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Détente and Dissent

Moscow Turns the Screw

East-West detente has had a chilling consequence in Moscow. The long war between repression and dissent has escalated as the Kremlin tried to show the Soviet people that rapprochement abroad does not mean ideological relaxation at home —and Westerners have begun to ask if detente has any meaning when it has such side effects. In recent weeks the trial of Pyotr Yakir and Viktor Krasin for telling Westerners about Soviet violations of human rights, followed by a press conference at which they repeated the confessions they had made in the closed courtroom, reminded many people of the Stalin show trials. Threats to novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and physicist Andrei Sakharov, probably the best known abroad of all Soviet intellectuals, prompted both to speak out more strongly than ever before; Sakharov specifically warned the West that it might be endangered by a detente that was not accompanied by democratization in the Soviet Union.

Richard Nixon apparently sees no such threat and remains determined to maintain reciprocal silence about untoward events as part of his embrace with Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev kept the Soviet press virtually silent about Watergate, in contrast to the lipsmacking scrutiny it usually gives scandals in the American system. Political lecturers in Moscow are saying, as Soviet journalists and diplomats abroad did earlier, that the fuss over Watergate is an attempt by American cold warriors to kill detente. Some link it to Israel and Zionism, now the chief villains in Soviet propaganda, by claiming that 75 percent of the American press is controlled by Jews. That notion will come in handy if they are ever authorized to answer questions about American press concern with dissent. (One lecturer admitted recently that he was getting questions about Sakharov but not answering them.) The press silence and the lecturers' bewildered propaganda both testify to the strain that Watergate puts on the Soviets' automatic respect for authority, expressed long before detente or Watergate by the Russian friend who said it was impermissible for an American to call Nixon a nonentity. The silence and the propaganda are probably also meant to strengthen Brezhnev's hand against Kremlin critics who may have cited Watergate as one reason for doubts about Brezhnev's policy of detente. The general secretary must have been happy that the Soviet silence had the added effect of making the President feel good —and even happier when Nixon responded in kind, just as the world was watching the unfolding drama of dissent, Nixon announced that Treasury Secretary George Shultz would lead an economic delegation to Moscow in October. Not a word in public about Yakir or Krasin, Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn. His silence contrasted with the criticisms voiced by Willy Brandt and the West German Social Democratic Party despite their Ostpolitik commitment to the Soviets. It also looked hollow when the American National Academy of Sciences warned the USSR Academy of Sciences that American scientists might not participate in the joint projects that are meant to be one of the fruits of detente if the Soviets keep harassing Sakharov. Rep. Wilbur Mills joined in with a new pledge to oppose trade concessions "if the price is to be paid in the martyrdom" of people like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Repression, like Watergate, may frustrate Mr. Nixon's policies even as he tries to ignore them both.

It poses another problem for Henry Kissinger, who admitted under questioning by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he felt "emotionally connected" with Sakharov—not surprisingly, since his endorsement decorates the American edition of Sakharov's 1968 book advocating convergence of the best in the Soviet and American systems. But Kissinger insisted that "we must proceed on the course on which we are," the course of trade concessions that will further improve relations with Moscow.

This seemed to some observers to throw in doubt the whole Western strategy at the European Security Conference, a strategy of insisting on freer exchanges between East and West as the price of the Western goods and technology that the Soviets want. Brezhnev himself seemed to be approving some concept of freer exchanges in a speech at Alma Ata in Kazakhstan last month, but Pravda published an authoritative article a day later reiterating the need for ever tighter controls. Perhaps the crackdown is not Brezhnev's own idea but his critics' price for detente. In any case it seems clear that Soviet dissent is not purely an internal matter but one with many foreign implications.

Dissent has purely internal roots however—in the Stalin era. Yakir spent 17 years in prison camps after Stalin ordered the execution of his father, army Commander Iona Yakir, in the 1937 purges. At his trial, he departed from the carefully rehearsed script to insist, "the main reason for my activity was my belief that Stalin was a criminal and that the crimes of Stalin must not be allowed to be repeated." Solzhenitsyn's three most powerful novels are based on his experience of Stalin's camps and their consequences. A friend of his in Leningrad recently committed suicide after the KGB forced her to reveal the location of a typescript of a fourth Solzhenitsyn novel about the camps, still unpublished in the West. The link between Stalinism and dissent is important because Stalin appointed Alexei Kosygin to the USSR cabinet for the first time in 1939 and made Brezhnev a candidate member of the Presidium, as the Politburo was called in 1952. They do not want a return to Stalinist terror —Yakir and Krasin were sentenced to three years in prison and three in exile from Moscow while Stalin would have had them shot—but they do not like attention called to Stalin's crimes by which they profited. Indeed they forced Khrushchev to stop his destalinization campaign in 1962.

Under Khrushchev there were flare-ups of dissent — in protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, for instance. Under Brezhnev and Kosygin there has been an almost continuous sequence of dissent and repression, starting with the arrest of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1965 for publishing their writings abroad. Each trial produced new protests, new arrests, new trials. Some protesters went to prison or psychiatric hospitals, some did not. The hard core of political dissidents numbered at most a few hundred in a population of 242 million. They agreed only on the need for open discussion and the rule of law and pursued a score of conflicting political ideas. Neither Soviet nor Western observers thought they could cause any significant change.

But their mere existence enraged the authorities because it refuted the Kremlin's claim to omnipotence and omniscience and because they kept at least the possibility of change alive. They became a nexus for thousands of religious and national-minority dissenters who fill the prison camps. Soviet Jews put some of their ideas to good use, combining their own collective protest with foreign pressures to achieve the emigration of more than 70,000 people in three years.

The dissidents' worst offense however was to tell the world what was going on in the Soviet Union. In 1968 anonymous dissenters started the Chronicle of Current Events, a bimonthly Samizdat bulletin with news of interrogations, arrests, trials and other happenings. (Samizdat means "self-published," usually typed in many copies and distributed by hand.) Yakir and his friends told Western correspondents about significant repression, knowing that the correspondents' reports would be broadcast back to the Soviet Union in Russian by the BBC, the Voice of America, Radio Liberty and European stations. Their information and the chronicles always proved accurate when put to the test. Yakir said many times that silence had enabled Stalin to destroy millions of people and that if the dissidents made sure people knew about new acts of repression, Stalin-scale terror would never return.

The KGB started Case 24, an intensive prosecution of this subversive activity, in December 1971. Yakir, long protected by popular memory of his father, was arrested in June 1972 and the chronicle made its last appearance in November 1972. Yakir, deprived of the alcohol to which he was addicted and subjected at the very least to psychological pressure based on his fear of dying in prison, began to inform on his friends. At least 10 people were arrested and the tiny band of surviving dissidents was devastated. Yakir's behavior at his trial this month was a startling contrast to his attitude three years ago. He and Krasin "confessed" to active roles in the production of the chronicle. They said that most of their activities were directed from abroad, particularly by the anti-Soviet émigré group called the People's Labor Movement (known in Russian as NTS). They said they had fabricated some of the "slanderous" information they had given foreigners. At their press conference Yakir surprisingly confirmed that he had told David Bonavia of the London Times, "if they beat me, I will say anything. I know this from my former experience in the camps. But you'll know it will not be the real me speaking." Yakir said at the press conference that he had not been mistreated and that he did not understand how Bonavia "could publish a private conversation in the press."

Yakir also implicated Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, who used to maintain a careful distance from the dissidents and from each other. Sakharov is a nuclear physicist who played a major role in the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. As a member of the USSR Academy of Sciences he belongs to a privileged elite. That made his essay urging cooperation and eventual convergence between the United States and the Soviet Union a sensation in 1968. "Convergence" became a dirty word in the ideological lexicon, a sharp irony for a man now accused of opposing detente. In 1970 he and Valentine Turchin, a physicist, and Roy Medvedev, a historian, wrote an appeal for democratization in the Soviet Union to cure "breakdown and stagnation" in the Soviet economy and close the "suicidal" gap between the state and the intelligentsia. Later that year he founded a committee on human rights that tried to provide a legalistic equivalent of the dissident effort. He attended major dissident trials until he was stopped early this year, and began to meet foreign correspondents himself.

This year the official press criticized Sakharov by name for the first time. He had some "conversations" with the KGB. In August the deputy prosecutor general of the USSR called him in and warned him to stop making "anti-Soviet" statements to foreign newsmen. Sakharov's answer was to give correspondents the complete text of his interview with the prosecutor as he could reconstruct it from memory. Then he held a press conference in his Moscow apartment, incredible by all previous standards, and told correspondents that detente would turn out to be "very dangerous" unless it were accompanied by some democratization of Soviet life and some reduction of Soviet isolation from the world. He warned that Western trade and aid would help the Soviets dispose of economic problems that they cannot solve themselves, which he said would enable them to build up strength that might make the world "helpless before this uncontrollable bureaucratic machine." He called the Jackson amendment, which would deny most-favored-nation trading status to the Soviet Union as long as it restricts emigration, a symbol of "the fact that rapprochement with the USSR must include some kind of control on this country, so it cannot become a threat to its neighbors." Uncontrolled rapprochement, Sakharov said, would mean "cultivating a country where anything that happens may be shielded from outside eyes —a masked country that hides its real face."

This sparked an intensive campaign of collective letters in which scientists, writers, composers, agriculturalists and others denounced Sakharov —many of them clearly under pressure and most of them without having read what he had actually said. The authorities warned him again that he is responsible for his actions, but they also allowed an invitation from Princeton University to reach him through the ordinary mail. That may be a signal that the Kremlin will be content to have Sakharov go into exile, like the physicist Valery Chalidze and the biologist Zhores Medvedev, who though not dissidents in the same sense as Yakir were equally irritating to the authorities. They were given permission to go abroad to lecture and study and were stripped of their Soviet citizenship while abroad. 3oizhenitsyn has always refused such-exile lest it dry up the source of his writing. He did not go to Stockholm in 1970 to receive his Nobel Prize for fear he would not be allowed to return. The authorities' dislike of him has mounted steadily since Khrushchev ordered the official publication of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" in 1962 as part of the second brief destalinization campaign.

Solzhenitsyn kept on writing despite the fact that his later novels reached Soviet readers only through Samizdat. He spoke out rarely but eloquently against his own expulsion from the USSR writers union, against the brief confinement of Zhores Medvedev in a psychiatric clinic. His books and protests became a hard flame refracting the whole spectrum of Soviet dissent.

Last year he met with Western correspondents for the first time to describe the official campaign to "suffocate" him, from press denunciations to bureaucratic interference in his divorce and remarriage. In August he gave his second interview, warning that if he died suddenly or mysteriously the world should blame the KGB. He also warned that major works, completed but kept hidden because they were so sensitive, would be released after his death. He did not say so, but he was probably referring to The Gulag Archipelago, the documentary novel containing the names of 200 people who described prison-camp tortures and other nightmares to him. He announced the seizure of a copy of this work in Leningrad later after learning that his friend had committed suicide over it. (Gulag is the acronym for main labor camp administration.)

In the interview Solzhenitsyn seemed to identify himself openly with dissidents for the first time. He cited the cases of Gen. Pyotr Grigorenko, held in a mental hospital for protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; Vladimir Bukovsky, whose arrest in March 1971 for telling the world about the political abuse of Soviet psychiatry was the first step in the current crackdown; Andrei Amalrik, whose arrest and retrial when he was due to be released from prison drew protests from foreigners who admired his individualist writings; Zhores Medvedev and Sakharov. Solzhenitsyn noted that he himself does not agree

with many of Sakharov's proposals but said that anyone who has read Sakharov "cannot help seeing his deep knowledge about the processes of Soviet life, his pain for his own country, his torments because of mistakes that he did not make, his good-hearted conciliatory standpoint . . ." In other words he put Sakharov in the same moral dimension as himself, a significant gesture.

It is not clear exactly why Solzhenitsyn spoke out when and as he did. But he offered a hint when he said "the Western World, by its publicity, has already helped save many of our oppressed." This in turn recalled a passage from his Nobel Prize lecture that shows how much he and Sakharov have in common — a passage that Nixon and Brezhnev might do well to remember during their silent embrace:

"Suppression of information renders international signatures illusory. Within a muffled zone it costs nothing to reinterpret every agreement, to forget it as though it never really existed . . . There are no internal affairs left on our crowded earth. And mankind's sole salvation lies in everyone making everything his business—in the people of the East being vitally concerned with what is happening in the West; the people of the West vitally concerned with what goes on in the East."

This article originally ran in the September 22, 1973 issue of the magazine.