Totalitarianism and free thinking

The role of independent Soviet peace activists and pacifist ideas in the ending of the Cold War

By Ruzanna Ilukhina; Tatiana Pavlova | 1995-11-01 12:00:00

There would have been no end to the Cold War but for the collapse of the totalitarian system in Europe and the Soviet Union. The clandestine peace movements realized that to finish the Cold War, it was necessary to dismantle, first the totalitarian system, and then the military industrial complex, which was its basis.

But it is necessary to take account of the mentality of Soviet society--a strange mixture of belief in the triumph of communism and hostility toward foreigners, attitudes created by state education and mass propaganda. There was also criticism and passive disobedience to the official ideology, which existed in a latent form, especially in circles of creative intelligentsia.

Two Peace Movements

There existed two parallel movements: the authorized state "fighters for peace"--the Soviet Peace Committee--and an underground of voluntary peacemakers.

Clandestine peacemaking tried to counteract the system of political violence which was allied with militarism and with the threat to the whole world. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted in 1973, it is misleading to conceive of war and peace as opposites, for humanity suffers equally from wars and from the permanent violence that had grown in Russia. He estimated that as many as 66 million Soviet people had been killed--a number that exceeds the death toll of all twentieth century wars.

Cold War resistance began in Stalin's prisons and camps. The philosopher Daniil Andreev created his works in Vladimirskaya prison in the 1950s. In his work, Rose of a Peaceful World he called for an end to war and tyranny, and for the establishing of a world federation of states. We have reason to believe that he was not alone in opposing the regime, yet not a single person has yet been given access to the KGB archives, which still hold the secrets of the repression of peacemaking.

Meanwhile, the fifties witnessed the establishment of the authorized Soviet Peace Committee, which served mainly as a cover for its members--devout communists and KGB officers--to disguise the militarization of society and human rights violations.

Such intellectuals as Ilya Ehrenburg tried to contact peace activists in the West. Anti-nuclear campaigns contributed a little to the neutralization of the Iron Curtain. However, it took years of suffering before an alternative anti-military movement could become public.

This movement passed through three stages: (a) individual protests against the Cold War during the 1960s and 1970s; (b) clandestine anti-military groups in the first half of the 1980s; and (c) the voluntary peace movement against totalitarianism and the Cold War in Gorbachev's time of perestroika in the second half of the 1980s.

Anti-military feelings emerged primarily among scientists--mostly physicists participating in atomic projects. Andrei Sakharov, Petr Kapitza, and others tried to prevent nuclear arms tests in the late 1950s. The authorities persecuted them, while initiating a nuclear arms race. In 1962, Sakharov wrote of his "feeling of impotence and terror." By the late 1960s, they developed the concept of a nonviolent alternative for Russia and the world. This concept was a purely Russian phenomenon, for it was deeply rooted in Russian pre-revolutionary pacifist tradition and developed under the Soviet totalitarian system during the nuclear age.

Sakharov was the first to highlight the correlations between nuclear war prevention, socioeconomic reforms in the Soviet Union, restoration of human rights, and on this basis the convergence of socialist and capitalist systems. In his book, Of Country and World, Sakharov put nuclear disarmament and demilitarization of Soviet society in top priority. He sacrificed himself to defend prisoners of conscience and was condemned.

Another landmark of resistance was 1968, when some intellectuals protested against Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia. A small dissident group protested in Red Square against militarism and for human rights.

In those times, there was also a form of "inner emigration" which did not manifest itself in political actions but passively; still it was a real movement. There were long discussions in private kitchens and plenty of jokes that criticized the government. There were streams of underground "samizdat" literature, and a new enthusiasm for studying spiritual teachings. Communist myths about hostile aggression of Western countries were dispelled in these circles of intelligentsia. In this stage, the concept of resistance to the Cold War developed and people prepared to fight against totalitarianism.

In the beginning of the 1980s, when the world was on the brink of nuclear war, a new stage of Cold War resistance began as a protest against thewar in Afghanistan. The social basis of the peace movement grew wider, attracting new fighters against militarism and stimulating silent support in wider circles.

After the Soviet Peace Committee started to participate in anti-missile drives in the West, Soviet participation was ambiguous. On one hand, the Soviet Peace Committee kept supporting hypocritical slogans for peace, while condemning such groups as European Nuclear Disarmament (END) for "crusades against socialism." On the other hand, millions of Soviet people became involved in these anti-nuclear campaigns.

Opposing The Afghan War

Meanwhile the Afghan war gave a strong impetus to anti-militarism. Peace advocates came to see that only the fall of the regime could put an end to the Cold War.

Most people opposed the Afghan War, but only a few dared speak out. Andrei Sakharov wrote an open letter to General Secretary Brezhnev in 1980, forwarding copies to the United Nations Secretary General and to heads of states. Sakharov and his allies put Soviet militarism on the defensive.

An anti-militarist and human rights organization, "The Group for Trust Between East and West," was under close KGB surveillance for advocating the elimination of nuclear arms, withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and the introduction of alternative military service. The group was persecuted for "undermining the moral and political unity of the Soviet people."

The writers of Khrushchev's thaw (called the shastidesyatniky--"1960ists"--were first to stand up against the hypocrisy of the authorized "struggle for peace." At the Minsk writers conference of 1983 Ales Adamovich, Daniil Granin, Vasil Bykov denounced both capitalist and Marxist nuclear weapons. (A Communist official, talking with Adamovich, said, "Why are you scaring me with nuclear war? If there are only 10 people left, our task is to be sure that these people remain Soviet.")

In the 1970s, mostly in big cities, Soviet hippies appeared, trying to oppose the authorities. In Moscow, on the Old Arbat Street and Gogol Boulevard, and in Leningrad on Nevsky Prospect, we could see informal meetings of young people who demonstrated peacemaking and respect for religion. They worked on ways to avoid military service. These hippies were persecuted; their meetings were dispersed, their leaders were thrown into prison or psychiatric hospitals.

These movements gave way to the third stage of the peace movement in Russia--the mid-1980s when Gorbachev called for a world free of violence, and based on the priority of human values over class interests.

However, during the first years of perestroika, the voluntary independent peace movement remained in the background of the democratization process. The ideological struggle at the top was concerned to develop a newforeign policy and practical changes. The first battle was over the priority of human values over the class approach to international relations. The debate spread, creating both advocates and opponents of Gorbachev's policy.

Disarmament in the USSR, human rights, the Afghan War, the unification of Europe--all these foreign policy issues were taken to the streets because the obedient majority in the parliament (representatives of the Party and the military industrial complex) hardly supported Gorbachev. Society quickly polarized. We were gaining experience in opposing militarism in the general democratic movement.

The important feature of these peace movements is that they opposed the Soviet military industrial complex. Sensible people realized that the militarist yoke was more than Russia could endure or afford. The Afghan War cost Soviet taxpayers 60 billion rubles, confrontation with China cost 200 billion, and the Cold War of the 1970s and 80s, 700 billion rubles. The slogans of the first anti-military groups, especially "Democratic Russia," first pointed toward military budget cuts and disarmament. The "Nevada-Semipalatinsk" group in Kazakhstan and "Campaign for a Nuclear Free North" demanded that nuclear testing sites be closed down. These groups were successful and listed parliamentarians in their ranks. The Kazakh leader, writer Aljas Suleymenov, declared in 1989, "We start our drive for peace in our own home, for we have so long been fighting for peace in the whole world. We want all testing sites to be silent." The Semipalatinsk site was closed down.

The dramatic campaign of "Soldiers' Mothers" against violence inspired the whole country. Tortures and violent deaths were widespread in the Soviet army. Twenty thousand young men were killed or committed suicide during the five perestroika years. Members of Soldiers' Mothers, the Council of Solders' parents, and the movement against violence held meetings in front of military enlistment offices. They held hunger strikes on the stairs of the President's residence. They gave refuge to soldiers and investigated crimes. They demanded reform of the military; liquidation of the Military Procurator's office covering all these crimes; compensation; and alternative service.

In unison with the Soldiers' Mothers campaign was the movement of "refuseniks"--conscientious objectors and deserters. In the republics where national self-consciousness was on the rise, military service rejection was considered as refusal to serve the "occupying forces"--the Soviet army. Another factor was the revival of pacifist which had long been fighting for the right of conscientious objection.

This protracted conflict between soldiers' parents, refuseniks, and military authorities weakened the army, depriving Cold War--oriented military political circles of their ground. In the late 1980s, anti-militarism as a principle was included in the charters of certain parties, such as the Confederation of Anarko-syndicalists, the Transnational Radical Party, and the Federalist Party of Peace, as well as various green parties.

In August 1991, the END Convention greatly contributed to the consolidation of the split among anti-military groups. The convention was initiated by antiwar groups, notably the Civic Peace Coalition. Finally, this was a period when pacifist groups emerged as part of a wide anti-military movement.

By the early 1990s, contradictions had intensified and conflicts and violence were on the rise between the society and reactionary military generals, between the governing centre and the national republics. Violence was enveloping the country. Blood was shed in Tbilisi, Baku, Vilnius, Riga. Soviet hawks aimed at breaking down disarmament talks and the unification of Europe, as well as stopping the demilitarization of society with the help of armed provocations. They were to have provided evidence of Gorbachev's inability to cope with the situation. Gorbachev himself became a hostage of generals and "black colonels," which resulted in Russian antimilitarists' mistrust of him.

Nonviolence: Unfamiliar Idea

At that time the idea of nonviolence (a notion previously unfamiliar to Soviet society) started appealing to some. The early 1990s witnessed the creation of groups and pacifist unions such as the Russian Peace Society, Violence Free World, Ethics of Nonviolence, Omega, Campaign Against Violence, and others. These groups situated the end of the Cold War within the framework of the new nonviolent mentality. We can hardly count the voluntary peace groups that had appeared by the end of the Cold War, but we can speak of their role in improving relations with the West.

First, a strategic concept of ending the Cold War was worked out that envisaged abolishing the Communist totalitarian regime and moving toward the West with mutual trust and disarmament.

Second, during the first few perestroika years, peacemakers created a moral climate of anti-militarism--a mood of rejecting Communist messianic ideology and nuclear threat.

Third, campaigns for demilitarization of the Soviet society exposed the mythic positive image of the military industrial complex and the armed forces that had fueled the Cold War.

Fourth, the anti-military movement provided support to Gorbachev's and Shevardnadze's foreign policy to end the Cold War and dismantle the military empire that was threatening the world with nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the voluntary peacemaking of that time had much in common with the general democratic movement. The seeds planted in people's minds by Cold War ideology continued growing, producing such reactionary movements as the parties led by Zhirinovsky and fascist nationalistic organizations. Ironically, these militarist forces have solid bases that allow them to buy weapons and disseminate propaganda.

Still Semi-Clandestine

Opposing them, the anti-military groups remain small. They often split, disband, and reappear. They have no experience, no offices, no equipment, no money. And what may be most important, they still remain semi-clandestine and persecuted. A decade of experience is needed to educate professional leaders, yet this did not take place. These factors prevent the evolution of Russian peacemaking into a movement as influential as, say, in the West.

At the end of 1994, Russia was shown up by the military actions in Chechnya. The results of peacemaking activity in the recent years became manifest then. Everyone should know about the self sacrificing work by members of the State Duma, Kovalyev and Ushenkov. Everyone should know about the fearless Soldiers' Mothers, who came to Chechnya to liberate their sons from the terrible, fight, marching to Grozny. At the same time, meetings of anti-military democratic forces were held in Moscow. The movement "Women in Black Against the War" was organized by Russian and Chechen women, protesting in Moscow and St. Petersburg near the Duma and the Ministry of Defence.

It is clear that militarization of society is deeply connected with aggressive internal and foreign policy, and with demagogic lying in ideology. Without democracy, the human rights peacemaking movement could not influence the course of events.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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