By Metta Spencer
Special to the Toronto Star , December 3, 1983
IN SEVERAL cities throughout the Soviet Union, small, unofficial groups are springing up that share one commitment — peace. Officials deny their existence. They suffer repression. either openly or through beatings at the hands of thugs whom police don’t prosecute.
Yet they continue. They see the strong-arm tactics used against them as proceeding from fear, and they worry that over-emphasis on their mistreatment by the western media will distract attention from their purpose — the creation of trust between East and West.
On a recent visit to Moscow, I was able to contact members of one of these movements — the Group to Establish Trust — and hear their story at a series of clandestine meetings.
My first contact was a five-hour meeting with Yuri and Olga Medvedkov in their high-rise Moscow apartment.
Medvedkov, a soft-spoken man in his early fifties, had been a geographer for 30 years and had risen in his profession until he committed himself to working for peace.
Now he counts himself lucky still to be employed at all and smiles about his demotion to the very junior rank of his young wife, Olga, whose career in geography is just beginning.
Like the other members of the Group to Establish Trust, Yuri and Olga are careful not-to over-dramatize their own plight.
Their story is almost inevitably construed as demonstrating the evil nature of Soviet society and the necessity of opposing it or reducing contacts with it.
These conclusions are exactly contrary to those which the group wants us to draw.
The core members are about 20 professional people who gather weekly to study and discuss the nuclear arms race, and to propose actions against it.
They are very public about their activities, having announced their existence in June 1982 with a manifesto directed to both the United States and the Soviet Union.
In Moscow they have about 1,000 supporters, and similar groups exist in several other cities, such as Odessa and Leningrad, so that perhaps 2,000 members exist in the Soviet Union.
Participation is a dangerous commitment. Members must expect to lose their jobs, to be exiled to faraway places, to be beaten by thugs, and to be jailed or placed in mental hospitals.
Invariably, their phones are disconnected, their mail service interrupted, their apartments bugged.
Harassment is a daily experience. For example, not long ago, Medvedkov was chased down the street by thugs; he darted into a police station to ask for protection.
After the police made a phone call they charged him with “hooliganism” and jailed him in an unheated cell for two weeks.
Olga was beaten up two weeks before.
At a second meeting, I met four other members of the core group.
Dr. Valerii Godyak, a 42-year-old plasma physicist. is the author of more than 50 scientific publications. In 1980 he was dismissed from his job at Moscow State University, and is now a blue-collar worker.
Olga Lusniltova, 27, was an economist but is now a street-cleaner; her husband, Dr. Alexei Lusnikov, 30, was a physicist but now also works as a street-cleaxr er. They both lost their jobs because of their participation in the Soviet branch of Amnesty lnternational nearly a year ago.
Mark Reitman is a 47-year-old mathematician who is no longer employed, at least partly because he has Parkinson’s disease.
Several other members were mentioned, many of them also unemployed professionals. Two of the group, Oleg Radzinsky and Alexander Shatavra, are now exiled in Siberia.
Finally, the member who is best known in the West is Sergei Batovrin, a 26-year-old painter who was confined to house arrest for a time and was forced to leave the Soviet Union for -New York, where he continues the work of bridging the two blocs.
What have these people done to bring such punishment upon themselves? Their activities would seem very moderate to Western peace activists. They search for gradual ways of generating peace. not sudden reversals of policy, which they consider dangerously destabilizing.
Hence the group’s program involves regular study and a discussion: They hold a weekly seminar series in the Medvedkovs’ apartment. Some of the members are often invited to speak to other groups. On Hiroshima Day they organized a public demonstration; they had a sing-out in the evening, with a reading of anti-military poetry. People put candles in their windows.
They do not approve of boycotts or other pressure tactics as a part of international relations since whenever problems occur, the number of contacts ought to be increased, not reduced, they say.
The group asked Westerners to keep coming to their country after the Korean Airlines crisis, even against the wishes of the Western governments.
They wrote a letter to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asking for an explanation when some of the Greenham Common women were jailed for their protest against the deployment of cruise missiles in Britain.
The four people who went to the British Embassy to deliver the message were arrested. but Thatcher received the letters and replied. Her answer is still at the embassy, since the group cannot go near the place now.
The group’s main objective is to foster trust through more people-to-people contacts. They have proposed a number of ideas that have been adopted by the official Soviet Peace Committee — an organization that has 60 million members and a virtual monopoly on organizing peace activities throughout the country. These include exchanging children’s drawings between East and West and including Soviet Baptists in the delegations sent abroad.
They were the source of the idea for a peace march between Moscow and Washington, which actually took place.
Above all, they support all sorts of cultural exchanges and visits — anything that would enable people to know one another personally.
Dialogue, they emphasized, is vital. Visitors and tourists should go to see Soviet officials of ‘all levels.
“We read between the lines in this country — the expression of the eyes and so on. The important thing is the education that you bring. Even the rigid hawk who is contacted over and over by peace activists from the West realizes it is madness to react to a threat that does not exist.”
Who could oppose people who express such benign views? Who, in fact, does orchestrate their oppression, and for what reason? The answer is not clear. The group claims that the highest officials of the government do not object at all to their work.
Indeed, they appealed to former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev for help at one time and met with one of his closest officials, who was sympathetic, helpful and fascinated by their story.
(He kept asking them such questions as. “What is house arrest like? What do they do to you?”)
Medvedkov thinks the repression is the work of certain lower- and middle-level bureaucrats who are afraid that their careers will be endangered somehow by the group.
The group had some interesting insights into the Soviet view of the arms race.
“It is possible to exist here without this big army,” said Medvedkov. “China is now busy raising its economy, not threatening the U.S.S.R. Western Europe is out of the play — it doesn’t have an imperialist policy. Britain is also not an enemy. lt is possible to undertake a mass policy of arms reduction. There is no threat from outside.”
But in the Soviet population, according to Medvedkov, 99 per cent of the people believe their country would be invaded if they were not heavily armed. It’s vital to convince people that such a thing wouldn’t happen, he says.
Still, the Group for Trust recognizes the impossibility of moving quickly in such an area, since the military in their country is even stronger than in the West.
“The military here is not like the military in the States,” said Medvedkov. “The history of this nation, with its roots centuries back, left an attitude toward the army as something sacred. A military career is considered to be noble.
“A lot of people in the military possess the potential for reforms — even for peace activism. Their support may have to be subtle, but the top echelons of the military are the best informed people about the suicidal nature of nuclear war. On the other hand, vested interests certainly exist.” Later in my visit I met an interpreter named Igor.
I had just returned from a visit to a Russian church. “I love church,” he said. I was surprised, since other interpreters had declared themselves atheists.
Igor is about 45. Because of his beliefs, he lost any opportunity 10 years ago for a regular translation job, but is still hired on a part-time basis. — Now his situation has become worse and he finds he must leave.
“Next week I will leave Moscow forever. I am moving to Riga. I think it may be better for me there.” His eyes reveal that there is more to the story than he thinks wise to disclose. “Do you mean there is something dangerous for you here?” I asked.
Igor shrugged. “There is something primitive about some of my people,” he said. “They use force in an ugly way. But it is going to change. The young people don’t want it to be this way. Especially the young people who meet foreigners and who know more about what is going on.” “What can we in the West do to help?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied. “We have to do it ourselves. But it will happen…
“It takes time. It’s difficult. But it’s the only way that will succeed. You can do that too from wherever you are.”
Metta Spencer is associate sociology professor at University of Toronto and founder of the Canadian Disarmament Information Service.