The Soviet Peace Movement

By Metta Spencer.
This is an updated (early 1984) and expanded version of the previously published article The Doves Behind the Wire.

An independent peace movement, The Group to Establish Trust, has existed in the Soviet Union since the summer of 1982 and is rapidly growing. About 2000 members in several major cities are actively engaged in speaking, handing out leaflets, and other peace work. In late November, I was able to visit several members of the Moscow group. Knowing that their phones have all been disconnected, we simply dropped in, unannounced, to visit Yuri and Olga Medvedkov, who fortunately were at home with their small son in their high-rise apartment. They welcomed my small party of western peace activists warmly, served us tea and cake, and talked with us for five hours. A few days later we returned for another three-hour discussion with four other core group members.

Yuri Medvedkov is a soft-spoken man in his early fifties, who speaks English with quiet eloquence. He had been a geographer for thirty years and, until he committed himself to working for peace, had risen high in his profession. He was a top officer of the World Health Organization and lived abroad for a long period. Now he counts himself lucky still to be employed at all and smiles about his demotion to the very junior rank of his 33 year old wife, Olga, whose career in geography was just beginning.

Like the other members of the Group to Establish Trust, Yuri and Olga are careful not to overdramatize their own plight. Will report on the abuses that these good people endure; however, to honor their sacrifice I must place greater emphasis on the spirit with which they hold these experiences. Their story is almost inevitably construed by the Western press as demonstrating the evil nature of Soviet society and the necessity of opposing it or reducing contacts with it. Such conclusions are exactly contrary to those which the Group intend for us to draw.

They call themselves the Group to Establish Trust, and it would be wrong to misuse their sacrifices by spreading mistrust instead. Instead of harboring anger toward their oppressors, they are obviously concerned for them and are working to overcome the pervasive fear and mistrust that is the source of violence.

The core members of The Group are about twenty 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 of 1982 with a manifesto directed to both the U.S. And the USSR. In Moscow their active membership is about 1000.

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 into mental hospitals. Some members have undertaken other deprivations voluntarily, such as fasting for a month at a time. Invariably, their mail service is interrupted, their apartments bugged.

Harassment is a daily experience. For example, not long ago Yuri 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” (beating up an old woman at a bus stop!) and jailed him in an unheated cell for two weeks. As he recounts the story, he and Olga smile, shrug, and shake their heads.

When Yuri told us of one of Olga’s recent ordeals, they did not realize that it was far from over. It had occurred on October 13, when she and several other members of the group had gone to support their friend, Oleg Radzinsky at his trial for anti-Soviet activities. The far-fetched evidence against him included testimony about statements that he was supposed to have made ten years ago to someone on an archeological expedition. He was sentenced to one year in jail and 5 years of internal exile in Siberia.

Yuri was not part of the support group, having been kept at his office, but Olga and a few others decided to stand outside the courthouse, knowing they could not be admitted inside. As they approached the building, they were arrested, taken to a police station and detained three hours while their documents were being checked. According to Soviet law, if charges are not laid after three hours, no one can be held longer. The group was told, therefore, that they might leave. However, when they opened the door, a truck had been backed up to the door so they could not exit, except by getting into the truck. They were manhandled roughly by plainclothesmen, forced into the truck, taken to an “unknown structure” (later described to me as a police barracks), kept until the trial was over that night, and then released. Only later would the significance of this incident become clear.

On the whole, the KGB preferes to trump up false chages instead of prosecute the members overtly for their real crime— membership in an independent organization. This did happen once, but apparently was considered bad publicity, and so far not repeated. That single case involved a seasonal worker in Siberia, Alexander Shatavra, whom the Moscow group have never met. Shatavra had acquired a copy of the group’s appeal, and was was collecting a petition fur the “four-sided dialogue”—probably in hopes of forming a local Trust Group. He was arrested and in his trial professors testified that they consider the document anti-Soviet. (The basis was clear: To permit maverick grass-roots groups to operate outside the leadership of the Communist Party would jeopardize the orderly workings of Soviet society.) Shatavra was given a three year sentence. His appeal is still in process, and according to Medvedkov, there is some hope for it, since it is impossible to be charged for protesting for peace, which is offically a duty.

On our first visit to the Medvedkov’s apartment, we spoke mostly with Yuri, since Olga had to take their 8 year old son, Mischa, to a tennis lesson. When we came back a week later we me 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 Lusnikova, 27, was an economist, but now is a street-cleaner; her husband, Dr.Alexei Lusnikov, age 30, was a physicist but now also works as a street-cleaner. They both lost their scientific jobs because of their participation in the Soviet branch of Amnesty International nearly a year ago.

Mark Reitman, is a 47 year old applied mathematician who is no longer employed, at least partly because he has Parkinson’s disease. He, Olga Lusnikova, Valerii Godyak, and another man, Vitaly Barbash (whom I did not meet) were the people who had been kidnapped at the Radzinsky trial, along with Olga.

The founding 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 USSR for New York, where he continues the group’s work. The Moscow group asked me to phone Batovrin as soon as I returned to North America.

What have these people done to bring such punishment-upon themselves? Nothing illegal or even objectionable: They scrupulously obey Soviet laws, nor do they even criticize their government, the party, or Soviet military policy—for at least three reasons: (a) They are not opposed to communism; (b) They don’t know and cannot find out enough about military strategy or arms control negotiations to criticize policy confidently; and © They prefer not to criticize any governments anyway, on the principle that doing so generates hatred. Leaving struggles for politicians to manage, they follow instead other methods of peacemaking—the creation of conditions for trust and confidence where none now exist.

The group’s activities would seem very moderate to Western peace activists who go in for protest actions or even civil disobedience. They search for slow, patient ways of generating Peace, not sudden reversals of policy, which they consider dangerously destabilizing. Hence the group’s program involves regular study and 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 pay 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 have circulated a petition asking for a “four sided dialogue.” They monitor the rhetoric in the newspapers and would like to develop international journalistic standards that would reduce the “hate content” in newspapers, school textbooks, and the like They attempted to organize an exhibition of peace-poster art, though it was closed by the police, and they organized an exhibition of Sergei Batovrin’s paintings for peace, which also was closed; all 88 of his paintings were confiscated.

So far, The Group to Establish Trust has not made any military proposals at all, but on our second visit, only three days after the first Cruise missiles had arrived in Britain, they were considering the possibility of issuing a proposal for a compromise offer on missile numbers that might break the deadlock in the Geneva arms control talks. Their hesitation stemmed from the difficulty of getting sufficient information to study the situation deeply.

They have made public proposals on nonmmilitary matters, however. For example, they have sent an open letter to President Reagan suggesting civil flights between the United States and the Soviet Union. 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. Contrary to such advice as that given by E.P. Thompson, who tried to support the dissident Charter 77 group by staying away from Prague, The Group for Trust asked Westerners to keep coming to their country after the Korean Airlines crisis, even against the wishes of the Western governments.

While they do not criticize any governments, they did write a letter to Margaret Thatcher asking for an explanation when some of the Greenham Common women were jailed for their protest activities. The four people who went to the British Embassy to deliver the message were arrested, but Mrs. Thatcher received the letters and replied to them. Her answer is still at the Embassy, since the group cannot go near the place now.

Some of the group’s members have for a long time carried on a content analysis of the Soviet press, calculating what they call the “hatred index” for various articles. They say that wome Soviet commentators are honest and provide balanced views. A writer named Bovon, for example, is extremely fair and wrote one of his best articles on the KAL007 issue, in which he tried to smooth the situation down. Many other writers portray situations strictly in black and white.

The index of hatred was calculated over a ten year period. The commentaries written durng the Helsinki period had the lowest amount of hatred. A year ago the group felt that they were beyond the point of no return, but have since concluded that this has not occurred.

During the plane crisis, the hatred index was watched closely. The usual length of anti-American material in Izvestia is over 3 meters per day. On the day of the crisis and the second day, it went down. This proves to the group that the political leadership was surprised, and that the event was probably a mistake. Then later on, the hatred index rocketed upward.

One of the group’s proposals is for both the Eastern and Western press to be analyzed together. Possibly UNESCO could establish some standards of rhetoric for commentators. That would be a help to mankind, they say.

The main objective of the group is to foster trust through more people-to-people contacts. They have proposed a number of ideas that the Soviet Peace Committee has adopted – such as exchanging children’s drawings between East and West, and including Soviet Baptists in the delegations that are 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. They are especially keen on the idea of having children go for extended visits to live with families in the other bloc. They encourage the Soviet Peace Committee to make Western visitors more visible. Although quite a few people, such as ourselves, arrive in Moscow as delegates, very few of the local people know that we are there.

Mark Reitman commented that when tourism was at its peak, as many as 50,000 Westerners at a time used to be in the USSR, and their presence was reassuring, even though no one would have called them “hostages.” Now only a tenth as many Western tourists are coming as before.

The group reminded us that we Western peace activists were doing an important job of educating the Soviet people whenever we came to their country, simply by presenting opportunities for normal interactions at a person-to-person level.

Dialogue, they emphasized, is vital. We visitors and tourists should go to see Soviet officials of all levels. “Contact every kind of Soviet group as often as possible and try to participate in our gatherings!” urged Yuri Medvedkov. “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 possibly oppose people who express such benign views and constructive suggestions as these? Who, in fact, does orchestrate their oppression, and for what reason?

The answer is not clear. The Group to Establish Trust claims that the highest officials of the government do not object to their work. Indeed, they appealed to 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?”) Yuri Medvedkov says he prefers to think that 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.

No one specified who these careerists might be, but I assume that they must include certain members of the official Soviet Peace Committee, an organization that has some sixty million members and a virtual monopoly in organizing peace activities throughout the country. If so, their reaction is misguided, since the Group to Establish Trust said only good things about their work. Yuri, for example, spoke admiringly of the large demonstrations that the Peace Committee had organized. During a single week, about 50 million Soviet citizens participated last year in rallies and other peace events throughout the country. More recently a Moscow demonstration brought 800,000 Russians onto the streets.

One member of The group was told by a KGB man that some of their ideas have been accepted and included in an official proposal that was published. Other evidence also suggests that The group’s existence has prompted the Soviet Peace Committee to greater activity.

Nevertheless, the Peace Committee seems to consider The group as a dissident organization. This is a natural mistake for them to make, since in Soviet society there is no tradition of grassroots, independent organizations. Those that do emerge are usually protest groups demanding some kind of social reform. The

Croup to Establish Trust, on the other hand, does not mix other possible issues in with its program, strictly limiting itself to generating the kind of trust that will enable East and West to disarm and avoid the nuclear holocaust.

In fact, the only aspect of The group to which the Soviet Peace Committee could possibly object is its independence. Soviet culture simply does not acknowledge the legitimacy pluralism. Groups are expected to be organized in a unified way. The Western model, in which various groups push for various goals even within the same movement, is viewed from the Soviet perspective as chaotic and a waste of energy. Time after time I have heard this question: “Why wouldn’t a peace group want to work inside the Soviet Peace Committee if it is not disloyal?”

On the basis of this conviction, the Peace Committee leaders simply decline to meet with the upstart group, and because they do not meet them, there is no chance for the group to correct the misunderstanding of their goals.

Last summer Olga Medvedkova resorted to gate-crashing in order to meet the top Peace Committee leaders. Several women from Greenham Common, who had been staying with the Medvedkovs, went to see five officials. Olga came along and was taken to be a fourth Englishwoman until, well along in the visit, she explained in perfect Russian her actual affiliation and her pleasure in finally having an opportunity to explain the views of The Group to Establish Trust.

At this point there was an uproar. Only at the insistence of the British women was Olga allowed to proceed. She then said how The group had made many efforts to contact the committee to arrange such a meeting, since they shared the same ideas and goals.

Oleg Karkhardin, the highest official soon interrupted Olga and refused to allow her to continue. She left, and he soon departed as well. Thereafter the meeting became less tense. The British women explained that they go around knocking on doors in England to convince people that the Russians don’t want to invade. People agree that nuclear weapons are terrible, but they fear the Russians. The had treatment of The Group for Trust only makes bad propaganda worse. They mentioned that Soviet society has many wonderful qualities, and added, “Take away the KGB, and in fifty years’ time, you could have country here that would be the envy of the world.” The astonished Peace Committee people nodded. The meeting ended on a cordial tone and one of the Soviet men said that it was the most interesting meeting that he’d ever attended.

Nevertheless, it is plain that opposition to the Group for Trust was not diminished by the encounter. When asked about the group, the same official untruth is always given: The Group to Establish Trust no longer exists; its members were mostly Jewish refuseniks and they have left the country now.

The Soviet Peace Committee’s defensiveness is difficult to explain, since it can hardly have much to fear from the independent group. Even now there is no complete monopoly in peace activism in the Soviet Union, since the Russian Orthodox and Baptist Churches have peace organizations that are accepted. The Baptist group held a seminar with people from the West and Yuri Medvedkov said he would gladly endorse the document that they produced together.

At that time, Yuri speculated that opposition to the Croup for Trust might be softening somewhat. Not since July, had foreign visitors such as ourselves been prevented from visiting them. (Later events seem to have dashed his hopes.)

The Group for Trust interprets strong-armed tactics that are used ~.~against them as proceeding, like all other forms of violence, from fear. And in this case, they hold the fear to be a false and the repression, therefore, unnecessary.

I was surprised at hearing this view expressed and probed a little further. “I had assumed,” I said carefully, “that the repression that exists in this society is here for a good reason—that there is so much latent opposition to the regime that it is functionally necessary.”

Speaking slowly as usual because of his Parkinson’s Disease, Mark Reitman disagreed. “No,” he said, “in a free election, I am sure that the same government would be re-elected—at least in the first election. I can’t forecast what would be in the second or third. I am sure that the government is based on majority support. I know that some people in the West have illusions about the matter.”

Yuri Medvedkov nodded agreement. “This is one of the most stable societies,” he said. “The government and the public are like hand and glove. There is no internal conflict between the public and the government. I don’t believe in the story that because of internal conflict it is necessary to use political repression. The electorate hasn’t much desire to select among dozens of candidates. And social mobility is very low now.

I don’t see the moving forces for dissent. The nation wants to have stability. I interpret this in an optimistic way—to show that there is no need for repression.”

I remained puzzled. If there were no functional reason for the repression, why did it continue? Only later did I grasp the explanation that Yuri must have believed in: It is not functional, it is simply a big mistake. Lots of frightened people must think it is necessary, which is why they use it, but according to the Group for Trust, they are wrong.

The group’s explanation for the arms race is identical. Each nation fears the others and arms for self-defense. Yet what they fear is illusory, so the main thing to do is work directly on reducing fear—introducing confidence-building measures.

“It is possible to exist here without this big army,” says Yuri Medvedkov. “China is now busy raising its economy, not threatening the USSR. Western Europe is out of play—it doesn’t have an imperialist policy. Britain is also not an enemy. There is a supply of oil and gas. It is possible to undertake a mass policy of arms reduction. There is no threat from outside.

Mankind faces the necessity to restructure the economy to make it energy-economical.”

Why then, I wonder aloud, is it so hard to induce any country to reduce its arms race?

Mistrust, according to Medvedkov. Unreasonable mistrust.

In the Soviet population, 99 percent of the people believe that their country would be invaded if they were not heavily armed. What is necessary is to convince people that such a thing wouldn’t happen. “The democracies in the West are not in a mood to launch a sudden attack, as 99 percent of the Soviet public fears,” he went on. “Your presence—as Western peace activists— here is useful to show the public that such a sudden attack is completely out of the question.”

I probed Yuri for information about the policies of the Soviet Peace Committee.

“They are doing an important job in reminding the Soviet public about the importance of keeping the peace,” he said. “They haven’t published a word about their program. They support the official program of the government. It may be the wisest thing for them to do. We live in a nuclear power. There are responsibilities when living in such a country not to destabilize the situation. The wrong step may ruin all civilization if it antagonizes the forces acting here. Destabilization in the military realm is probably impossible for nuclear powers.

Continuity is necessary in this. Just imagine a Cultural Revolution in a nuclear power with all kinds of hands on the button. So the Soviet Peace Committee says that the USSR is okay.”

One of the key objectives of the Group for Trust is to identify promising approaches to economic conversion. One of the group, Lev Dudkin, is an economist who is studying the question closely. After hearing his seminar, the group developed a number of interesting proposals, and had a special document ready for me to take back to Canada when we arrived for the second visit.

The scheme is a visionary one, probably too visionary to be practical at present. But it is imaginative in its suggestion for integrating Soviet and Western workers in the joint development projects that will replace existing jobs in the military industrial complexes of the two superpowers.

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. Very few economists are even aware of the cost of the arms.

“The military here is not like the military in the States,” says Yuri Medvedkov. “It is not seen as parasites. The history of this nation, with its roots centuries back, left the attitude toward the army as something sacred. A military career is considered to be noble. Ninety percent of the graduates of Moscow State University, where I have taught so long, would regard a career in the army as the best career. Since the best talents are concentrated in the military, the best innovations take place there too. Tape recorders are developed in military plants. And camping equipment. A lot of people in the military possess the potentiality for reforms—even for peace activism. Their support may have to be subtle, but the top echelon of the military are the best informed persons about the suicidal nature of nuclear war. On the other hand, vested interests certainly exist.

“These old stories about the poor state of the Soviet economy, you should divide them by half. It’s a wealthy nation that wastes a lot, for example, of oil. They don’t count the dost of the military. Here any amount of taxation for military expenditure would be accepted by the population, even if it meant living on bread and water. This is what is inherited from the last war. In this situation, the wisdom of cuts on military expenditures must come from the government, not the people.”

Mark Reitman added, “Every proposal will be undermined if contrary if contrary to the military- industrial complexes of the superpowers. But it is possible to convert these. The space mission in 1975 was successful because the project was realized with the cooperation of the military-industrial complexes of both sides. This project gave mankind 2 or 3 years of peace and was more efficient in protecting the security of the U.S. Than the MX and Pershing projects together. That’s the kind of cooperative. Activity that we need to develop in lots of other areas to turn militarism into humanitarianism.”

Yuri Medvedkov concluded, “The military cannot just be disestablished. Khrushchev tried to do it and was ousted. The best answer is to switch slowly and patiently to convert this military-industrial complex.”

It was late on both occasions when we left the Medvedkov’s. Tears came to my eyes as we said goodbye and shook hands. When Olga’s turn came, we hugged.

On Sunday, four of us from the Canadian delegation attended attended crowded services in a spectacular Russian Orthodox Church. The place was packed, chiefly with old women, and two different choirs chanted gloriously. When we returned to the hotel for lunch, I mentioned our excursion to an interpreter named Igor, who seemed disappointed that we had not asked him to come along to interpret. “I love church,” he added, to my surprise. The other interpreters had declared themselves atheists and clearly had not wanted to come along to interpret. I probed further.

Igor was about forty-five, had lost his father in the war, but had not gone hungry because his mother had worked in a food supply store and could sometimes get scraps to feed him. He had joined the Young Communists and had gone to the Language Institute. When his mother died, however, he found that he did after all, believe in something religious. He also met many foreigners and learned a lot about politics, and in various ways his opinions changed. By stating his beliefs too indiscreetly, he lost any opportunity ten years ago for a regular translation job, but was still hired irregularly on a part time basis.

His situation had worsened, however, and he said, “Next week I will leave Moscow forever. I am moving to Riga. I think it may be better for me there.” His eyes revealed that there is more to the story than he dared disclose.

“Do you mean there is something dangerous for you here?” I asked.

Igor shrugged and silently turned his palms upward, expressing his inability to reply.

“There is something primitive about some of my people,” he said. “They use force in an ugly way. They are ugly people.

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. In the meantime, I will go away. Things will be better in Riga, I hope.”

“What can we in the West do to help?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he replied. “We have to do it ourselves. It will happen. When there was a period of detente, the repression was reduced. These people act out of fear. We have to expect it of them. Every person in the country was affected by the war, lost someone, or suffered something. Naturally they have the conviction that the world is a dangerous place, that it is risky to trust anyone. That fear is what makes them dangerous.”

“Is it better for you, do we help you from outside, if we push hard on your government to improve things?” I asked.

“No!” he exclaimed. “This government cannot be pushed. And when the ugly people are pushed, they get worse. They break people’s arms for no good reason and things like that.”

“Then what will work?” I persisted unhappily.

“We have to work patiently,” he replied. “Look, every human being, no matter how ugly, has another side. The only thing to do is to keep speaking to that other side, the pure side, the good and beautiful side. We have to remind them that they have such a side. It takes time. It is difficult. But it is the only way that will succeed. You can do that too from wherever you are.”

On December 8, a few days after my return to Canada, Olga Medvedkova was arrested and charged with having assaulted police officers on October 13. The penalty for such a crime is 3 years in concentration camp, or (if the officer was supposed to be on duty) 6 years. The four other group members who were present—Mark Reitman, Valerii Godyak, Olga Lusnikova, and Vitaly Barbash—will be called to testify at her trial, and will report that she was assaulted by the police, not vice versa. They are expected to be charged with perjury and sentenced to 6 months or more in a concentration camp. In addition, Dr. Lev Dudkin has been charged on a separate matter.

It was expected that Olga Medvedkova’s trial would take place before Christmas. However, a number of protests took place in Western countries, resulting in a short postponement.

On December 27, I phoned Sergei Batovrin, who was in a New York hospital, awaiting surgery for an adrenal problem that, in all likelihood resulted from the stresses of his political struggle. He was more interested in telling me about the news from Moscow than about his own serious health problem.

He had managed to telephone Oleg Radzinsky and to tape record the interview. Radzinsky, who had been ill with asthma, an old spinal fracture and other disorders when he was arrested, had suffered greatly in the Siberian concentration camp, where he was deprived of medical treatment. Only 1200 calories per day are given to prisoners, who are engaged in hard labor. Radzinsky’s weight had dropped to about 45 kilos. He is so sick that they have changed his sentence, and allowed him to go to Moscow for 10 days before being sent back to Central Siberian exile. He was confined to house arrest in Moscow, but not put into hospital. Batovrin fears that Radzinsky’s five-year sentence may be a death sentence.

Radzinsky acknowledged that under pressure from the KGB he had written a letter to President Reagan, asking that Reagan stop using Radzinsky’s name for anti-Soviet propaganda. However, the letter that was actually sent to Western correspondents was quite different from the one he actually wrote. In it he is supposed to have claimed that his sentence was not for his peace activities, but as an ordinary criminal.

Batovrin is convinced that pressure in the West influences court decisions in the Soviet Union. He has presented documents to the Secretary General of the United Nations on behalf of Olga Medvedkova. He explained to me that a resolution had been passed unanimously in the United Nations last year, guaranteeing that all citizens of member states have the right to carry on independent peace activities, and that the Secretary General should report annually on the implementation of this resolution. It is in the hope of influencing this report that Batovrin has submitted evidence concerning Olga’s mistreatment. Telegrams of protest to Yuri Andropov or to the Soviet Embassy may still be of great value.

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