Yury Orlov in Toronto winter of 1992-93.
Interviewer — Metta Spencer, with Eric Fawcett
Orlov had moved to the US several years before, where he does physics research at Cornell University.
We began by arguing a while about whether Gorbachev had been his own person. Orlov thinks that he was sincerely on the side of the hard liners, not under control by anybody. (Almost all dissidents thought that way.)
I ask about influences during his early period. He said he never listened to foreign radio in his life. He tried once but it was in German.
Then I mentioned how Victor Bulgakov argued that all the reforms that had taken place had been a result of pressure from dissidents. Others say that dissidents had no influence. They did what they did because it was morally right, not because they expected to be effective. Did you think that you were going to be effective? And do you think that you were?
Orlov: I made a speech in Moscow at the meeting of Helsinki Federation and I talked about the historic role of dissidents. So my opinion, of course there were many important factors that forced the Politburo to begin with — historical, economical — they all understood that something must be done. But when Gorbachev began, his idea was democratic socialism. From the Western point of view that means planning and freedom. They finally accepted limited freedom because with the planning system you need some centre to plan. Leadership at the top. They knew without leadership it would not be a Lenin system. …. They felt what is possible and what is not. They needed glasnost … self-criticism. Self-criticism is what communists — Stalin repeated it all the time. So on the top they understood that it must be ____. The West did not know this at all. In the sixties it was the maximum time — Sputnik and so on. You know, Metta, it was a coupon system, rationing — not in Moscow but in the countryside. They had coupons for meat, for bottles. When I was in Siberia, I described this: we had coupons for meat. I kg of meat per month. We had coupons for eggs — in the eighties. It began in the beginning of the eighties. Step by step collapse.
I must say, Stinger missiles had a role. They began to lose planes and helicopters. Their helicopters were the best in the world. Almost every day. Soldiers were corrupted by ordinary people, by drugs. In Poland. Forty millions. A long history of resistance. So what to do with Poland. One way was information and education. We developed a huge network of samizdat. It is difficult to understand over here that samizdat could play such a role, but in Russia, with the suppression of freedom of the press, every word is gold. We have anecdotes. Once an old woman was typing War and Peace. My son will not read Tolstoy unless it is typed. They discussed, and we sent our papers abroad. It was mainly the broadcasting that brought this back.
(I ask about tamizdat.)
Tamizdat was only in Moscow, in the intelligentsia.
(I tell him about the list of books published secretly by Progress Books.)
It was special information for all of them. I was once invited by a committee that proposed to restore all my party membership. I saw on their shelves for internal use, some information about those countries — China. And I was in the regional KGB, and I saw such a book and I read some of it. Bureaucrats abroad usually brought some books. You can imagine how many people traveled to Moscow from the countryside to find dissidents. Every day! Every day! It was very difficult to live. I even put on my door “Don’t knock before 11:00 because I need to sleep.” Usually I did not sleep well at night, so I slept in the day. Every day. Usually it is the night train. From all sides. They had heard about human rights groups, Helsinki Watch Groups and they came. They did not read those books. It was not for us. If I were a bureaucrat I would give those books to my friends, not to simple workers.
Very important thing about dissidents. It is the influence of the new generation of bureaucrats. It was the most important influence. In particular, this very Gorbachev was a new generation of democrats. He was with Mlynar. It means on one side that he was a KGB agent at that time. No doubt about it. If you live with foreigners in a dormitory (as he did with Mlynar) it is one to one, no doubt. But you know, he was influenced by Mlynar, and then he was influenced by Prague Spring. And Mlynar remembers that he was not bad in discussion, in Mlynar’s book about him. For a concrete example, Khasbulatov. I talked with Khasbulatov. He told me — Khasbulatov was not a bureaucrat but was a professor of philosophy in Moscow. He was walking along the street (in 1977 or 78) and he came upon a group of young people who were discussing my trial. He stayed and listened and they did not stop their discussion. He began to discuss with them. He spent all evening with them, and he knew about all of this from them, but he says he knew about it even before. I met Khasbulatov in January when troops came to Moscow. He was at that time speaker. Chairman was Yeltsin. He was pro-Yeltsin at that time. I asked Khasbulatov, do you send your democratic agitators into the soldiers barracks to tell them not to attack or kill people? Don’t attack Moscow Soviet, don’t attack Russian Soviet. Because at that time soldiers were in Moscow. He said not yet. I asked Stankiewicz who was then in the Moscow Soviet — do you plan to organize some barricades (barracks??) around the Moscow Soviet when you are attacked by soldiers? Because there were 50,000 troops in Moscow. He said no. We have power to organize a huge demonstration but I don’t think we have the skill to organize barricades (barracks??). He was mistaken. He said he was sure they would be arrested. He was not arrested and they did not attack at that time. But on the democratic top they were ready to be attacked. Stankiewich told me also that he read everything. This generation of democrats, Mr. Khasbulatov, Stankievich, and so on, Popov, who were very well inside the system, but they were outside already because of samizdat. These people did not listen to the radio but read. Workers did not read it. But in the whole society, in Yakutian village, when I was there, they knew the names of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn.
One teacher came to me a little drunk, because all Yakutians were a little drunk, and said to me, “Where is Sakharov? Where is _____? Where is ____?” (Laughs) As if I ……….. at that time in the United States. So he asked me to help him find a house because the KGB did everything … just work people. It was a judge’s solution not to give him house or something stupid. And one Russian family gave him a house. What I did not write was that he was director of school for adults, so he produced the document that that guard who gave me house, finished that school. So it is education. This guy was sympathetic to (us? me?) because he said, they destroyed our culture. We had shaman culture. His father was a shaman. You know shaman? They had their own religion. His father was arrested a long time ago, but he never forgot about it. And young people who spent some time in prison. A lot of them spent some time in prison for hooliganism, because of drinking. For most people it was forbidden to have knives, but for Yakutians it was permitted because they are hunters. They need knives when they kill meat. And they also had rifles, as hunters. So when drunk, you can kill or wound and after that you are going to camp. And in the camp they also met political prisoners, religious prisoners, even in an ordinary camp, not just a political camp. In one village they had fishing teams for Sovkhoz because there are lakes everywhere. Far from village (because in village it was impossible to listen to radio) they listened to radio and then asked me to explain what they had listened to about sakharov. So the workers asked me to discuss with them who is Sakharov? Who is Solzhenitsyn? What do you want? and so on. All the workers were interested.
Spencer: They had a meeting?
Orlov: No. No. All teams invited me. I was cautious, I was _________ (gap for turning over tape)….. Sakharov.
Spencer: Uh huh. So they respected him.
Orlov: Oh, yes. Just because they struggled. I was amazed. One woman, I came to a house to ask for a tool, and the woman told me, “I knew your name before. We girls read your articles in the lavatory when I was in Irkutsk in Tekhnicum.” So I think the influence was underestimated in the West. It was slow.
Spencer: So a significant number of the people you call “young bureaucrats” had been exposed to samizdat.
Orlov: Yes, they were interested.
Spencer: Was there contact at all between your group — the Helsinki Watch Group — and, let’s say, Charter 77? Because you were similar. Were you able to have any relationship?
Orlov: No. It was much easier for the Poles and the Czechs. You know, they met on the border. They had almost open border, and we had the Soviet border. No, it was impossible. But when I asked Vaclav Havel directly, “when you organized ’77, was it under the influence of Helsinki Movement in Russia?” He said yes. And Bujak— when I came to Warsaw, we hugged and kissed each other as if we knew each other.
Spencer: Was it easier for them to read your works and get hold of it than it was for you to get theirs?
Orlov: We did not get anything.
Spencer: But you knew of their existence?
Orlov: Oh, yes. By radio. I did not listen, but other people who listened told me. We knew when they were arrested and we issued appeals and tried to do something from our side.
Spencer: I have been trying to identify small groups of people who had something in common. ONe thing that comes out is that people at the World Marxist Review in Prague at ’68 knew each other and continued functioning within the government with the idea of trying to make reforms. Such as Arbatov, Burlatsky, Lukin.
Orlov: Oh, I’m afraid that Arbatov now came into this circle, because he was very conservative. Very conservative. Now he comes into the circle of sixties. Now he is acting that he was influential in the government. I met him here in Cornell and he just put this idea that the dissidents’ struggle was useless, but WE, our influence was more important. I must say Burlatsky was better. I know him very well. He is better. He really did have some liberal ideas in the past when he was together with Khrushchev, and he had these ideas. But not Arbatov. Burlatsky was shifted away under Khrushchev, he was not influential afterward.
Spencer: Did any of your friends have any contact with such high level people as the people around Andropov?
Orlov: No. But we knew a KGB captain who helped us directly.
Spencer: Who was that?
Orlov: Victor Orekhov. I described him in the book? I have his photo. I can give you his telephone and if you are in Moscow, you can call him. He spent the eighties in a labor camp.
Fawcett: You e-mail to me. Do you send e-mail to the Soviet Union?
Orlov: Sergei [Burkhov?] at McMaster University does. I can give you the phone number of Slava Bakhmin[?] who is now the head of the department of humanitarian relations in the Foreign Ministry. HE also spent years in prison. Very good human rights activist.
Spencer: You gave a lecture. Can I get a copy of it?
Orlov: I had no visa. I was sure that I would not be able to be in Moscow. I was in Upsala. Finally I received a visa. They recorded it.
Spencer: In Solzhenitsyn’s last volume of the Gulag, he speaks of the 40 days of Kengir, where there was an uprising that they put down with tanks. But some dissidents have said that they feel this event was very important in getting liberalization. It was just before the death of Stalin, and some said it forced them to realize they had to open up the camps.
Orlov: After Stalin’s death, not during his life!
Spencer: Do you think that was true?
Orlov: I’m not sure. I heard about this uprising in the camp before I knew about the very existence of Solzhenitsyn from my Armenian friend Kostya, who spent 7 years in a camp for foreigners, because he is not really Armenian but Greek, and he left communists, and when they risked __ in Greece he was arrested in Yerevan and sentenced. He described this uprising to me. According to him, it was in the camp for foreigners. He was in that camp. They were surrounded by tanks and troops. They shot through the camps and some who were lying on the ground survived, but lots of them were killed.
Spencer: Is that Kengir, the camp he was talking about?
Orlov: I don’t remember the name of the camp. You can meet Kostya because sometimes he is in Moscow. He is a cinema manager now. In general, they have uprisings in camps — so what? According to the mentality, they are criminals, so—. I’m not sure of this. Maybe what can happen. I know it was a soft regime during Khrushchev in the camps. They had their own money, more freedom. Very free regime. In my camp there were people who had 25 years continuous, they continued to serve 25 years. They described it to me. During Khrushchev’s time it was free.
Spencer: Do you know other networks where people discussed ideas.
Orlov: Religious circles. For example, we were very close with Lithuanian Catholic underground. They published their own information issues. We tried to find that famous group with Velikhanov. They began this contact. It is why Kovalov was tried in Vilnius, not in Moscow. For example, there were Russian Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists. They [allowed?] to us to print in their underground printing factory. So we, Helsinki Watch Group, printed our document on it. It was important for us. It showed that we have some program. We were a small group, but our documents were printed! And Pentecostals had a huge organization in the far East. The Russian Orthodox church was suppressed before — all the priests were arrested and some were killed. The whole church the remaining ones on the top were KGB agents. You can meet a very decent man, Father Gleb Yakunin. He orgenized the committee for defence of religions.
Spencer: Were there any Tolstoyans?
Orlov: No, they were eliminated much earlier— in the Tsarist times and in the twenties. I went to an interesting session of an underground Russian Orthodox Church once. And Ukrainian Uniates, it was also an organization.
Spencer: How large was your organization, Helsinki Watch?
Orlov: By definition, a human rights organization can’t be large. We had cells. Moscow, Lithuania. In Lithuania now the Helsinki Group now is the Republican Party. We had Georgian Helsinki Watch, which was very powerful because Gamsakhurdia was the head of it. Altogether, some fifty people.
Fawcett: The SOS campaign — Sakharov, Sharansky. But Shcharansky wasn’t a dissident, he was a refusenik.
Orlov: He was, he was. Some of them were not, true, but in my time, we were in close contact.
Orlov: Azbel was dissident but dedicated nationalist, of course. But my policy was to try to unite all kinds of movements, so I participated in the scientific seminars and we were friends. He asked me why I continued this. I told him that it was my country. He said, you are playing games with panthers. (He tells a joke here about panthers, which I cannot hear becuase of laughter.)
Fawcett: Azbel told me he was not a dissident, he was a nationalist. He said, I am a physicist and I want to do physics and the only way you can do physics is in a lab.
Orlov: He’s right. But in practice, he was a dissident because of circumstances. But Shcharansky was a member of our group. He —— together with Volodya who Leningrad to meet with one Russian woman who wanted to emigrate because of conditions of life. He helped Germans who wanted to emigrate. He mainly worked for emigration, but not only for Jews, and certainly not from a racial point of view because there was a very old sect of Russians who were Jews. The whole village wanted to emigrate, so he ——- . Rubin, who was also a member of the Helsinki Group, because a nationalist only because of some situations.
Fawcett: You mean Zionist.
Orlov: Gamsakhurdia was a Georgian nationalist. He was a member of Amnesty International and then he organized a Helsinki Group. At that time there were Jews in his group. … We were suspicious about him because he was an old nationalist. He participated in huge uprising and demonstration in Tbilisi in 1956 — thugs were sent there on the street, and he was a hero of that uprising. But that uprising was not democratic at all. They were against Khrushchev’s speech against Stalin. So he was nationalist at that time, a totalitarian type. Then in my time I met him under different conditions. He became a member of Amnesty INternational. Sometimes I heard from him some very nasty words about Armenians. I was suspicious. He was in favor of Georgian terrorism. On the other hand, he produced a lot of documents in favor of the Orthodox Church. The Georgian Orthodox is the same as the Russian Orthodox.
(He winds up comparing Shevardnadze and Gamsakhurdia, doesn’t find either of them outstandingly better than the other. Both want to protect Georgian independence.)