In Search of Civil Society

Review by Metta Spencer in Canadian Slavonic Papers XXXIII (1) March 1991, 98-99
Vladimir Tismaneanu, ed. In Search of Civil Society: Independent Peace Movements in the Soviet Bloc. New York and London: Routledge, 1990. Casebound, 193 pp. ISBN 0-415-30248-7

The nonviolent revolutions of 1989 represented the culmination of a decade-long dialogue among dissidents in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the German Democratic Republic. These talks were not covert; indeed, a number of Western peace activists regularly visited them and published accounts of their discussions. Tismaneanu has edited an excellent set of papers covering those movements. He must have completed the project just before everything changed. The timing was excellent: As a historical document the book extends almost up to the revolutions.

Most Eastern European protesters began by defending human rights, and only gradually came to think of themselves as peace activists. Even more than in the West, the word “peace” had been tainted by association with communism. Each Eastern nation had its own official organization, affiliated with the World Peace Council. Participants in independent movements had to expect to be jailed or to lose their jobs. Yet despite their distaste for the notions of “peace” and, especially, ”pacifism,” those brave activists sometimes invented nonviolent tactics worthy of Mahatma Gandhi himself. Moreover, their initial impetus to protest was often their concern over the persecution of conscientious objectors. For example, when a Polish draftee refused to take the military oath, his friends organized themselves as “Wolnosc i Pokoj” (Freedom and Peace), went on hunger strike, and went to jail. Oddly, some of these activists at first favored the Americans’ nuclear weapons, which, because they were aimed at Russians, seemed to be defending freedom. Conscientious objection also elicited support in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. However, it was by no means the only issue that brought dissidents together. Thus in Hungary, numerous critical clubs and circles were tolerated by the regime for a time, giving rise to samizdat publishers, a peace organization, “Dialogue,” which was briefly independent, and an environmental group, the “Danube Circle,” which resorted to civil disobedience to block the construction of a dam on the Danube.

Soviet bloc peace activists never made the mistake of separating disarmament from political freedom and human rights. Unlike Westerners, who focused narrowly on single issues, opposing each new weapon system in its tum the Easterners’ approach was comprehensive. They called for the re-integration of Europe, including Germany, disarmament of conventional forces, and the reconstitution of “civil society” — the institutions of civic life. The worst effect of communism, they noted, was the sapping of citizens’ creative initiative. Only through public discourse could people reclaim their capacity to act responsibly. On these grounds, the Eastern activists chose to function publicly, not “underground,” despite the personal risk. Then, unexpectedly, nonviolent revolution thrust many of them — Havel and Dienstbier in Czechoslovakia, Czaputowicz and Kuron in Poland, Sakharov in the Soviet Union — onstage as politicians. Only in Germany did peace activists, having been lukewarm about re-unification, win no elections. This book documents their rightful place in history, beside the other Eastern activists.

Reviewed by Metta Spencer,
Department of Sociology, Erindale College, University of Toronto

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books