Views of Eastern Dissidents

A discussion with Reg Whittaker, Mary Jo Leddy, Frank Sommers, Joanna Santa Barbara, Bob Penner, and Barrie Zwicker

By Dennis Bockus (editor); Barry Stevens (moderator) | 1987-02-01 12:00:00

"Should the Canadian peace movement support independent dissident peace movements in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries?
Barry Stevens asked six peace activists to address that question and to begin by discussing the history of the issue.

Reg Whitaker: During the 1950s, people often assumed that in the West, if you were pro-peace, you saw the Soviet bloc as the camp of peace. And indeed, the U.S. has led the nuclear arms race. The Soviets have later matched each lead, but the Americans initiated it.

But the peace movement became an apologist for the USSR in ways that it should not have been. A few years ago I was in an anti-cruise demonstration and in an early stage it was suggested that the banner should say, "No cruises, East or West!" That lost, on the grounds that it would help the pro-Americans and that, after all, the cruise missiles to be tested were American, not Soviet.

That created a public impression that the peace movement was doing the same old thing -- attacking the Americans and ignoring what the Soviets do. After all, the cruise issue arose because they were supposedly to counter Soviet SS-20s. One can't get out of that by simply ignoring it. Fortunately, the peace movement in the 1980s has usually not been trapped in inverse Cold War logic, claiming that the USSR is the epitome of all that's good.

The peace movement is a reaction to the Cold War, the confrontation between the two blocs. Now, one of the more hopeful ways out of this is disalignment -- breaking up the blocs over which the Soviets and Americans have hegemony. To break these up, peace movements must link up with those on the other side who are not playing games on behalf of their own governments but are truly interested in peace. On our side, we work for peace within a military bloc in which Canada is subordinate to the United States. On their side, in Eastern Europe, they face very similar situations and we should have great empathy for them -- even those (such as the Poles) who have been driven to extremes by what their state has done and who express that by sounding pro-Reagan.

Mary Jo Leddy: A number of peace groups have met the Moscow Group for Trust, and found them our natural allies. They love their country, yet are willing to sacrifice themselves for peace. Some groups, such as the one in Czechoslovakia, are politically dissident, but the Trust Group is a peace group that unintentionally ran afoul of its government.

Frank Sommers: In 1983, we physicians went to Moscow and met the Soviet Peace Committee, who told us that they never dealt with the independent peace group, whom they called alcoholics or criminals or Jews trying to get to Israel. Well, we then met with the independent Moscow Trust Group and found them genuinely concerned about creating conditions for peace. They were all risking their jobs or more. One member was Dr. Vladimir Brodsky, who had lost his job and was later imprisoned for his peace work. I organized a campaign in Canada for his release, and in fact he as been freed and is now in Israel.

However, during that campaign, the silence of the Canadian peace movement -- Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Toronto Disarmament Network, and so on -- was deafening. PSR had supported physicians who were jailed by Marcos for joining the Filipino peace movement. Likewise, when the West German physicians' movement said their government was forcing doctors to take nuclear training, we took a supportive stand. But when it came to Dr. Brodsky, there was silence -- for fear, it seems, of antagonizing the Soviets, or perhaps for tactical reasons. For me, it's a working principle that, in the nuclear age, the right to live in peace cannot be separated from the right to work for peace.

Joanna Santa Barbara Two issues were mixed up in the Brodsky affair. One was the freeing of a guy who was being persecuted with whom we had some connection -- he was a physician. The other was demonstrating to the public that we defend quite different values. Many people saw that those two goals could be achieved by the same act -- a loud public protest. Others in the physicians' movement thought that channels for quiet diplomacy were more appropriate. I, myself, think that we should use the most peaceful means available for achieving our ends. That's not to say that we shouldn't resort to strident protest if that's most effective. But if more peaceful means are available, we should use them.

Bob Penner: In my experience in the peace movement, the support for human rights in the Soviet Union hasn't been a big issue. Within the movement, the main issues debated are usually those that related directly to nuclear disarmament. When people question the peace movement policy toward the Soviet Union, it's usually on the question of why we don't more actively protest Soviet weapons in our foreign policy, not why we don't protest Soviet human rights policy. There just haven't been very big debates on this.

Mary Jo Leddy: Bob, I don't know what groups you talk to, but in any group I've talked to, the rights issue is the first one off the floor. Then one is expected to be either for the independents or for the official peace groups. Saying that "you're either for or against" is Cold War thinking -- what some people call bloc-thinking. I call it block-heartedness. We can get caught in justifying our human limitations. The challenge for us as peacemakers is to say, "Let our heart be unblocked to possibilities of hope -- official, independent, anywhere. Then, with an unblocked heart, we do have to choose where to put our limited life. In my life, I feel loyal to the people I met in Moscow. I'm not going to say that people who want to work with the official group are completely wrong. I don't think they're completely right, but I want to keep contact open. What arrogance that it's even a question whether we should care about the independent movements! Of course we should, because it's a thread of hope. We can't cut any threads. Then each one of us has to say, "Given my life, where can I put my energies to best give what I have?"

Joanna Santa Barbara: Yes, we do have to priorize the needs that we wish to address with the limited energy we have. Human extinction is what I choose to address most urgently. Any energy I have after that, I will devote to human starvation, and after that human oppression. All are important to me, but in terms of my energy, time and money, that's roughly how I priorize them.

That means that I let people rot in prison and starve while I devote my energies to writing articles and giving speeches for the peace movement. I could be doing different things and when I think about it, it causes me agony. I often avoid reading the mass of literature that comes to my home on what's happening to the environment and in Nicaragua, Chile, and Africa. I make these choices every day -- consciously and as thoughtfully as I can.

Barrie Zwicker: I disagree with your working principle, Frank: that "the right to work for peace must be linked to the right to live in peace." We can delink them and still be strongly for human rights. Amnesty International is a group that works for human rights. I support it for the human rights issues and the peace movement for the larger issue. It's unfortunate to link them, especially in the West, where inevitably it gets all caught up with the Cold War.

Frank Sommers: How much attention do you think they pay to Amnesty in the Soviet Union?

Barrie Zwicker: I think quite a bit.

Frank Sommers: That's not my experience. Quite the contrary. They tend not to listen to it. How much attention do they pay to the peace movement -- groups like us? Quite a lot, in fact. Now, please be careful what you attribute to me with your term "linkage." I don't say to the Soviets, "Unless you clean up your Gulags, we're not going to help prevent nuclear war." I don't say, "We won't collaborate with you on issues of life and death unless you let Brodsky go." But the nuclear age requires us to stop compartmentalization, stop thinking that I can separate myself from the threat of nuclear annihilation or from the jailing of any person in the world who is working to save the planet from annihilation. That's just human decency

Mary Jo Leddy: I'm very nervous in unlinking because I find that such thinking produces "Now I go to church, now I go to work." Or "Now I go to work in the gas chambers, now I go to listen to classical music." That kind of separation, while it sounds strategically good, leads to the most perverse aberrations. Yet I also recognize that time is limited and we must pick and choose. However, on the Brodsky issue, the maximum people were asking us to do was sign a letter. One minute! So the limitation of time and energy just doesn't wash.

Barrie Zwicker: Mary Jo, I think you've muddied the waters by bringing in the compartmentalization of working at the gas ovens and then crying about Beethoven. I don't think we've been talking about anything tonight that's in the same universe as that. And I still oppose linkage. For instance, the Soviets invade Afghanistan and the U.S. Congress says they won't okay SALT II. That was such a typical linkage. It implies that SALT II is a gift to the Soviets, not something that protects us all.

Mary Jo Leddy: It's not helpful to say, Reagan links these two issues in a way we find awful and so in reaction we won't link. I refuse to let Reagan set my agenda. We need to reclaim the unity of the world. That's the real resistance to Reagan's kind of linkage.

Bob Penner: Yes, and we still have to choose what to work on. You choose personally and a movement has to decide collectively what to do. There's a limited time to do something and a certain public resonance on what you say about different issues. The Canadian peace movement focuses sharply on one issue, nuclear disarmament. That's rational. It isn't that people are hostile to the question of nuclear power or intervention in the Third World or human rights. Of course, all the issues are related, but it is not effective to raise them all in the same context at the same time. It makes sense to focus on particular issues where you have broad support. If we went for a full political program that includes all the things that fit together, we'd have a very small movement, where we need a large one. Nuclear disarmament is where we have overwhelming support, and if we stray from it we'll lose it and do the issue a disservice. If we want to broaden, I see many issues that are more important to disarmament than the domestic affairs of other nations or human rights questions.

Frank Sommers: I disagree, because so much depends on our credibility with the public. In the public's eye, when we don't protect people who give so much to the movement, we undermine our own stated objective.

Bob Penner: Well, because the society is locked in the Cold War, should we look for ways to identify with Cold War sentiments in order to develop credibility? I'm not personally interested in doing that. Besides, I don't find that those who advocate supporting the independent peace groups in Eastern Europe are actually addressing Soviet foreign policy questions.

Frank Sommers: It is often assumed that if you support people who are independent activists, you are taking a position against the official government bodies. That isn't necessarily so. Many Soviet officials will privately tell you that you are right and that it's good you say that. "I can't, but I'm glad that you do." A senior Russian colleague said to me, "You know, in the Soviet Union you can think anything you like." And then he smiled.

Barrie Zwicker: We're still in a Cold War. On our side, the question that bedevils the peace movement is: What about the Russians? A myth of symmetry is widespread -- that the superpowers are equally wrong. It's false because, as Reg said, one superpower has initiated every spiral of the arms chase. There is a job necessary to be done on this side to "humanize" the people, the institutions, and the culture of the other side, the Soviets, whether we agree with it all or not. Replace the cardboard stereotypes with an understanding of the variety of people, including independent peace movements.

Also, something's been left out: I've read lots that the independent peace movements in the East say that I quite disagree with. Much it is mistaken or inexplicable, such as when they call on their government to do something that their government already does. Or they say that their government will never do something that their government is doing or shortly will do. We have not discussed the platforms of these dissident groups. The Canadian peace movement should dialogue with all people of good will -- including dissident groups. But we should be extra careful in so doing not to reinforce the Cold War.

Mary Jo Leddy: Between the East and West the major issue is not one of trust but of self-interest. It is in our mutual self-interest to avoid a nuclear disaster. However, the question : What about the Russians? surfaces as a question of trust. A group such as the Moscow Trust Group, which is the only one I can speak of personally, gives us a way of saying we can trust some of them. Maybe that offers us the possibility of saying we can trust most of them, most of the Russian people. We need to be in solidarity with everybody everywhere in suffering and in hope. There is a line by Yevtushenko, "And a tear which evaporated somewhere in Paraguay will fall as a snowflake on the cheek of an Eskimo."

This debate may become a moot issue! Human rights improving in the USSR

A review of the Helsinki Accords, held in Vienna in November (see p. 18), was attended by the Montréal human rights lawyer, Irwin Cotler, who talked with the Soviet delegates and returned home hopeful for the future of human rights in Soviet society. "If Reykjavik was the Soviet Union's ´disarmament offensive,'" says Cotler, "Vienna was the beginning of their ´human rights offensive.' Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's speech there, which was given no attention by the Western press, signaled a dramatic policy change."

The Soviet delegates pointed out that the Helsinki Final Act has been integrated into the Soviet constitution -- the only nation so to do. They claimed that their laws will soon be changed to conform to those constitutional provisions. For example, new, liberalized emigration laws were to effect in January.

To Cotler, who has dealt with Soviet officials before, this is a remarkable shift. In the past, the officials would add that, because he was not a Soviet lawyer, he had no basis for defending Soviet citizens. They also used to protest that human rights should never be with "linked" to questions of peace and security. This time they said none of these things. They promised that the Gorbachev approach will usher in a new, humane period. They made the linkage themselves, noting that their new guarantees of human rights will help to resolve matters of peace and security. They added that such big changes must take time, as thousands of bureaucrats much change their ways, but they hope that Westerners will help create a spirit of trust and good will as this change takes place.

"I may have to go back at them again later," Cotler says cheerfully. "But for now, I believe that they mean it."

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1987

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1987, page 24. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Dennis Bockus here
Search for other articles by Barry Stevens here

Peace Magazine homepage