Peace Groups Badly Need View of Soviets that Will Sell

The Globe and Mail, June 26, 1984, p.7.

EVERYONE can see the nuclear arms race continues because of bad relations between the capitalist and Socialist blocs. If hostilities could be reduced, disarmament would be easy — and considerably less urgent.

Advocates of disarmament inevitably are challenged with the cry, “What about the Russians?” They are asked to provide a workable view of the Soviets consistent with an arms-reduction policy. It is in such discussions that the fur begins to fly.

The issue, as perceived by the public, is simple: Either (a) the Soviets are bad and we need our bombs, or (b) they are good and we don’t need them.

The conservative governments of the West operate with the former assumption. Thus U.S. President Ronald Reagan calls the Soviets “that evil empire,” and prides himself on holding them in check with hard-line military threats.

Evidence is clear that Soviet society is dreadful: it does not allow its citizens the most fundamental human rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly. The Soviets have most recently invaded Afghanistan, and other countries before that. If they would just “give in,” we could reduce the nuclear arms race, but until they do, we must not.

The peace movement, recognizing this view as the source of the danger of nuclear war, is obliged to provide a different view, but its member groups do not agree about which view to promote. There are difficulties in each approach. I will list the most common alternatives to the hard-line, anti-Communist view.

  • The Russians are good, so we don’t need the bomb. Left-wing peace groups (such as the Canadian Peace Congress) generally promote this view, but without much effect on public opinion.

Their spokesmen argue along these lines: of course, the Soviets are human, and they have their problems too. But most of our image of Soviet life is created by biased Western media. Get to know some Russians and you’ll find they are not very different from the rest of us.

True, there are a few political prisoners in that country, but It has basically straightened out its problems since Stalin’s day, when millions were prisoners of conscience. Besides, the United States supports political regimes that have human rights violations a hundred times worse than the Soviet Union: El Salvador, the Philippines and Chile, for example.

Furthermore, as the proponents of this “soft-line” approach to the Soviets point out, in the United Nations the Soviet Union has repeatedly voted, along with almost all other countries, for disarmament resolutions the United States has been almost alone in rejecting. The Americans, arid not the Soviets, have led the arms race by inventing virtually every new nuclear weapon, and the Soviets have been “forced” to match these threats three or four years later.

Now, for the first time, the two sides are about equal in power and the United States doesn’t like that and intends to get ahead again. It is the Americans, not the Soviets, who are to blame for the problem.

While this view contains several factual points, as a whole it is unconvincing to most Canadians. In particular, audiences react with suspicion when a speaker appears too uncritical of Soviet human rights violations, its domination of European satellites, or its invasion of Afghanistan. Playing down the importance of these problems is the surest way for a speaker to be considered a “dupe”.

  • The Soviets are dangerous, all right, because they are afraid. This perspective does not whitewash the aggressiveness and repression of the Soviet regime, but its explanation and proposed responses differ from those of the hard-line anti-Communists. This is the approach most peace activists share.

Their reasoning goes like this: the Soviets have been invaded five times. Fourteen Western nations, including the United States, invaded in 1920 to crush the revolution. In the Second World War, more than 20 million Soviet citizens were killed by the Germans. They are exceedingly nervous about the security of their borders and want a buffer zone of friendly states around their perimeter. They have rarely intervened in distant places, as the United States frequently does, but any neighboring country that turns anti-Communist must expect a forcible response from the Soviet Union.

Fear makes the Soviets dangerous. To allay their anxieties and reduce the danger of war, we must be careful not to intimidate them militarily, but show our readiness to reverse the arms race.

Hands are always raised in the audience at this point. Someone asks, “Maybe so, but what about the way they repress their own dissidents? That can’t be caused by fear of us.”

Peace activists differ in their responses to this issue. One speaker may reply: “Their internal repression comes from fear too – the Government’s fear of the ordinary citizens. They think they have to keep the lid on because if they allowed any protests, there would be turmoil and they might get thrown out.”

Other people in the peace movement have different views. They say internal repression in the Soviet Union is not motivated by the Government’s fear, but is traditional. The czars were always tyrants and the people have never expected anything else. They don’t even want it to change. Russians really. despise dissidents and want them to be jailed. They don’t believe in individualism or personal freedom and we can’t change their culture and make them think the way we do. But that doesn’t mean they want to attack us. Internationally, they want peace.

Probably neither of these two interpretations is entirely correct; the truth is likely somewhere in between. However, neither answer, nor a combination of the two, is satisfying to most Canadians. Neither approach proposes any clear, practical way of dealing with the Soviets. Whatever the reason for their policy of repression, it remains a thorny problem for Westerners. There is, however, a third interpretation of the matter:

  • The West should avoid polarizing its relations with the East. Unfortunately, ambivalence is an uncomfortable state of mind. The normal, easy way of thinking is to blame one’s enemies and justify whatever one’s friends do.

According to some Canadian peace activists, any improvement must begin by bridging this gap. They insist that we have to learn to deal with our “enemies” and “friends” with equal civility, and without pretending to approve or disapprove of everything they do. Harmony is best preserved by keeping communication lines open, searching for areas of agreement and co-operation, yet standing up honorably for one’s own values.

In dealing with the Soviets, this means saying when we are offended by human rights violations, yet saying so in a constructive manner.

Speakers who promote this perspective seem to frustrate their audiences, who demand that they “stop sitting on the fence and declare which side they are on”. Yet the solution to the impasse requires just such a balancing of truths.

The average Canadian is right in viewing the Soviet Union as a repressive society. This, however, is no reason for maintaining NATO’s nuclear arsenal.

The peace movement’s task (not yet fulfilled) is to propose a civil, reasonable way, comprehensible to the average Canadian, of orienting toward the Soviet regime without betraying our own ideal of freedom.

Ms Spencer is a sociology professor at the University of Toronto.

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