Back in the USSR

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By George Weigel

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Ever since the Geneva summit, there has been intense interest in “citizen exchange” programs with the Soviet Union. In light of that interest, we share the following report of our James Madison Foundation colleague, Holt Ruffin, who is executive director of Seattle’s World Without War Council. Ruffin traveled in the USSR for two weeks last July, and wrote in Steady Work:

“The object of the trip was to meet with refuseniks and peace activists, i.e. not representatives of the Soviet Union’s foreign visitor hospitality apparatus. There was little sightseeing: no banquets, no placing of flowers on monuments, no Hermitage, no circus, no Bolshoi, no meetings with official delegations … We visited five cities—Leningrad, Vilnius (Lithuania), Kishiniev, Kharkov, and Moscow—and met mostly with refuseniks but also, in Moscow, with peace activists. We heard their stories and left small gifts with them …

“The trip had several purposes: to express solidarity with fellow men and women who are persecuted for acting as free people or for advocating approaches to peace other than those approved by the Soviet authorities; to take important materials to these people (e.g. medicine, religious literature) not obtainable in the Soviet Union; to bring information out of the Soviet Union; and to become more familiar with and more sensitive to the realities of everyday life for independently-minded individuals in the U.S.S.R…. “In general, we had fairly good luck with the authorities. Our luggage was checked thoroughly as we entered the country, but only a newspaper was confiscated. We had no problems visiting people in four cities. Only in Kharkov—in the Ukraine, which has a reputation for having a very active KGB—were we followed and prevented from visiting people we had traveled there to see … As for the people we did manage to visit, without exception they expressed gratitude and appreciation to us. Far from fearing that visits from Americans might ‘get them into trouble,’ they said that Soviet officials, and especially the KGB, treat independently-minded Soviet citizens better when they know they are in contact with Westerners …

“There is truth to the observation that meeting only refuseniks and dissidents gives a slanted or unbalanced view of the Soviet Union. But I am also reminded as I write of Dostoevksy’s remark: that one comes to know a society best through its prisons. We met numerous people who were ex-prisoners, potential prisoners, or wives of prisoners. In a certain sense, all Soviet citizens are prisoners—and those that manage to make tours overseas are merely the guards. Many of the Jews we met with had been waiting seven or more years for permission to emigrate. Their initial applications had cost them their jobs and rendered life much more difficult in many ways. Almost without exception, the harshness of their circumstances had engendered not cynicism or despair, not bitterness or anger, but rather a sense of irony—even a sense of humor—and a determination to continue living according to their goals and values, not those of a political system which had lost all legitimacy …

“The importance of the Soviet government’s ability to isolate and seal its citizens off from the rest of the world is difficult to underestimate. The control exercised over ideas, knowledge, contacts among its citizens and with foreigners is enormous; it makes normal, disorganized Third World dictatorships look like open societies by contrast. The particular problem posed by the Soviet Union is that it represents a combination of a government with absolute power, a formidable military establishment, and a profound fear and hostility on the part of Soviet leaders toward any political forces that in the remotest manner call into question the legitimacy of the Soviet leadership…

“Notions of symmetry help little—indeed hinder—efforts to learn about the Soviet Union. Yet some [Americans] are loath to discuss any Soviet problem unless they can find an equivalent problem in the United States. One supposes such people are very fearful of appearing to be self-righteous or nationalistic. [But] … the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are very different societies in certain important respects. If we must find comparable problems in the U.S. in order to talk about any problems in the U.S.S.R., then important Soviet problems will not get talked about…

“It is sometimes said that pervasive anti-Sovietism is the problem in America. In fact, it seems to me that Americans’ attitudes toward the Soviet Union err in both directions … From the perspective of the people we met in the U.S.S.R., it was not negative attitudes by Americans toward the Soviet system that seemed the problem, but the fact that most Americans know so little [about] and have relatively little interest in the U.S.S.R. There is a substantial willingness to let the Soviet Union be—so long as it doesn’t bother us …

“Unfortunately, the experts themselves sometimes discourage citizen interest. They describe the Soviet Union as a society unaffected by the outside world, unresponsive to Western values and concerns, and uncompromising in its dealings with foreigners. In fact, when we were in the Soviet Union we heard repeatedly of examples of Soviet sensitivity to Western concerns, and of Soviet responsiveness to expressions of Western interest in imprisoned Soviet religious believers or civil rights workers. The lesson of the trip seemed to be: while it is true that Westerners have little influence with the Soviet Union, they do have some; paradoxically, the Soviet leaders seem often to be more sensitive to international public opinion than to their own public’s opinion. Therefore advocacy by people in the West who value peace and freedom, and who understand the connection between the two, is absolutely crucial to progress toward those goals in our nation’s greatest adversary.”

Holt Ruffin’s report makes several important points that are often, and unhappily, missing from the commentary of other “citizen exchange” leaders. Ruffin does not assume that the roots of the U.S./ Soviet conflict lie in misunderstanding and poor communication; he knows that they involve profound differences in values and interests. He also knows that one expression of those differences is the leadership elite, the nomenklatura class, in the USSR. Which is to say, he doesn’t confuse the peoples of the Soviet empire with the political/ideological leadership of the Soviet state.

Ruffin doesn’t doubt that the peoples of the empire want peace, a persistent theme in the American activist and exchange communities; but he also knows that that desire has little political effect for so long as the Soviet Union is run on Leninist principles. He concludes, therefore, that helping to chip away at the Leninist monopoly on usable political power in the USSR is in the interests of peace. This is “linkage” at the grand level: progress toward a genuine peace, and not merely toward a wiser management of the balance of terror (important as that might be), necessarily involves progress toward freedom.

All of this may seem so obvious as to be unexceptionable. Holt Ruffin understands these things. Andrei Sakharov understands these things. But the hard fact is that many exchange leaders and peace activists don’t understand. Exchange activists seem to accept many of the postulates and axioms of detente. They believe that the Soviet Union is a “defensive” power, scarred by the history of invasions over the centuries. They believe that the Soviet leadership operates according to the same calculus as Western leaders. They believe that bringing up such unpleasantnesses as the Sakharov case, or the plight of the refuseniks, or the persecution of Lithuanian and Ukrainian Catholics and Siberian Pentecostals, when talking with Soviet counterparts during “citizen exchanges,” simply reinforces Soviet paranoia and jeopardizes peace. They agree with their Soviet interlocutors that “Rambo” and “Rocky IV” damage our relations.

They suggest, on the other hand, that we should let pass Soviet accusations that there are political prisoners in America. Nor should we complain too much when the president of the United States is depicted wearing a swastika in the officially sanctioned Soviet press. Nor should we be overtly skeptical when young Katerina Lycheva (the Soviet version of Samantha Smith) is presented in the United States as the freely chosen “representative” of “Soviet children” (which presumably includes the children of the refuseniks).

Exchange can be a powerful instrument for peace— if it becomes an instrument for opening the windows of a closed society, if it supports the independent people of the USSR, and if its American leaders understand the long-term, unbreakable linkage between peace and freedom. Holt Ruffin’s trip, short as it was, points the way toward a kind of independent exchange that meets these standards.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.