Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Kremlin puts heavy thumb on dissidents and peace groups

Recent arrests, trials, imprisonments, and exiles are but the dotting of ''i's,'' the crossing of ''t's'': The Soviet ''dissident movement'' - in the form in which this small band of writers, scientists, artists, and political thinkers came to be known in the 1960s and '70s - is finished.

''Liquidated,'' pronounces one of its few, now nearly silent, survivors with a resigned sort of sorrow. He recalls aloud the increasingly sophisticated mix of arrests, trials, and expulsions whereby the powers that be have picked off the major dissident figures one by one.

About these ads

''Forgotten'' by the world and news media outside, says another one, more bitterly.

Among the figures who share this lament is Yelena Bonner, wife of Nobel Prize-winner Andrei Sakharov. Exiled without trial for his ''anti-Soviet'' stance on human rights, the man who was once the establishment's foremost nuclear physicist has lived since early 1980 in the Russian city of Gorky, which is closed to foreigners.

And the era of large-scale Jewish emigration also seems over, at least for the foreseeable future. One dotted ''i,'' for Jews who want to leave, was the unveiling of a Soviet ''Anti-Zionist Committee'' at a news conference earlier this month.

Still, dissent of a kind seems likely to go on. The pattern of Russian history and the odd genius of the Soviet system for alienating even the gentler of its critics would appear to guarantee this. Another guarantee may derive partly from the years of superpower detente: Soviet society as a whole is irreversibly, if not overwhelmingly, more open to foreign influence than in decades past.

But with the major dissidents of the 1960s and '70s all silenced or isolated, Soviet dissent, at least for now, will likely take new forms: more subtle, more private, smaller in scale, and - dissidents predict - more ''conspiratorial.''

It may also increasingly involve a group known, in Russian, as the zolotaya molodyozh. ''Golden youth,'' the phrase reads in English. It refers to the well-educated, well-off kids of the political, cultural, and intellectual elite.

A possible harbinger may be the recent case of ''young socialists'' here. Unlike Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the Sakharovs of the 1970s, these seven youths shunned contact with the Western news media.

About these ads

They worked quietly, using foreign-language skills to translate and circulate West European writings, ''Eurocommunist'' theory, and the like. It was only when they crossed the line between subtlety and publicity with a formal condemnation of martial law in Poland that they ran into trouble. They were jailed last spring. A few weeks ago all but two were freed, having reportedly pledged to avoid further such activity.

The release of the young socialists is one recent move that helps underscore what a Western diplomat terms the ''good-cop, bad-cop'' approach to Soviet dissidents that has emerged over the past decade or so.

Another example is the Soviets' surprise decision earlier this year to allow Lydia Vashchenko, one of the ''Siberian seven,'' Pentecostal Christians who took refuge in the United States Embassy in Moscow in the late 1970s, to emigrate. The remaining Siberians are back home awaiting word on their own visa applications.

The approach developed during Yuri Andropov's 15-year tenure as head of the KGB security apparatus and seems to have survived without much change following his elevation as party chief last November.

In Moscow and Leningrad, two of the last resident Soviet writers who had figured prominently in the ''dissident movement'' of the 1970s - human-rights monitor Georgi Vladimov and Russian nationalist Leonid Borodin - have in effect been eliminated from the fray.

Yet the methods of elimination differed: Mr. Borodin was sentenced, with official fanfare, to 10 years' imprisonment and a further five years of ''internal exile.'' Mr. Vladimov, having reacted to a KGB search of his apartment by asking Mr. Andropov for permission to emigrate, got that permission and left for the West this month.

The overall game plan has long been, in the words of one dissident, to adopt a ''differentiated'' approach rather than the simple, uniform ''crackdown.'' The idea is to hit hard at some dissidents, scare others, nudge still others into foreign climes. And occasionally, when the alternative seems too complicated, simply to give in. (The one clear example of this was in 1981, when a hunger strike by Dr. Sakharov and Miss Bonner won an exit visa for his daughter-in-law.)

A Western diplomat remarks: ''The Andropov era in the KGB, and since, has seen a modernized process of repressing dissidents. . . . The authorities, while avoiding Stalinist extremes, have confused, demoralized, unsettled, and finally broken the organized dissident movement.''

That movement, to the extent that it was really a movement, grew from within the Soviet intelligentsia after Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in the 1950 s.

Slowly, inevitably, Soviet cultural and political life began to thaw a bit. With the support of the then-feisty Soviet literary journal Novy Mir (New World) , and with Khrushchev's own OK, for instance, a daring young writer named Alexander Solzhenitsyn managed to publish what became a milestone text of the post-Stalin age: the terse prison-camp narrative called ''One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.''

Ultimately, amid Soviet desire for superpower detente, Mr. Solzhenitsyn would share the stage with others: simple writers, scientists, intellectuals, each with a different degree of political content in his particular message. They were men like Sakharov (now ''internally'' exiled), or scientists and human rights activists Anatoly Shcharansky and Yuri Orlov (imprisoned), or men like (externally exiled) satirist Vladimir Voinovich and, now, Vladimov.

In retrospect, the thaw seems destined to have proven a stop-and-go affair, limited by the restraints of the Soviet political system.

But the first salvo in what was to become a concerted assault on free-lance expression and help ultimately to turn disparate elements of the thaw into a dissident ''movement'' of sorts came only in 1966, two years after Leonid Brezhnev took over the Kremlin leadership from Khrushchev. This was the trial and jailing of Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky, writers who were publishing abroad under pseudonyms material that was not sufficiently orthodox.

There followed a roughly 15-year process of harassment, arrest, trial, imprisonment, and banishment against various dissenting voices in various fields. On the other side of the scales came Solzhenitsyn's epic writings, as well as the 1975 Helsinki Accords and subsequent human rights monitoring by Soviet activists.

The passing of what might be termed the honeymoon stage of Soviet-US detente also seemed to encourage the Kremlin's toughened approach to dissent.

The relation between detente and the dissenters' fortunes has never been perfectly predictable. The Daniel-Sinyavsky trial, for instance, predated the heyday of detente by several years. And Jewish emigration, for example, started in detente's first flush, dropped sharply after US Sen. Henry Jackson tried publicly in 1974 to force heightened Jewish emigration on the Kremlin as a price for increased US-Soviet trade, then floated even higher by 1979. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, emigration scraped ever closer to ground level.

Still, two rules suggest themselves: that generally, US-Soviet strain hurts Jewish emigration; and that Kremlin pressure on other intellectual dissent is more constant regardless of relations, but does seem sometimes to ease when the target involved is a man of genuine stature in the West.Regardless, amid ups and downs in detente, the Soviets had by the time of their troop move into Afghanistan in late 1979 extinguished most of the main lights of intellectual dissent at home. Some, like Solzhenitsyn, glimmered only from faraway, abroad; while those few still left at home flashed only intermittently. If there was one notable exception, it was Andrei Sakharov. In early 1980 he, too, was forcibly isolated in Gorky.

Not only did the authorities take on human rights dissent, but also they tackled movements with more specific priorities like fresher literary output, or women's rights, or feistier representation for workers in the coal mines.

By pure volume of antidissident activity, Soviet authorities won a related victory: wearing down Western media attention and Western public interest in the dissidents.

A foreign reporter who worked in Moscow in the 1960s and has returned since remarks: ''Then, every little trial, every event in this political ferment, was high drama. . . . We all rushed down to cover these trials. Sakharov might show up. Sometimes, even Solzhenitsyn. Now, we don't pay any attention really. It's old hat.''

Since 1980, Kremlin dissident policy has for all practical purposes been a mopping-up operation. Among the victims have been men and women the West never really heard of. They were not great writers or brilliant scientists. Virtually all those guiding dissident voices were already muted.

By late 1982 the assortment of Moscow human rights activists who had banded together six years earlier to monitor Soviet observance of the Helsinki Accords found itself frittered away by intensified official assault. In September, the rump group announced the inevitable: It was disbanding.

Jewish emigration had also sunk after a unique spurt in the 1970s that peaked at 51,320 departures in l979. Last year the total dropped to 2,688. In the first quarter of 1983, only 307 Jews were allowed to leave.

The recently formed Anti-Zionist Committee, whose members include various officially prominent Soviet Jews, announced at its first news conference here this month that such emigration had, for all practical purposes, run its course.

The committee maintained that the bulk of Jews who wished to ''reunify'' with families in Israel had already done so. Not so, says a group called the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry, which claims to have tallied at least 8,000 relatives of Soviet Jews already in Israel who want to follow suit.

Western diplomats and various Moscow Jews so far refused permission to leave say there is no way of knowing how many Jews still want to leave, but they dispute the Anti-Zionist Committee's reckoning. For one thing, they note the authorities recognize only the claim to ''family reunification'' and consider a Jew's, or anyone else's, mere desire to leave the Soviet Union an unfriendly political act bordering on treason.

Another problem in estimating would-be emigres is that applicants risk losing their jobs by the mere act of asking to leave, whether permission comes or not.

Emigration aside, by the time Mr. Andropov became party chief, the general ''mopping up'' of dissent had so progressed that even Moscow-based historian Roy Medvedev felt its effect. Mr. Medvedev, whose quiet style of dissidence and passionate advocacy of gradual reform from within the system long seemed to shield him from direct reprisals, was formally warned early this year to stop publishing articles in foreign newspapers.

He protested in a statement to foreign reporters here. He has since been left alone and continues intermittently to write his incisive but low-key analyses of Soviet politics and history for audiences overseas.

But he is the only one of the major dissidents of the 1970s to continue to speak out at all. ''It is hard to say what form dissent may take in the future, '' he says. ''But one assumes there will be smaller, less organized groups.''

On the one hand, he and others figure, this sort of ''dissent'' will prove much more slippery a phenomenon, harder for the authorities to control, much more nearly overlapping with the generally feistier and more demanding political world view of Soviet youth since the years of Stalin.

But Mr. Medvedev adds that such dissent is likely to get much less public attention here or in the West and thus to present ''less of a threat'' to the powers that be.

Changes in the Kremlin's approach to one or another aspect of dissidence, or to Jewish emigration, for instance, are hard to foresee at this point. Past patterns suggest that in individual cases the Kremlin may, indeed, give in when the alternative stakes at home or abroad seem to suggest that's the prudent path.

And private remarks from some officials hint that, if and when there is a revival of the kind of East-West detente that marked the early 1970s, the Soviets might conceivably ease their stand on questions like Jewish emigration.

But at least for now, the general tenor of Soviet policy - to restrict emigration and to curb what is officially portrayed as ''anti-Soviet'' political activism among dissidents - seems immutable.

Also seemingly unchanged - indeed, through much of Russian history - is the fact that active dissent is the province of a relative few. While many Soviets seem increasingly aware of the outside world, and increasingly vocal among themselves in criticizing Soviet failings, what makes such citizens ''ordinary'' is their tendency to keep such thoughts within bounds. The rule: Thinking, talking, joking against the Soviet system is one thing; going public is another.

Strangely, the few exceptions seem always there, sometimes strong, sometimes less so, but there.

Recently, for instance, the authorities imprisoned a ''confessed anti-Soviet dupe'' of the CIA for two years for heading the so-called Solzhenitsyn Fund for support of families of detained dissidents.

Yet even so, and even with the knowledge that earlier figures in the fund had been similarly detained, a previously little-known English-language translator stepped forward to take public charge of the fund.

One Moscow intellectual, never fully a dissident, adds: ''Throughout Russian and Soviet history, there have been ups and downs in such activity. . . .

''We are now in a major down period. But it is reasonable to assume there will be another climb on the graph sooner or later.

''For one thing, there is a written record, a powerful one, of the period we're talking about - Solzhenitsyn, Vladimov, Voinovich, for example - novels, autobiography, stories, satire, of genuine quality that is likely in some form to outlive its creators, whatever becomes of them.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.