—words like freedom, right, and love, and other traditional values of human society. Without a common ground, no disarmament can be achieved. Cooperation among countries is only possible with a commonality of meanings; peace in one’s country and in one’s heart cannot be attained otherwise.
Searching, finding, and then establishing the traditional meaning of these words in accordance with the general discussion is a significant step in the formation of independent public opinion. The [Press Club Glasnost] seminar [in December] was unlike other human rights activities in that it was an event with a program. There was not only one purpose such as discussing the problems of political prisoners or the problem of emigration. Instead, eleven different sections tried to resolve as large a number of issues as possible, despite all the prohibitions and threats to which the participants were subjected.
Here in my hands are the resolutions adopted by each section, signed by many different people, including their debates, discussions, and disagreements, and their own particular opinions. I am prepared to submit this document to the members of the commission in the hope that it will be helpful to them in their work; at least it will represent to them independent public opinion in the form in which it was possible for society to represent it today.
I want to say that I agree that monitoring and inspecting human rights is very difficult work. And we must remember those who were prepared to accept the burdens of that cause on their own shoulders, to the point that they sacrificed their freedom and even their lives.
The commission, which is limited to the list of its members, should be in close cooperation with independent public opinion. I am sure that is the only direction we can take if we are to achieve any sort of ascertainable results.
After Mr. Timofeyev’s speech, the meeting continues for another hour. When the meeting ends, the Hare Krishna devotees distribute homemade sweets to all present, including the commission members and two men in the audience, who were identified by some as KGB officers.
Ms. Larissa Bogoraz, widow of Anatoly Marchenko, a Soviet writer who died in a labor camp in December 1986 on the eve of his probable release, approaches Professor Burlatsky and offers him the cooperation of Press Club Glasnost, suggesting that her group’s research and resources could be very useful in the enormous task faced by the commission. Professor Burlatsky and some of the commission members accept a fifty-page report on the December seminar of Press Club Glasnost and a list of political prisoners. They say that they will look into the cases involved.
Three months after the Moscow meeting—at the end of April 1988—a meeting was held in Vienna between three members of the Burlatsky commission and a half dozen representatives of the IHF. The meeting was suggested by the Burlatsky group. This time the IHF participants included the federation’s honorary chairman, Yuri Orlov, who was chairman of the original Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, founded in 1976, and who served seven years in prison and almost three years in exile before he was abruptly banished from his homeland in October 1986. In contrast to their reception of Mr. Timofeyev in Moscow in January, the Soviet participants in the recent meeting accepted Yuri Orlov’s presence without the slightest sign of surprise or discomfort.
When asked about the Press Club Glasnost, however, they became combative. Professor Burlatsky claimed that “no one has studied who they are. We were not at their [December] seminar. Our only contact was during your stay in Moscow.”
“Then why don’t you get acquainted?” Mr. Orlov asked.
Professor Burlatsky then revealed that two members of his commission had been assigned to undertake “fact-finding” about the Press Club Glasnost and would report back to the commission. “Then we will make a decision,” he declared. “You brought them to our meeting,” he reminded us. “I gave [Timofeyev] the floor. You can cooperate with glasnost, but we don’t have to marry against our will.”
As for the list of political prisoners, it is now reported to be in the hands of the chairman of the Supreme Soviet. We hope to have some response when we next meet the Burlatsky group, later this spring, in Paris.
June 2, 1988