A 'New Way of Thinking' in the Soviet Union

Canadian scientists find their Soviet counterparts devoted to ending the arms race and replacing the old win-lose system of security with win-win. But some other Soviet scholars haven't gained anything from the new spirit in Moscow.

By Eric Fawcett, Arthur Forer, Derek Paul, and Metta Spencer | 1986-10-01 12:00:00

Western peace activists who visit the Soviet Union these days are returning home ebullient about the new mood they sense in that country. Three Canadian scientists — Professors Derek Paul, Eric Fawcett, and Arthur Forer-were among about 120 participants in the ‘International Forum of Scientists to Stop Nuclear Tests” in Moscow, July 11-13. Professor Paul was on the initiating committee which organized the meeting. (See our interview with him in PEACE, August/September 1986 issue).

This conference was called to help Soviet officials develop new approaches toward reversing the arms race if (as has proved to be the case) the Reagan administration still rejects a Comprehensive Test Ban when the Soviets’ one-year moratorium on nuclear testing ends on Hiroshima Day. The first question was: If the USA does not accept a complete moratorium on testing, should the USSR accept a partial moratorium (a limited number of tests per year, or a limited yield — say 5 kilotons — per test)? The discussants were essentially unanimous in concluding that a limited test ban was not acceptable, arguing that there are no technical barriers to verifying a comprehensive test ban and that anything else would allow the arms race to go on.


There was unanimous agreement that verification is no longer an issue. One expert said that seismological monitoring at stations outside the USSR and U.S. would be sufficient if supplemented with satellite reconnaissance.

However, whether or not external monitoring would suffice, it no longer need do so. The remarkable new fact is that the Soviets have proved their willingness to allow seismological monitoring within their territory. Within the preceding weeks, American scientists had already set up their own stations in that country, and a representative of that team, Dr. Thomas Cochrane, attended the conference and described the seismological Station in Semipalatinsk. This breakthrough had resulted from an agreement between the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Natural Resources Defense Council of the United States, with the organizational support of Parliamentarians Global Action (formerly known as Parliamentarians for World Order). Such seismic monitoring will go on indefinitely in the USSR, and it is expected that similar sites will be set up in Nevada by Soviets to detect American testing.

Cochrane showed a tracing from seismological equipment that clearly detected a U.S. underground nuclear explosion during an earthquake. There had been some concern that it might be possible to carrying out a nuclear test without detection if it were detonated during a natural earthquake. The current research shows that such is not the case. Another issue (“decoupling”) has also been disposed of which formerly troubled verification experts. Some seismologists have worried that if a bomb were exploded in a huge underground cavern, the seismic signals might deceptively under-represent the bomb’s actual size. The Soviets have never taken this problem seriously, but they still were willing for the Americans to set up monitoring systems that would detect such decoupling, should it ever be attempted.

Dr. J. Leggett, a British researcher, estimated that 25 stations across the USSR would be sufficient to achieve full verification. Dr. Catsaros, from Greece, showed that current computer techniques, combined with on-site stations, provide detection of underground explosions with yields of as little as 300 tons (0.3 kilotons). Theodore Taylor (from the U.S.), a former designer of U.S. nuclear weapons, stated that useful tests have yields primarily of more than 2 kilotons; smaller explosions might be of some military use, however, so he favored a comprehensive test ban.

Taylor added that the only reason for continuing testing is to change designs or to test new weapons; maintenance of previously tested weapons does not depend on continued testing. This conclusion was confirmed by others. Thus, since verification is no longer an issue and maintenance of deterrence does not require further testing, there is no reason to oppose a comprehensive test ban and every reason to encourage it, since it might be a first positive step in ending the arms race.

Future Soviet-American Dealings

In the discussion of what to do next, various speakers dealt with further steps that could be taken to build confidence between the USSR and the U.S. — for example, by having both countries work together in exploring space jointly, or in stopping plutonium recycling. It was assumed, implicitly, that the “new way of thinking” which was so apparent in the Soviet Union, would prevail and that a comprehensive test ban would emerge. Non-Soviet speakers all urged the USSR to continue its unilateral ban on underground testing.

The participants all assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that there is now an asymmetry in the desire for arms control. The USSR has unilaterally stopped nuclear testing and has allowed U.S. seismological stations at Soviet nuclear test sites, yet its initiatives have been rebuffed by President Reagan. The U.S. has abrogated SALT II and has “re-interpreted” the antiballistic missile treaty. Many speakers appealed to the Soviet leaders for patience so that U.S. public opinion can build up to influence Congress to cut off funding and thereby ban underground testing.

If Ellsberg, Why Not Sakharov Too?

There was no attempt to stage manage the meeting. Discussion from the floor and in private was absolutely open, as at any Western scientific meeting. Two of the participants, David McTaggart of Greenpeace and Daniel Ellsberg, had been deported from the Soviet Union in 1982 for a protest demonstration they had carried out in Leningrad by sailing into the harbor and releasing a number of big green helium balloons. Yet they were now honored guests at a Soviet peace conference.

During one phase of the discussion talk turned to the deplorably poor coverage of the event by the Western press. Eric Fawcett, mildly apologizing for bringing up a sensitive issue in the meeting, expressed the wish that Andrei Sakharov had been invited to join them in the conference. This was by no means a unique idea. At least four of the guests had independently made the same suggestion in letters or wires before they had come. While the idea had been rejected, some Embassy people had expressed their personal wishes that it had been accepted. Professor V.1. Goldansky, who was chairing the meeting when Fawcett made his proposal, showed no sign of displeasure but did comment that, since the meeting would last only another 24 hours, it was too late to do anything about it.

The press picked up Fawcett’s suggestion, however, and ran it on the wire services. When he returned home. he found wires of support from scientists of several countries.

Meeting Gorbachev

Some eighteen of the participants — mainly members of the Initiative Group — drafted a Declaration, which was fully discussed, amended, arid finally approved by the entire group. The next day, on July 14, they took it to General Secretary Gorbachev. The meeting was held in the Central Committee Building of the Communist Party. Mr Gorbachev greeted each person individually and shook hands with each one again at the end. Part of the meeting, which lasted one hour and forty minutes, was televised. (Derek Paul’s handshake was given especially prominent television coverage, because — he supposes — he introduced himself to Gorbachev in Russian.) A verbatim account of the entire meeting was reported in Izvestia, and in Pravda, which devoted the first one and a half pages of the paper to it.

The Declaration noted that civilization will not survive a nuclear war and that high technology systems can fail catastrophically. The Challenger and Chernobyl accidents dramatize this. The main point of the Declaration was a request that the Soviet government continue its moratorium on testing, even if the U.S. has not halted its own tests by the Soviets’ August 6 deadline. Mr. Gorbachev accepted the Declaration very graciously and complimented the scientists on it. He promised that it would be taken into account in the decision-making process, without actually promising the outcome that it requested.

All members of the delegation were invited by Mr. Gorbachev to speak, and only when nobody indicated a desire to say more — after about 50 minutes — did he begin his main remarks, which lasted about another fifty minutes. 11 spoke entirely without notes and without any hesitations, recapitulations, or amendments.

Throughout his comments (and indeed throughout the conference) one expression was used repeatedly. “a new way of thinking.” This phrase, which was taken from the manifesto issued by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein in 1955, had been used in the Soviet Union all along by a few Pugwash participants. Now it seems to be central to the official new approach to arms control and disarmament.

The delegates report that most of the people whom they met like Mr. Gorbachev very much and are pleased by the fast pace of social change he has started. For example, alcoholism is being solved by a simple method: making liquor virtually unavailable. The conference was “dry.” Bars are open for only short periods and liquor stores are also open only during working hours, so that most people have little or no access. At first many Russians disliked the new arrangement, but most people have accepted it and say it seems to be working. Not all of them are so adaptable, however; Arthur Forer says he counted 250 people in a single line, waiting to get into a liquor outlet.

Other Russian delegates to the conference confided their concern that the old guard bureaucrats are still powerful and that they may oust Gorbachev unless he can produce some tangible results from all the concessions he has been making. Apparently, Andrei Gromyko is regarded as the leading opponent of Gorbachev, who is “fighting for his life,” according to one high-level scientist.

The Scientists Who Weren’t Invited

The Canadian delegates were appropriately sensitive to the delicate situation faced by some of their hosts. Nevertheless, they found themselves in a moral bind of their own. As do most Canadian visitors to Moscow lately, several of them paid visits to Yury and Olga Medvedkov, Dina Zisserman Brodsky, or another member of the Moscow Trust Group.

The Group is still undergoing hardships, despite the softening of Soviet society in several other areas. Dina Brodsky’s husband, Vladimir, was still in prison, and while she still was hoping for his release – in accordance with Dr. Yevgeny Chazov’s earlier statement (see August-September issue of PEACE), her hope had not been fulfilled.

Moreover, the Medvedkovs had lost their jobs and Yury Medvedkov was in jail for a ten-day period as a “hooligan” for protesting their dismissal in a street demonstration. Re was on a hunger strike for most of that period. Never fazed, his wife and her friend, Dina, carrying their infants and wearing painted T-shirts that demanded the release of their husbands, took to the streets again, and walked about boldly until the militiamen intercepted them.

Yury Medvedkov is an eminent scholar in the field of human ecology. He had worked in the United States and in Geneva, had headed an important research laboratory’, and had taught at Moscow State University. A few years ago, he and Olga applied to leave the Soviet Union. Within days, his laboratory was dismantled, his staff reassigned to other organizations, and he was demoted to the rank of a junior assistant — a position he retained until May, when he received notice of this dismissal. Anyone who lacks a government-approved job in the Soviet Union can be prosecuted for parasitism. Within months, the couple may be vulnerable to this charge unless they find other work.

In 1982, the Group for Trust was founded and, within three weeks Yury and Olga had joined it. Immediately they found it so interesting and such an excellent way to make a real contribution within the Soviet Union that they no longer wanted to leave. But life became even harder. Olga is Jewish. Being Jewish is hard in her country, she explains with a laugh. Being a refusenik Jew is even harder. Being a peace activist-refusenik-Jew is very, very hard!

Derek and Annalou Paul, who came to visit them only two hours after Yury’s release from jail, found the recent prisoner sipping fruit juice and talking intensely. “He’s as much today a man with a mission as John the Baptist or Jesus,” said Derek. “When I saw him, he was right in there! Just this complete dedication. He told me that his object in life is to train missionaries for peace.”

Yury’s not unique; every member of the Trust Group has to draw on reserves of extraordinary strength to carry on. Annalou Paul remarked that, unlike the rather glum looking Muscovites on the street, the members of the Group seemed exceptionally alive.

“It’s one of the places in Moscow where one can get information,” adds Derek. “They were extremely interested in Chernobyl — where the cloud had gone, and so on. They gave me a very good idea, in fact. One should add to the routine pollution indexes a radioactive index. We should start it over here. It should be a daily routine, just like the temperature and wind direction, and so on. Then if something happens and the cloud blows over here, we would see this huge increase, and people could say, ‘Hey, we’re being irradiated.’ I found them quite creative.”

Because they were concerned about the Medvedkovs’ plight, the Canadian visitors found themselves in a dilemma. They knew that their hosts, the top scientists in the Academy, could reverse the impending dismissals, but probably at a very great cost to their own mission. These ranking Academicians are already putting themselves out on a limb by supporting arms control measures that are considered radical by members of the old-guard. If they openly protect someone as daring as Medvedkov, they may become even more vulnerable to criticism, precisely when they rely on their prestige in pressing for the ongoing campaign for a comprehensive test ban. The delegates experienced anguish thinking how to try to help the Medvedkovs.

On Tuesdays, the Group holds a seminar. This time it was held in Dina Brodsky’s apartment, The speaker was Daniel Ellsberg, and Yury translated. Of course, Ellsberg is familiar with the Group’s predicament, He crossed Nixon by publishing the Pentagon papers, and he often does civil disobedience. Dr. Brodsky’s first arrest was for holding an exhibition of photos in his apartment. The pictures, enlarged from a book Ellsberg had sent them, showed Rocky Flats, Colorado, where he and the others had stood in front of a nuclear weapons train. In his talk Ellsberg told them how important he saw their work. He said something like this: “This is one world now and people are paying attention in other countries. So even if you don’t think you’re getting anywhere in your own country, you are having a very significant impact — and it’s the only solution.”

“I almost went back again another time,” says Eric Fawcett. “I wanted to talk to Yury again — to ask what he thinks of Gorbachev, and the new spirit. I have heard other people say ‘It’s still Russia and it won’t change.’ But I’d like to ask him because he’s a deep thinker. Because I think it can change. It will change. It is changing.”

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1986

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1986, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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