Page 6, 17th June 1977

17th June 1977
Page 6
Page 6, 17th June 1977 — How you can really help the Soviet dissidents

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Locations: Moscow


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How you can really help the Soviet dissidents

Most well-known Soviet dissidents are quite clear about what they want the West to do for their cause. First, they want the maximunfpublicity for abuses of human rights in the Soviet Union. Secondly, they want Western governments to exert direct pressure in favour of improvements, for example by making technical help for Soviet industry conditional on specific concessions?

The dissidents 'say that this will not damage detente (and that in any case the West needs ,to be more clear-sighted about what it is getting from detente and about what the Soviet side is getting). They could be wrong.

France's President Giscard d'Estaing seems to think so, and he is not the only Western leader who has refused to receive a well-known Soviet emigrant in order not to harm relations with Moscow. On the other hand, it seems morally indefensible for the Western press and public opinion to remain silent when they learn of some new offence against the human person by the Soviet authorities.

There is a real problem here, but it can be avoided in part by making a distinction between official action at the government level on the one hand, and the action of private individuals and organisations — even of organisations as powerful as the press and the trade unions — on the other.


At the government level it would be perfectly possible to believe (I am inventing the hypothesis to illustrate the argument) that Mr Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, is a dove, but that he is under constant pressure from the hawks of the Soviet military establishment .who want more and more missiles and divisions, and that Mr Brezhnev's task in restraining them is made more difficult by President Carter's stand on human rights — not because there is any necessary connection between this and the balance of military forces in Europe. but because Mr Brezhnev is a politician under political rather than exclusively rational pressures, and most of his colleagues have a deepseated suspicion of the West, with roots going back long before the Soviet era, and a violent dislike of being told that Western ways are better.

All of us, East and West, have a deep interest in making progress on disarmament, and if President Carter were to be presented with some such analysis of Mr Brezhnev's position as I have outlined above, and to conclude that he could achieve a real advance in disarmament at the price of being less vocal on human rights, then he might well be justified. in piping down (without abandoning any of his principles). But I do not think it would help disarmament or real detente if' the rest of us were to follow suit and impose selfcensorship on our reactions of concern and indignation over Soviet violations of human rights, Western reporting of the dissidents' activities, and of protests and demonstrations organised on their behalf, gets back to the Soviet public through the many Western radio stations that broadcast to them, and must be the greatest source of strength and encouragement for the many

millions of people who are dissidents in their hearts at least, but of whom the West knows nothing.


Who are the dissidents, prominent and unknown, whom we are trying to help? By no means all of them are religiously motiviated, but the widespread survival of religion in the Soviet Union provides the strongest, most coherent alternative to the official ideology.

We have little information about the extent of religious life among the many millions of Muslims in the Central Asian republics — although we do know that it continues — or about upwards of 500,000 Buddhists living in the Buryat Republic on Lake Baikal. About Christians and Jews we know much more, largely because they are concentrated in the western part of the Soviet Union.

The Jews are estimated to number between two and three million. The largest body of Christians are the Orthodox believers, who are often estimated to number at least 30 million out of the total Soviet population of more than 250 million.

Next most important are the several million Catholics, They include the great majority of Lithuania's population of 2.5 million, some of whose number provide, despite constant harassment and persecution, the Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, a major regular source of news of religious life. There are also an unknown number of Greek Catholic (Uniate) believers in the Ukraine — probably between 1 and 2 million,

The numbers belonging to Protestant denominations are harder 1.0 estimate. There are perhaps 750,000 Lutherans in the Baltic republics, mainly in Latvia and Estonia. Other groups, generally included under the overall titles of Evangelicals and Baptist, number several millions throughout the Soviet Union; best known among them are the so-called Reform Baptists led by the imprisoned Georgi Vins. These believers are a secret leaven working in Soviet society. We must hope that one day through them enough people at every level in the Soviet Union will come to feel that the system is wrong, and then it will change, The few dissidents who are now fighting in the open are bringing that day nearer, and so will every Western broadcast which carries news of them to the rest of the population.

Such news must be an immense encouragement to parents trying to teach their children a view of life which is so different from the official ideology — trying to teach them of love and gentleness and humility when school is teaching them in the harsh terms of class struggle, smashing imperialism, liquidating enemies and so on, and urging an infallible "scientific world view" on them which is so much at variance with what Christ taught. That many of the dissenters are young people must be a particular encouragement to these parents.

It is important, however, that Western support of the Soviet dissidents is based on a full understanding of them and their ideas, and not simply on uncritical admiration for the dissidents and a general hostility to the society in which they live. Many are deeply critical of


stal society and want to something quite different in the Soviet Union. Many are inspired by non-religious ideals, including some which we might be doubtful about supporting, such as neo-Slavophiie nationalism.

To cOnclude, there are sevel-al levels at which we can help Soviet dissidents. First and foremost, we must continue to obtain and publish the fullest information about them. It helps them, it inspires us, and it helps countries that are not Communist now to understand the reality of Communist government.


Secondly, we should continue

as private citizens to press for

more effective governmental action on behalf of the dissidents, by following up the human rights clauses of the Helsinki Declaration and even by more direct pressures. Governments must decide on the helpfulness of such suggested action, but at least we can make sure that they do not simply take the line of least resistance.

Thirdly, we can support organisations that are working to help Soviet believers directly. One such is Aid to the Church in Need (United Kingdom address: 3-5 North Street, Chichester, West:Sussex P019 1LB), an international Catholic charity which gives material aid to support religious life in Corn munist countries, where the law allows it to, and which also assists publishing and broadcasting in the field.

Subscribers to ACN are kept informed of its work by a regular newsletter and by an admirable annual statement of all money received and how it has been spent.

At another level, one can work directly in support of particular Soviet dissidents by joining Amnesty International or by supporting Aid to the Russian Church, a small British organisation, which sends material aid to Christians in need, including prisoners' families, and which also runs a Cards for Christians scheme, encouraging people to develop personal contacts with individual believers in the Soviet Union. (Address: School House, Heathfield Road,

Keston, Kent B R2 6BA).

To return to the first requirement, accurate and full information, those who wish to study the matter seriously can subscribe to Religion in Communist Lands, the quarterly journal of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism (annual subscription £5 to Keston College, Keston, Kent BR2 6BA) which contains serious in-depth articles as well as shorter notices and book reviews; or they can send a donation to Keston College, whose regular news service is the source of much of the information about religious life in communist countries appearing in the British press.

David Kelly

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