22 JULY 1972, Page 12


Tibor Szamuely: the future of Soviet dissent

The birth of samizdat—the Russian Do-itYourself Dissenting Press — roughly coincided with the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial of early 1966—a profoundly traumatic experience for the Soviet intelligentsia. Suddenly a deep-rooted psychological barrier broke down and a veritable flood of 'self-published ' material poured forth: letters of protest, manifestos, literary symposia, political programmes, novels, poems, trial transcripts, descriptions of prison life, studies of aspects of Soviet policy, reports of arrests and police repressions etc etc.

The publication of the most important of these Chronicles of Current Events has been little short of miraculous. Every two months on the dot the bulky typewritten journal is delivered to its 'subscribers,' who ever they may be. It has no political line: its sole aim is sober factual information concerning the movement for civil rights in the USSR: what acts of dissent have been carried out, who has been arrested and for what, which political trials have been held, who has been sent to what prison or labour camp or lunatic asylum.

Why the Politburo has tolerated these goings-on has always been a bit of a mystery. The KGB must all along have had a fairly accurate idea of who the authors of samizdat and the compilers of the Chronicle were, particularly since most were con siderate enough to provide names and addresses. A number of factors must have played a part: it made it easier to keep an eye on heterodox elements; Brezhnev's Politburo acquired something of a reputa tion for tolerance; and, most important, the overwhelming part of samizdat presented no danger whatever to the regime.

Now, suddenly, the situation has changed. Since the beginning of the yearmany people connected with samizdat have been arrested; some — a fine touch, this — have been given one-way tickets to Israel.

whether they were Jews or not. Hardly any new material has appeared. According to the latest reports, issue twenty-five of the Chronicle has just been published; it may well prove to be the last.

The key event here is undoubtedly the arrest on June 21 of Pyotr Yakir. His father, Army General Iona Yakir, had been next to Tukhachevsky, the most brilliant, influential and popular commander of the Red Army. He was murdered in 1937 together with Tukhachevsky. Since General Yakir's rehabilitation in 1955 he has been made into an even more legendary hero than ever in his lifetime. Pyotr, the son, had been arrested at fourteen and spent the next seventeen years in prison and exile. He could have had anything in the world as compensation from his father's murderers; instead, this noble and heroic man chose to become the unofficial leader of the civil rights movement. This raised immense difficulties for the Kremlin: what could they do with someone like him, the son of an authentic national hero and martyr, and himself the victim of Stalinist terror? Well, they finally decided to arrest Yakir, and now nobody is safe. Some of the most eminent figures — Solzhenitsyn, Academician Sakharov — will be left in isolation. Samizdat itself will be snuffed out.

It is therefore particularly timely that Peter Reddaway's publication of the first eleven issues of the Chronicle of Current Events* should have appeared at this moment. Instead of just issuing a full run of the journal in English translation Mr Reddaway has wisely, and exercising excellent editorial judgement, chosen to select and classify the information by topic.

A remarkable achievement. And yet, and yet . . . The nagging question remains: how much has our understanding of the USSR, of Soviet society and Soviet politics, been enhanced by the vast mass of samizdat suddenly made available to the West. This may sound paradoxical, but I have an uneasy feeling that overall it might have created an even more distorted picture than the one that existed before. A bright spotlight suddenly turned on one small feature of the landscape can only make the surrounding darkness seem even deeper.

The impression is created, for instance, that organised opposition to the Soviet regime began only after Khrushchev's 1956 secret speech, and, more specifically, in the mid-'sixties. Nothing could be further from the truth. Opposition to the regime was far stronger and more widespread be fore 1956. In the Ukraine and Lithuania. to mention but two examples, a protracted and sanguine guerrilla war raged for ten years after 1945. Only the West chose to take no notice of it. Or take political trials: Western writings on Soviet dissenters con vey the notion that this characteristic feature of Soviet life fell into abeyance between Stalin's death and Khruschev's fall.

Not at all: "anti Soviet" organizations, real or imaginary (and many of them far more important than those described in samizdat) were being rooted out all the time — and punished more harshly than now, with numerous executions. A considerable literature exists about the five minute demonstration of protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia — how many people know about the mass meetings at the time of the Hungarian Revolution, when official speakers were thrown out of the hall and even beaten up?

It is no reflection on the courageous and idealistic men and women of the Soviet civil rights movement to point out that their Western supporters have — with the best of intentions — drawn up a somewhat misleading general picture of their aims and activities. To begin with, they have been awarded the rather grand title of the Democratic•Movement (with capital initials). This implies a degree of unity and organisation, or at least co-ordination, which simply does not exist. There is no such thing as a Democratic Movement. Unlike our Western authors, the Soviet dissenters themselves never, or hardly ever, use the phrase. As far as I know, it was favoured only by. Andrei Amalrik, a highly untypical lone wolf, much disliked and even reviled by most of the other dissenters. The actual signature of 'Democratic Movement' is found, I believe, on only three samizdat documents, distinguished from any other samizdat publication by concomitantly a) remaining anonymous, b) containing a really deep and far-reaching analysis of the general situation inside the USSR, and c) being sharply critised by the Chronicle, which normally refrains from expressing editorial opinions. For all one knows, they may all have been written by one person: Russian revolutionary history knows similar cases.

The civil rights movement — which is what Mr Reddaway is really writing about — is no more than one out of many divergent currents of dissent. Its membership is minute. At the height of the 'signature campaign' in 1968 about 200 names ap peared under various letters of protest.

Hardly any of them were seen a second time. And towards the end there remained just a handful of stubborn protesters, inside prison and out — the very same names that have been regularly appearing for the past ten to fifteen years. It is magnificent — but is it a Movement? But there is more to it than just a question of numbers. Even if we include all the 2000-odd signers we are struck by a curious feature. Probably the largest group among them are the physicists; then come mathematicians, biologists, philosophers, philologists, some poets and. teachers, a few engineers and doctors. There are hardly any students — the backbone of all modern Protest movements (a point made by Mr Reddaway)—no workers to speak of and not a single peasant. In short, the civil, rightists all come from the intelligentsia' and especially its scientific elite.

The main reason why the Soviet civil rights dissenters (for all their incredible moral toughness), present so little danger to the regime is that they are a movement of the intelligentsia, by the intelligentsia and for the intelligentsia. What are their demands? The abolition of censorship, freedom of scientific research, tolerance for heterodoxy, freer contacts with foreign colleagues, no punishment for political views, greater press freedom. All very well, but hardly the stuff to fire the masses. And here we see the crucial difference between oviet dissenters and anti-Tsarist rebels — the first are concerned almost solely with the rights for the intellectuals, the latter cared about nothing except bettering the Conditions of the peasant, working masses. The voluminous literature of nineteenth century dissent was devoted exclusively to the grievances of the peasantry. Samizdat deals with the troubles of the intelligentsia. Where, in the whole of samizdat literature, can we find a coherent attempt to tackle the basic social problems of the USSR, to describe the enserfment of the Peasantry, the brutishness and poverty of the masses, the universal drunkenness, corruption and immorality, the ghastly housing conditions, the food shortages, the degradation of women, the rampant anti-semitism and racialism, the glaring social and economic inequality, the luxury and profligacy of the ruling communist caste? Nowhere. Amalrik tried to do it — he became a Pariah for his 'anti-patriotism.' The only three serious and large-scale samizdat studies of Soviet life were written by the Medvedev brothers: they deal respectively With the stifling of scientific research, the lack of foreign scientific contacts, and the destruction of the Old Bolsheviks. No samizdatchik has shown any interest in studying the bloody workers' rebellions in Novocherkassk, Temir-Tau, Chimkent, Odessa, Riga and elsewhere, or any of the innumerable strikes and go-slows.

An unbridgeable abyss divides samizdat from the Soviet population. However miser able the people's life may be by our stand ards, they know very well that — to coin a phrase — they have never had it so good. Certainly not since the 1920s. They have their complaints, to be sure, but if there is one group of people they loathe it is the Intelligentsia. And the intelligentsia know that they can never make common cause With the workers. They may well sympa thise — vaguely with the workers' lot, but it is their own sectional interests they are out to defend.

Facing up to an immensely powerful totalitarian regime demands heroism of the highest order. But for any chance of success it also requires a cause that will rally neople of ail anu conditions around it. The slogan of freedom of expression for the intelligentsia can never achieve this. Yet there is no shortage of real causes in Soviet Russia. The country, behind its bland Brezhnevian facade, is seething with discontent. It took more than a year to collect 2000 signatures throughout the USSR under protests against the repression of intellectuals — in tiny Lithuania a petition over the persecution of Catholic priests has just gathered 17,000 signatures within a few days. And it was followed by mass riots. Such is the real stuff of popular protest.

Of all the troubles brewing in the USSR the most explosive is the nationalities question. Nationalism has proved itself to be the greatest dynamic force of the century, and the USSR, the last of the multinational empires, is no exception. AntiRussian nationalism is the one cause that fuses intellectual and peasant together. The genuine tragedy of the civil rightists is that, true liberals that they are, they fear the potentialities of nationalism almost as much as their rulers.

As always, the chief danger spot is the Ukraine. The Chronicle handles nationalism with kid gloves. It reports a few — a very few — of the trials of Ukrainian nationalists, but in such a way as to make them. too, seem good liberal civil rightists and nothing more. Our Western authors go even further. Mr Reddaway seems rather worried about the Ukrainian getting out of hand and starting to demand more than mere civil rights. He writes about "the Democratic Movement's Ukrainian wing" — by definition a non-existent entity — and deplores unhealthy nationalistic tendencies: " Practically none of the literature referred to in this chapter uses the word nationalist: that word still implies—not only to officials but also to most dissenters a non-democratic, extremist orientation . . . For the moment phrases like 'national movement' and 'equal national rights' are respectable to democrats in both Kiev and Moscow, while the words nationalist and nationalism are not".

I very much fear that Mr Reddaway's well-meaning faith in the "Democratic Movement" as one big happy family, espousing the liberal virtues of civil rights, working together for a democratised USSR, and eschewing ugly, divisive and irrational concepts like " nationalism" have carried him quite a long way away from reality.

The resistance movement that has been rapidly growing in the Ukraine in the last ten years — and which has been subjected to far harsher repression than the Russian civil rightists — is an openly nationalist movement, aiming at national independence for their country and therefore enjoying support that far transcends the ranks of the intelligentsia.

Here is what the Ukrainian nationalist dissenters really demand. Levko Lukya nenko is a remarkable young Ukrainian re volutionary, a national hero to his own people (but mentioned only in passing in Reddaway's book). In 1961 Lukyanenko was sentenced to death (later commuted to fifteen years) for organising an illegal naist party. Years later he wrote from his prison camp: "In the twentieth century — when the colonial empires split up one after another, and powerful national liberation forces grew out of the vortex of turbulent agents, when these forces determine the spirit of the present age and provide it with a banner — in this age the attempts to suppress the desire of Ukrainians for national freedom appear as a terrible anachronism and a terrible injustice."

Mr Reddaway is naturally aware of the deep divergencies between the Russian civil rightists and the Ukrainian (and other) nationalists. He notes the appearance since January 1970 of an illegal Ukrainian Herald quite independent of the Chronicle, and the gradual decline in the amount of Ukrainian material printed in the Chronicle. But as a faithful believer in the "Democratic Movement" he glosses over these differences: "It would, however, be surprising — also seriously damaging to the unity of the Democratic Movement — if future relations between the two journals were other than close and basically friendly."

Issue No. 5 of the Ukrainian Herald, which appeared after these hopeful words were written, has effectively exposed the fictitiousness of Western notions of any ' unity ' of the Democratic Movement.' An editorial statement castigated all the leading figures and institutions of the civil rights movement — Sakharov's Committee for Human Rights in the Soviet Union, the Action Group for the Defence of Civil Rights, various other underground circles, event the Chronicle of Current Events itself — precisely for their consistent neglect of the nationalities question and their extreme vagueness with regard to a possible democratic solution of national grievances. The Chronicle, complain the Ukrainians, "has arrogated to itself a supranational or all-Union position," whereas in reality it represents only certain circles of the liberal Russian intelligentsia.

The Ukrainian Herald sums up the nationalities policy of the Russian civil rights movement in a bitter phrase: "One gets the impression that the members of these groups, while striving to achieve radical changes in many spheres of public life, desire nothing more than the preservation, in one form or another, of the status quo with regard to the nationalities question." It is hard to disagree with this.

And here we come to the fatal weakness of the civil rights movement. They are liberals and they are Russians. They speak up bravely for the right of Jews to emigrate and of Crimean Tartars to return to the Crimea — but that is the extent of their involvement in nationality problems. Neither demand would undermine the status quo.

Essentially, what the civil rights movement wants is the emergence of a liberal ised USSR. Yet if there is one totally in conceivable political fantasy it is the existence of a liberal and democratic Soviet Union. For if the USSR were ever to go liberal the secession of all its non-Russian territories — the Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Baltic states, the Caucasus, Central Asia— would take place much faster than even the collapse of the British Empire. And when that happens the rump of Great Russia will be far less important in world affairs than, say, Britain or Japan are today.

This is the reason why no Russian government can ever afford to liberalise and why there will never be civil rights in the USSR. This is why the civil rights move ment, with all its heroes and victims, idealism and selflessness is alas doomed to impotence.