An interview with Anatoly Shcharansky


Ceasing a life of double thinking

JEWISH QUARTERLY: It is now ten years since the formation of the Moscow-based committee to monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki Accord. Why did Orlov, Amalrik and yourself decide to initiate it?

ANATOLY SHCHARANSKY: We felt that the Helsinki Agreement between the Soviet Union and the European nations had historic dimensions. For the first time there was a clear linkage between international problems and the situation of human rights in the Soviet Union. It soon became clear that the Soviet Union was trying to evade the issue. We hoped that independent public opinion—as separate from the state—in all countries would discuss the issue, find a common language and a general approach to the problem of human rights violations. We hoped that it would unite both left and right and place real pressure on governments. Our idea was also prompted by the fact that the French and Italian Communist Parties—the Eurocommunists—and other left-wing groups were beginning to speak about human rights in the Soviet Union. The Moscow refuseniks sent a letter to the leaders of both Communist Parties proposing a meeting. I believed initially that we should send an appeal to public opinion in all countries and proceed from there. Yuri Orlov thought instead that we should first start checking human rights in the Soviet Union and propose to people in other lands that they do the same in their own countries. Of course, it immediately became more dangerous for us in that we became certain targets for attack. But once started, it seemed to be so much the right approach that there was no way out.

JQ: In the New York Review of Books, you said that the group was composed of Zionists and Monarchists, Russians and Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Eurocommunists, those who wanted to leave, those who wanted religious freedom—”all were united by the Helsinki Group”. Didn’t this represent a change in the direction of the Jewish movement in that you openly cooperated with – people who challenged the Soviet interpretation of human rights as it generally affected the people of the USSR rather than simply demand the specific human right for Jews to leave the country?

AS: No, it did not mean a change since the Jewish movement was not an organization. We did not make organizational decisions or put forward resolutions for adoption. Slepak, Rubin and myself believed that it was not only useful for the Jewish movement to be represented in the Helsinki Group, but also necessary. Jewish problems received wide publicity because they were represented in the Group documents. On the other hand, from the moment that I applied for an exit visa, I felt that I had no moral right to decide for these people in which manner they should live. If Dr Sakharov or Yuri Orlov or any of the other dissidents were writing theoretical articles on how the country should be changed, I believed that it was not my business to participate since I decided not to live there. But I viewed it as my moral obligation to support such people whose human rights were being undermined on an individual basis. The moment I became a free man, a Zionist, ceasing a life of double thinking, saying one thing and doing something else, I believed that my freedom should be manifested in speaking about human rights violations. Not everyone in the Jewish movement shared this position.

JQ: But didn’t you place yourself, Slepak and Rubin and by association the Jewish movement, in a more vulnerable position?

AS: If you look at my own criminal case, they did not concentrate on the activities of the Helsinki Group. Indeed, the Group’s documents played a modest part in the entire case. All my Helsinki activity was under Article 70 of the Russian Criminal Code—anti-Soviet agitation; but my Zionist work was under the far more serious Article 64—high treason. The KGB was more interested in the “dreadful damage” done to the USSR through the Jackson Amendment and our meetings with US Senators. They viewed our Zionist activities as some sort of awful Jewish plot conducted by World Jewry against the Soviet Union. It is quite enough for them to hate us for being ourselves. The mere act of applying to leave is an irritation and totally contrary to their way of thinking. No doubt, their personal antagonism towards me increased when I became a member of the Helsinki Group, but there were sufficient reasons already.

JQ: Following the suppression of the Helsinki Group—the incarceration of Orlov and Ginsburg—there were arrests of prominent Jewish activists who identified with the Group, yourself, Slepak and Nude!. Although it may have been the morally correct and indeed principled Jewish approach, looking back after ten years, do you still think that it was tactically the correct decision to join the Helsinki Group?

AS: I always believed that moral tactics were the best tactics. Some who try to pacify the KGB may gain in an individual capacity but we as a movement will definitely lose.

JQ: In view of all these arrests, do you think that President Carter’s initially determined approach on the question of human rights in the USSR advanced the cause or retarded it?

AS: President Carter raised the issue at this level for the very first time and naturally it was a source of inspiration and encouragement for many human rights and Jewish activists. You remember the telegram of support that Carter sent to Slepak. Although Carter was initially strong on the issue, he later weakened in terms of his actions. The KGB understood this weakness and began to exert pressure.

JQ: The Moscow Helsinki Group no longer exists and therefore Soviet citizens are unable to publicize violations of human rights in the USSR. Is there not a case for the West cancelling the Agreement instead of participating in periodic review meetings?

AS: I don’t know whether it is wise to physically cancel the Agreement, but I think that it is quite natural to demand that no progress on the other baskets will take place until there is progress on the third basket, on human rights. They must insist on real linkage between the baskets especially when there are new arrests and greater oppression. The biggest disappointment in the camps came after the review meeting in Madrid when the final statement said absolutely nothing. The situation in the camps was becoming worse and worse and emigration was very low. If this was this so-called progress, then it was a deception of public opinion. JQ: You have often declared your support for the Jackson Amendment which links economic benefit for the USSR through most-favoured nation status with the right to leave the country. In view of the new Soviet leadership’s concern with economic problems, is there not some merit in Senator Bob Dole’s suggestion to lift the Amendment for a year to see what happens?

AS: The Jackson Amendment itself provides the opportunity. If the President of the United States sees that there has been progress, he can lift it for a year and then Congress can give him the authority to prolong it. To believe that the Soviets would simply appreciate this gesture of goodwill and will respond responsibly by opening the gates is naive.

Free emigration challenges the very principle of the system where an individual is a small cog in a big machine. An individual has no right to decide what to write, what to read, where to live. If hundreds of thousands of people decide to leave, then this poses a fundamental danger for the Soviets. They will only open the gates if the threat to the regime is greater by keeping the status quo. Gorbachev perceives the problem as being due to the scientific and technological gap between the superpowers. He is very concerned about this and if the West remains firm, there is the chance for success.

JQ: You attach great importance to linkage, linking Israeli and western contacts with the Soviets to the Jewish question. Can’t the Soviets reverse the game and thereby charge high political and economic prices for concessions? Doesn’t it all become a market place in which you or Slepak are purchased at a higher cost than lesser known people?

AS: Even if the West doesn’t attempt linkage, the Soviets will always try to obtain a high price. They increase the cost for every prisoner of Zion, every dissident, for allowing Yelena Bonner to seek medical treatment in the West. The Soviet Union definitely wanted to profit by releasing me and I was concerned from the outset about this. In my case, they did not succeed, yet in others they did. The only way out of this dilemma is to continue speaking about the situation of specific individuals but also to stress that there are 400,000 who have requested invitations from Israel. The magnitude of the problem can then be perceived and it becomes more difficult for the Soviet Union to make an empty gesture. Moreover, it is not a question of to trade with the Soviet Union or not to trade. It exists; the question is the price.

RI: Jews in the Diaspora look upon the Jewish movement in the USSR as primarily a Zionist movement. Isn’t this wrong? In view of the neshira (drop out), shouldn’t we describe it as a general Jewish emigration movement with a Zionist leadership which wishes to repatriate to Israel?

AS: The people who took the biggest risks and went to prison were mainly Zionists. These people were inspired by the Six Day War, but as always happens, the people en masse were cautiously pragmatic. When the mass aliyah began, they saw that it was not so dangerous and they began to apply. But even if this group of Zionists in the Soviet Union is not very large, it definitely means a lot for Jewish life in the USSR. During the years when I was in prison, the problems of neshira had become much more serious. It is not simply that all those who do not go to Israel are assimilated Jews. On the contrary, many of the Zionists were originally assimilated Jews. I was an assimilated Jew. Slepak, Voronel, Lerner, Lunts, Rubin and others were 100 per cent assimilated. Our Jewishness preceded our acquaintance with the Jewish language, Jewish history and Jewish knowledge in general. Now we are witnessing many Jews who are not assimilated, going to the United States. For example, nearly all Jews who leave Odessa do not go to Israel.

JQ: Do you think that there will be another Zionist wave after the wave of the early seventies?

AS: I think that it is possible, but a lot depends on the Zionist spirit all over the world. If the Zionist spirit is low in Israel—not to speak about England—then why should aliyah from the Soviet Union increase? The small group of Jewish activists in the USSR is also important because they are regarded as examples of true Zionists all over the world.

JQ: How central are good relations between the superpowers to the issue of Jewish emigration? AS: It depends under what conditions such a relationship is forged. When you are under pressure and the KGB threatens you with death, you begin to think, my God, they are the same people as I, why shouldn’t I reach an agreement with them. Similarly, if you say let’s have good trade, good relations without understanding the reality of the Soviet system, in the psychological belief that everything will be all right in the end, then we will never save our Jewish brothers and we will never have real peace. Some politicians do not understand the nature of the Soviet Union—how much it is a country of the Gulag, how many people are behind barbed wire. The Soviet Union will have to accept that their society must become more open. And one of the most important conditions is to let people go.

JQ: E.P. Thompson once commented that whilst he supported the right of Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union, he thought that if Jews stayed, this would help to move the country towards democracy. What do you think about that?

AS: Jews contributed greatly in an attempt to make Russia the new Utopia and to establish socialism. Eventually, it became so far removed from their ideals that many reached the conclusion that it is better to implement your ideals amongst your own people. With all my good feelings towards many Russians such as Sakharov, there is a difference in mentality and in the system of values. Moreover, we cannot simply and mechanically make those people live in accordance with our way of thinking. They will do something totally different. The outcome has been that the Russian people have forsaken their ideals and built such a terrible system.

JQ: In permitting people to leave, the Kremlin abrogated control over a part of their people. Moreover, thousands of letters pour into the USSR each day from their friends and relatives abroad with information about the West. Can the Jewish movement for emigration therefore be described as a democratizing movement?

AS: Yes, by the very act of leaving and in indeed supporting those who wish to leave, we are changing the system. The very existence of the struggle for free emigration is an example of a fundamental change in the society. The more people are independent of the government, the more open becomes the society. This is yet another reason why it is difficult to force the Soviets to open the gates once more.

Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1986




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