The State of Dissent
"A far-away country of which we know little" was how Neville Chamberlain dismissed Czechoslovakia at Munich. Forty years later, do we really know (or care) that much more about what is happening in Eastern Europe today? Granted this has been a "Human Rights" year; the Harvard community this summer sat reverentially through Solzhenitzyn's Commencement speech condemning the West's lack of resistance to the Soviet Union--and of course we all condemned the show trials of the Helsinki monitoring group. But blandly cheering on courageous dissidents like Ginzburg and Scharansky as they take part in some goodies vs. baddies soap opera is an insult. We can only effectively succor the cause of human rights in Eastern Europe by understanding in detail the local conditions which may (or may not) give dissident groups their opportunity.
We are not dealing simply with a set of identical Communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain. Installed and maintained by Soviet arms they may be, but they have had to adapt in ways that reflect the peculiar priorities and aspirations of each country. Nationalism remains the potent force in Eastern Europe--far more so than competing ideologies of either liberalism or Communism--at least in terms of immediate mass appeal. We tend to forget that independence for countries there is a relatively recent and hard-won prize--less than 100 or in some cases 50 years old. Stability for Eastern European regimes depends largely on their success in integrating national sentiment into their Communist system.
Take Romania: "an island of Latin-speaking people in a sea of Slavs," as they like to see themselves. Its flamboyant leader, Nicolai Ceaucescu, has brillantly grafted this sense of identity to buttress his regime. A steady stream of contacts-mainly with Third World countries-and visits from non-Soviet bloc leaders (the most recent being Chairman Hua of China) underline a foreign policy independent of Moscow but now where Romania keeps her presence if not her troops within the Warsaw Pact.
The autonomous Romanian Orthodox Church, historically a focus for national identity, is allowed a privileged if not official role in the State: in return, the Patriarch and his fellow bishops acknowledge their part in "building up Socialism," and confine their interests to liturgical and non-political activity. The regime remains one of the tightest and most Stalinist in the Communist world--and it is there that the trade-off lies.
The Romanians accept a rigid party control and internal monopoly of power by Ceaucescu and his entourage including a fulsome personality cult) in return for a sense of national pride and independence unique in their history of foreign domination. The Russians put up with the luxury of a separate Romanian 'place in the sun', secure in the knowledge that no Prague spring of liberalisation will appear on the streets of Bucharest. With Ceaucescu playing the nationalism and religion cards so skillfully, dissident opposition is weak.
The one potential Achilles heel is the ethnic minorities question--three-quarters million Hungarians and one half million Germans, living mainly in Transylvania. Their direct contacts with Hungary and East Germany are severly restricted by the regime: for although these countries may be Communist also, their nationalist affinity with their Transylvanian kin is too close and potentially separatist for comfort. It is highly significant that the most serious recent opposition to Ceaucescu was the Transylvanian miners' strike, where most of the leaders arrested were Hungarian speaking.
Poland provides a contrasting example of where a regime's inability to manipulate national sentiment has resulted in perhaps the strongest dissident movement currently in Eastern Europe. The Workers Defence Committee (WDC) set up in 1976 to raise aid for the victimised strikers of engineering works at Ursus and Radom has become an umbrella group for all opposition to the regime of Edward Gierek. The ability to forge a genuine alliance of interest among workers, students and intellectuals by common protest at a tangible grievance (in this case government plans for sudden massive food price rises in June 1976) has had a continuing political spin-off. 40,000 letters of protest at a new clause in the Polish Consitution enshrining an 'inviolable fraternal bond' with the Soviet Union, linked with the covert and overt support from the Catholic Church for the WDC dissidents, has placed the regime on an uneasy defensive and proved a potent combination.
With 90 per cent of Poles practising Catholics (more young people are going into the priesthood than ever before, and the vitality of religion is underlined by huge outdoor folk Masses and an incredible number of new church buildings), the Church's traditional role as a focus for national sentiment is being linked with that of a natural and legal focus for an alternative structure of allegiance to that of the Communist Party. While the pulpit remains uncensored, though priests sign human rights petitions and the Primate and his fellow bishops criticize the government on social issues, the regime is caught in a dilemma of choosing between semi-toleration or repression.
It finds itself not so much opposed as bypassed with the WDC, fostering an alternative culture of art literature and social comment through some 38 different samizdat, or clandestinely duplicated material. Here the initiative in tightrope balancing is firmly with the dissidents, for it is they who can utilise nationalism and religion.
This equation is repeated in one form or another throughout Eastern Europe. The Hungarian regime of Janos Kadar displays a limited amount of internal liberalisation, again in some accomodation to the Catholic Church, but externally remains the Soviet Union's devoted ally. Bulgaria has perhaps the weakest dissident movement and the genuine racial affinity her people feel with Russia is underlined by the historical fact of being saved by them from the fate of genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1878.
Dissent in the Soviet Union itself is colored by these factors. In the Baltic provinces, which were formerly independent but which Russia annexed in 1940, the human rights movement has been able to gain a wider base of support because of nationalist sentiment. This is particularly true in Lithuania, where the Catholic Church enjoys an influence in some degree analogous to that of Poland.
The demands of dissenting national groups such as the Crimean Tartars (deported by Stalin to Siberia and who wish to return to their homeland), or the Jews and Volga Germans (who wish to emigrate to Israel or Germany), do not pose an automatic ideological challenge--though when linked to the protest of intellectuals they can form a serious challenge. Perhaps most potentially disturbing is the emergence of a genuine workers' movement agitating for independent trade union activity with a potential mass appeal. This explains why the authorities have clamped down so heavily on Vladimir Klebanov and his numerically small group of worker dissidents.
It is important to recognise that the dissidents do not hold one view on the alternative society they are trying to promote. The classically liberal outlook of Sakharov and the quasi-mystical vision of Solzhenitsyn--a vision of a conservative, deeply religious and not necessarily democratic Russia--are poles apart. The future to which many of the dissidents look may be one of liberal EuroCommunism--not some cold war vision of right-wing emigres.
All this must be understood in the West if we are to help. The successful dissident movement, as in Poland, is continually riding a tiger--pushing the regime hard enough to extract comcessions, but not so hard as to provoke repression. And in most countries there is no immediate prospect of overthrowing the regime, or even of achieving Dubcek's "Communism with a human face." If Carter and Brezinski really wish to aid the cause of human rights, they must be continually aware and finely tuned to the complex pattern of national realities in Eastern Europe. Rhetoric must be backed up by hard-headed knowledge of local situations--how far economic pressures can be applied to wean regimes from Moscow, when and where nationalist sentiment can aid the dissidents, when to speak out, when to work behind the scenes.
A 'catch-all' approach--with recourse to all-American rhetoric instead of specialist knowledge (or even the atlas and history book) can only hinder, perhaps fatally, those campaigning for freer societies in the East. Avoiding the simplicity of error is the best monument to the victims, past, present and future, of the Gulag Archipelago.
Gordon Marsden is a Kennedy Scholar from England studying at Harvard, and a member of the British Labour Party-based Fabian Society International Bureau.