War and Mir: Reflections on Peace in the Soviet Union

By Barry Stevens | 1986-12-01 12:00:00

If someone has peace in his heart, it spreads out to others around him, and moves out into the world." The priest holds his arms out to his sides, palms up, in a gesture reminiscent of Jesus in Da Vinci's Last Supper. His audience of Canadian journalists sit enthralled, like disciples, around a white table set with tea and deliciously tart, green plums. He talks in long, discursive sentences, stopping now and then to permit translation, maintaining a beatific smile throughout. "If someone does not have peace in his heart, then it doesn't matter what he says or does, he will not spread peace." The priest is Archbishop Alexander, Rector of the seminary at Zagorsk. Zagorsk, the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church, is an hour's drive north of Moscow.

We Canadians did not expect, on our second day in the Soviet Union, to be listening to a sermon on spiritual peace from a priest who himself projects it. We are a group of journalists here on an exchange, and though not specifically covering issues of peace, we are finding them hard to ignore.

I ask the Archbishop if his seminary students are exempt from military service. They are not: There is no conscientious objector status in the USSR. But for Archbirhop Alexander, there is no conflict between the desirability for inner peace and the state's need for violence. In fact, he expresses pride in the letters he has received from commanders praising his students as soldiers.

In the Soviet Union, I often found an acceptance of war existing side by side with a wish for peace. This is sometimes difficult for us in the Western peace movement to understand. Here, belonging to the peace movement means criticizing government military policy. The peace committees in the USSR are huge, with nine million members, but there is little or no criticism of the Soviet military. In fact, the leaders of the peace groups are often prominent members of the Party, and therefore participants in setting military policy. Groups that have alternative peace proposals, such as the Moscow Group for Trust, are often harassed and prosecuted. Are the Soviets sincere in their desire for peace?

This simple, basic question doesn't lend itself to simple, basic answers. Travelling in the USSR, I found myself trying to avoid both the cynical stereotypes and the naive ones. As Will Rogers said, "Russia is a country that, no matter what you say about it, it's true."

Well, not quite, but the simplest events can take on layers of potential meaning. An example: From a car window in Moscow, I saw a young man wearing blue jeans. On his thigh was written in ink--and in English, "I want to break free." If we assume he meant political freedom, and this was not a rock and roll cry for sexual liberation, his plea fits in with the image of captive Soviet citizens at the mercy of the KGB. But I find it interesting that he felt safe enough to walk around Moscow wearing this protest, if not on his sleeve, then not far from it. (Then again, for all I know, he could have been arrested five minutes after I saw him.)

he issue of peace is especially prone to this kind of multiple interpretation. There are several words for peace in Russian. One is pokoy, meaning inner peace or calm. But much more common is mir. Mir is everywhere. In huge slogans on the tops of apartment buildings. In politicans' speeches, and newspaper opinion columns. In children's textbooks and on TV public affairs programs. Some mir posters picture smiling soldiers. One frequent slogan is miru mir, or "peace to the world," making use of the other meaning of mir, "world, planet, or universe."

This stronger emphasis on peace seems to be reflected in the relative peacefulness of Soviet life. Some examples: Soviet hockey is much more well-mannered than ours. (The leader in penalties among top hockey players has only a few more penalty minutes in his entire career than Dave Shulz gets in one season!) Stores do have some war toys, and parents do buy them, but there isn't the same fascination with weaponry of GI Joe and his kind. And the humor of circus clowns is gentle. Sergei Marchevsky delights the crowd at the Leningrad Circus. Reminiscent of Harry Langdon or even Chaplin, he works without the elaborate clown make-up we are used to--or a single violent gag.

And there is far less violent imagery in the Soviet media than in ours. The newspapers rarely show photos of traffic accidents, sensational murders, or corpses on the battlefield. Journalists see themselves as educators rather than neutral messengers, and they are apparently concerned about the social effects of violent imagery (a concern borne out, by the way, by Western research: Highly publicized suicides tend to produce further suicides in the few days following, and prize fights trigger additional murders).

In two weeks of watching Soviet TV, usually at least once a day, and on one occasion for five or six hours straight, I never once saw an act of violence in a dramatic show. The violence that we did see occurred on international news, specifically in South Africa; on another news show, with a simulated Mujahideen attack, acted out on a stadium playing field in Kabul; and in the animated adventures of a wolf perpetually chasing a rabbit, rather similar to Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Even here, the violence was not as intense as Warner Bros'. No one was dynamited or dropped from five thousand foot cliffs.

Victor Krukov is a director of youth programs at Moscow TV. He was the shaggiest Soviet we met, and a very creative guy--his program, The Twelfth Floor, looks at abuse of the environment in a wacky and imaginative way. I ask him if violence is banned on TV. "I'm a director. I don't want it," he replies tersely. "The issue has never gone further than this." He mentions a legal ban on violence; he is perhaps referring to the ban on war propaganda in the Soviet constitution. "Besides being a constitutional matter," he continues, "it's a human issue, A man views this through his own prism, and if he is not inclined to accept violence, then even less so will he project it onto others. You can show violence on the screen but only when it serves the explicit purpose of educating persons in nonacceptance of violence."

The cinema, however, sometimes deals with more violent topics. In the magazine Soviet Film's recent list of upcoming productions, an entire category is devoted to films about the Great Patriotic War, distinct from dramas and historical pictures. But the violence in the war pictures is generally not graphic. One never sees slow motion shots of bullets ripping through bodies. The pain of war is what one takes away from these films, especially the good ones such as Klimov's Come and See. Sometimes even the bad ones are revealing. One rather bad film, a Korean-Soviet co-production called Seconds Make a Hero, is built around the story of a Russian soldier who leapt onto a grenade that was tossed at North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. This clearly represents a different attitude to heroic violence than Rambo killing several hundred enemies while only sustaining a few scratches.

The lack of a cult of violence in the Soviet media is echoed in ordinary life. Crimes of violence are more rare. Of course, many would argue that this peacefulness of Soviet society is because of state violence towards its own citizens, who are docile rather than gentle. Furthermore, it could be said that the internal peacefulness of Soviet society has nothing to do with the external belligerence of the state. After all, what about the invasions and suppressions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan? How can a state that does these things possibly be considered sincere in its messages of peace? Some students of the Soviet Union argue that mir means something quite different to communists than peace does to the West. Lenin claimed that only a proletarian society can enjoy mir. And Comintern Chief Georgi Dimitrov said in 1936

Peace Magazine Dec 1986-Jan 1987

Peace Magazine Dec 1986-Jan 1987, page 24. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Barry Stevens here

Peace Magazine homepage