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A New Russia

What the dissidents say

What the dissidents say

What the Communist world most needs at the moment, said The Times of London in a recent editorial, is 'fresh buoyant ideas to fill the intellectual vacuum left by the retreat of Marxism Leninism'.

Almost every month unexpected news from the East hits our headlines. Proposals for an 'elected' parliament with apparently real powers, a President who will only serve two terms, competition for markets, even cuts in troop-levels. How much of a change do such initiatives represent? And more important, how will the 'fresh, buoyant ideas' be found?

The dissidents from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have insights on such questions. I have come to know many of these men and women well in the last 15 years, and on recent visits to a number of them have learnt how they evaluate what is happening.

Unlike Western commentators, the dissidents have experienced the system from within. They have fought a true battle and suffered for it - and this has given them vital insights. Furthermore, they are not isolated émigré in foreign countries. They get an enormous amount of information and news from the East, not only from opposition movements but also from the Establishment. Some of their close friends are now key advisers to Gorbachev.

Opposition leaders in Moscow, Leningradand Kiev, my dissident friends say, are cautiously optimistic, though still anxious about the future. They, more than anyone, recognize how difficult it is to change their society. The renowned Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny told me that those with long memories are asking, 'How long will glasnost last?' He quoted the theatre director Yuri Lyubimov as saying: 'Such thaws have taken place before. But the seasons change. A thaw only means that it will freeze later.'

Everyone I met described the present situation as unstable and unpredictable. Vladimir Voinovitsch, author of the popular Private Ivan Chonkin books, even called it 'a pre-revolutionary situation'.

Not stoppable

They all seem to welcome glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) as a positive development. But they share the view of Professor Yuri Orlov, the atomic scientist who was released into exile at the time of the Reykjavik summit. These steps are 'in the interests of efficiency not democracy', says Orlov, and 'far from structural change in the system'.

Nevertheless, it seems that a process has been started which has a momentum of its own. 'The Stalin era has gone,' Milovan Djilas, author of The New Class and Conversations with Stalin, told me recently. 'The process of change and reform can be hampered and delayed but not stopped.' Even if Gorbachev were ousted, said Djilas, whoever takes his place will have to act in much the same way because the problems in the Soviet Union are so serious. He described the situation as a crisis touching all fields of life at the same time: productivity and technology, agriculture and social welfare, community relationships and national identity, morality and ideology. The system, he said, is thoroughly corrupt, and will continue to degenerate unless fundamental changes take place.

Confronted with this crisis Gorbachev has skillfully ensured that the eyes of the world are fixed on the Kremlin rather than on opposition groups. Thus his team includes those in the Soviet Union most experienced in dealing with the West - and he has even employed an American public relations company.

One who tests the limits of glasnost every day is Sergei Grigoriansk, the editor of Moscow's Glasnost Magazine. He has between 60 and 70 correspondents scattered the length and breadth of the Soviet Union. They got out the news about uprisings in Armenia, for instance, when no foreign reporters were allowed there before the recent tragic earthquake. The magazine has such standing in the West and among the Moscow press corps that the Kremlin is finding it hard to muzzle.

Grigoriansk is a most fearless man. He was only released two years ago after years in the gulag. In Armenia in December last year he was arrested once more, tried immediately and sentenced to 30 days' imprisonment. Perhaps this is a sign of how much people like him are in fact shaping current events.

Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent 13 years in prisons, labour camps and psychiatric institutions for his uncompromising stand on human rights, told me that glasnost and perestroika were first demanded by his dissident friends in the Sixties and Seventies, and were finally picked up by Gorbachev as a way of enlisting the intellectuals, scientists and young technocrats. But such intellectuals are a tiny fraction of the population, without any formal political power.

Bukovsky says of the present situation that since the Party can no longer rule by terror it has tried to control with regulations. But there has been such over-regulation that it has actually lost control. Regional Party bosses have developed a mafia-like power base in which police, the judiciary, industry and regional Party leaders are linked by corruption. Orders from the Central Committee in Moscow are one thing; how they are carried out is quite another.

Andrei Sakharov has been released from 'internal exile', allowed to hold press conferences in Moscow and travel in the West. He is trying to use the opportunity of glasnost to influence the Kremlin towards a pluralistic society. This highly principled man could well be described as the moral conscience of the motherland. He has made it abundantly clear that fundamental human rights, intellectual liberty and freedom of the press, faith and human choice must be granted. These are the essential preconditions, he maintains, for the Soviet Union to evolve from closed stagnation into a more open and outward-looking country.

Sakharov has been reported at various times as having reservations about the proposed human rights conference in Moscow in 1991. At the same time he feels it could be an opportunity to press for the full implementation of the 1975 Helsinki agreement on human rights: the West has listed the fundamental rights which must be realized before it takes part in the conference. This illustrates the dilemma men like Sakharov are in.

As for perestroika, there has hardly been any response from the masses whom Gorbachev wants to enlist. Appeal after appeal and such tempting offers as part-ownership in agriculture, small industry and businesses have fallen flat. So far, out of 300 million people, only 300,000 have accepted these chances of taking private initiative. A similar move by Lenin in the 1920s brought a much greater response and resulted in the Soviet Union soon being able to export food. But this was followed by Stalin's forced collectivization of the farms and the elimination of those very peasants who had shown the most initiative. Memories last long, and so long as power remains wholly in the Party's hands there will be mistrust.

Gorbachev knows he cannot have the essential restructuring without overcoming this mistrust and encouraging individual responsibility. And so he has permitted non-Party activities like environmental groups, which have become popular with young people with democratic ideals. In a medium-sized Siberian industrial town in late 1988, 30,000 people demonstrated for cleaner air and even got the mayor to join in.

Such environmental groups are spreading and could become a political pressure group outside the Communist Party. The Kremlin leaders, in fact, seem no longer able to mobilize the masses for their own ideas. This must puzzle them greatly. Bukovsky maintains that the instrument of power is eroding while the people's expectancy is increasing, and that the Soviet Union is moving towards a major crisis within two or three years. The KGB, police and army, the Party's suppressive apparatus, are intact and can cope for the present. But, he adds, they might destroy their own power in the process.

Stalin has become the scapegoat for the sins of the past and Brezhnev for the stagnation of the present. But just finding scapegoats is not enough. Why won't the Soviet system work? I raised this question a few months ago with Milovan Djilas. Would Gorbachev succeed through perestroika in remaking the Soviet citizen?

At the height of his power, Djilas was Vice Chairman of Yugoslavia, President of the Parliament and one of the chief thinkers of the Communist Party. Wholeheartedly devoted to truth, social justice, and human rights, he got into conflict with the Party and was imprisoned for several years. Now he and his wife, Stephanie, live in a modest flat at the heart of Belgrade.

'It is not possible to force change on people,' Djilas answered. 'Men and women can't be forcibly structured, whether by Stalin's decrees or Gorbachev's perestroika. The belief that by changing the conditions of life one can create a new man, a pure race, a pure class or an exceptional people is not only an illusion and an ideological fabrication, but leads directly to a spiritual vacuum and to tyranny.

'The structure of the Communist Party,' he went on, 'is monopolistic and totalitarian. Communism is contrary to human nature, because human nature is pluralistic. If human nature were perfect, Communism might be possible. But human nature is evil - and at the same time gentle and good. The constant struggle between different tendencies within us is essential for the existence of humanity. That means we must fight to be good and seek good ideals, but also realize that evil will always be there.'

Such conclusions have not been reached lightly. When men like Djilas, who once believed passionately in Communism, call attention to these basic flaws, they are not indulging in cheap anti-Communism, they are looking far beyond. Anyone who thinks that the East will be satisfied with all they find in the West is being superficial. Our countries show little sign of being proof against the corruption that Djilas and Bukovsky deplore. Something deeper is needed, and it is to this that the dissidents can point us.

I was engaged in the 1976 campaign to free Bukovsky. After months of punishment cells, all kinds of harassment from the KGB and long starvation, his life had slowly begun to ebb. Increasing world pressure for his release so affected the authorities that one morning Bukovsky was taken out of his cell, given clothes and transported in handcuffs to an unknown destination under rigid KGB guard. 'Is this my liquidation?' he wondered. But he was driven to a military airfield and exiled to the West.

When we met for the first time shortly afterwards in France, it was as if I already knew him. I was especially eager to learn what had kept him going, what had made him continually defy the questions, the punishment cells and the psychiatric maltreatment that had been forced upon him.

'First, you must consider what is the best way to survive,' he answered. 'You can look at it from the purely biological viewpoint of merely staying alive, but if you try to understand yourself more deeply, you must also consider your personality, the true and living thing inside you.

'The only way to survive as a personality is by not yielding to any external pressure, by not giving way to any of the demands that the various authorities may make to get you into their power. If you decide to be yourself then you cannot yield, you must preserve your true identity. Inner freedom comes from being honest about what you believe in and refusing to betray your friends. And the outside world cannot take away your inner freedom.

'In the Soviet Union the situation is such that, superficially, it is only possible to survive by conforming. "You must accept things as they are," say those who conform, believing that they are the only realistic ones. In fact these people lose their personality and their human worth. That is not the way to survive. The whole power system and apparatus of suppression are powerless when faced by people of inner freedom who will not obey them. We know from experience that when force cannot play on fear, it is helpless.'

The Ukrainian engineer and mathematician, Leonid Plyusch, reached a similar conclusion. I visited him one sunny day in Paris during his first year with his family in the West. Although he had suffered greatly in prison and lunatic asylums, he radiated an inner peace and a sparkling humour.

'When I was being subjected to massive doses of haloperidol, insulin and anti-schizophrenic drugs,' he told me, 'I knew I could go crazy and lose all my senses. My head felt as if it would explode. I began to argue with myself, saying: "If I just sign the confession that the KGB want me to make, I may keep my mind and perhaps come back to my wife and children. My family and friends would feel sorry for me and would understand." But I knew that then I would be a "dead person" - not spiritually alive any more. I would keep my mind but lose my soul. "If I am abandoning my real self, my heart of hearts," I said to myself, "then I am betraying the best in me and I may never regain it." So really there was no choice. The alternative was a trap and I kept on resisting.'

On execution list

My own experience helps me identify with these friends. In the early hours of a June day in 1943, five Gestapo surrounded our house, broke the window of the front door and stormed into the room where I was sleeping. They dragged me to their car and took me for interrogation at Gestapo headquarters. Then they put me in solitary confinement under strict observation. I had a two-year stretch of prison and concentration camp.

One day a top Gestapo officer told me I was on their list for execution. A week later another officer came to my cell and offered me a way out. 'We will set you free,' he told me, 'if only you will tell us what is going on in the resistance movement.' It was a testing moment. Here was a man whose word meant life or death. I was just 19 years old. Everything in me cried out to live.

But inside me a clear voice rang through. 'No,' I answered, I can't. It's against my conscience.'

He laughed. 'You've been betrayed yourself,' he said. 'It's normal to inform, there's nothing wrong with that. We can guarantee that not one single person will know about it.'

'No!' I hit back, 'I can't do it.'

'Think about it,' he said. 'I'll come back next week and we can find some arrangement.'

I never saw him again. He instinctively knew that he had lost and they could not get me under their control. At the very moment I decided to say 'No!' I experienced the inner freedom that conquered the Nazi ideology.

But I also know too well that it was not me who did it. A force within me speaking through my conscience made me resist. At times I have thought with a shudder what would have happened to me and to the resistance movement if I had made the wrong decision. The friend in the resistance who betrayed me slowly became more and more caught up in the Gestapo's evil. I saw him once at the end of the war in a prison compound. I tried to talk to him but he claimed not to know me.

I am eternally grateful to have had parents who built into my life a sense of moral values and a search for truth. Once, for instance, my father insisted that I confront a man who had cheated me of some money and get it back. They wanted me to learn that, whenever I condone what is wrong, I become an accomplice in that wrong; and that to keep silent when my conscience urges me to speak erodes my will and corrupts my character. On such choices, they said, hang the freedom and personality of man and the freedom of our country.

This core experience, which I share with my dissident friends, is one of total helplessness in the face of evil. At rock-bottom reality, the discovery of inner freedom through moral choice comes as a revelation - I may be helpless but I can still choose. For me this was also a discovery of a spiritual dimension beyond my physical existence or intellectual understanding. I saw that no earthly might or man-made hell can prevent the power of God from breaking through.

Few have described this discovery more vividly than Solzhenitsyn. As a writer and believer in Marxism-Leninism, Solzhenitsyn fought on the Western Front in the Second World War. In a letter that was intercepted, he expressed some criticism of Stalin, was promptly arrested and sent to the camps. Slowly, Solzhenitsyn began to understand that man is more than a reflection of the collective and social environment in which he lives, far more than a cog in a vast socioeconomic machine. 'Evil,' Solzhenitsyn says, 'cannot be understood in terms of Marxist doctrines. Violent revolutions might destroy the bearers of evil, but not the evil itself. The universal dividing line between good and evil runs not between parties and classes, not between nations and different political systems in the world; the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

'And,' he writes, 'man's hope lies in this - that we are capable of change, and that we ourselves, not our birth or our environment, are responsible for our souls.'

People with such experiences will be able to give their motherlands something much more sustaining than a new political formula. My dissident friends are very different people who often disagree with each other. But they share a dedication to truth and a passion for freedom and human rights for their countrymen.

Gorbachev faces fundamental problems as he grapples with the future of the Soviet Union. It is vital that the free world discovers how best to respond to this moment of opportunity. Both East and West need 'fresh, buoyant ideas' - and they begin within the human spirit. 'Without ideas and values, any movement, any nation cannot survive,' says Djilas. 'To preserve the freedom which the West has and to develop that freedom more and more, it is essential for the West to understand the importance of the struggle for ideas and values. Only with strength in the realm of ideas can the West influence the Soviet Union.'


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