Boris Altshuler: Russia just hasn’t produced an influential democratic party

18 May 2020

Boris Altshuler heads the non-profit Children’s Right and is a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новые Известия]

The country desperately needs an informal National Coalition of independent parliamentary candidates, united by a shared anti-oligarchy, anti-corruption and anti-monopoly programme

Novye Izvestiya has published the text of a speech by the well-known Russian rights defender and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, chairman of the board of the non-profit “Children’s Right”, Boris Altshuler during an online meeting of human rights defenders dedicated to the 44-year anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group.  

Andrei Sakharov at a conference of the USSR Academy of Sciences on 1 March 1989. Source: Wikipedia

A year from now, 21 May 2021, will be the centenary of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. And the first swallow, the first gift of that occasion is the recently published 700-page book Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner and Friends. It contains a great deal on our current subject of human rights.  

My friends and I are now actively preparing for that centenary. I’m studying Sakharov’s Memoirs, and other materials including the relatively recently declassified documents of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And I confess I discovered something that I never knew or didn’t fully realize until now. Namely, how close Sakharov was to the very peak of the Olympus of power, how attentively the Soviet leaders studied everything he wrote and said. And this was the case at all times, including during the difficult period of his exile.  

I will quote Andrei Dmitrievich’s familiar joke (after his return to Moscow from exile – in response to an interlocutor’s remark that Sakharov was at the highest level of power): “I’m not at the highest level. I’m next to the highest level on the other side of the window.” It may have been a joke, but it reflects exactly how things were. 

Not only was Sakharov never an administrative boss, he wasn’t even a member of the Communist Party. He was invited to join the party on several occasions, and he always politely declined, even in the Stalinist period. But he was nonetheless seen as “one of us” and counted as one of the higher nomenklatura. He could write a letter to Khrushchev in defence of the doctor arrested for making jokes about Khrushchev – that was back in 1957. And Khrushchev got the letter right away, read it, and ordered Mikhail Suslov to treat Sakharov with respect. And Suslov – the chief Party ideologue, the most conservative of conservatives, who, for a quarter of a century the whole country beheld in portraits and on the Mausoleum tribune on holidays – met with Sakharov, took an interest. And in fact Doctor Barenblatt got not eight years but a few months.

Or 10 July 1961 Khrushchev summons nuclear scientists to the Kremlin and unexpectedly tells them that the Soviet Union will renew its atomic tests – this after the two-and-a-half-year multilateral (USSR-USA-UK) moratorium on tests. All that in parallel with a strong propaganda campaign for peace. I remember at the time a joke surfaced immediately: “Will there be war?” “There won’t be war, but there will be such a battle for peace that not one stone will remain standing.” 

Sakharov writes a note to Khrushchev at this meeting, arguing against the resumption of testing.  Khrushchev reads the note and at the banquet, instead of a toast, spends half an hour explaining how Sakharov understood nothing about politics. Then, that autumn, Sakharov’s 50-megaton “Tsar bomb” is tested at Novaya Zemlya, followed by awards and kisses at the Kremlin. At the banquet Sakharov is sat between Khrushchev and Brezhnev – between the current leader and future leader of the USSR. Remember that in 1964, Khrushchev was stood down and Leonard Brezhnev, who had boundless respect for Sakharov, became the Secretary General.

Yes, in June 1967, Sakharov, responding to a letter from Larissa Bogoraz, had the opportunity to call Yury Andropov personally via government communications. And again, he called Andropov in August 1968 asking for the participants of the famous, though of course not approved, demonstration in Red Square with the “Hands off Czechoslovakia!” placards not to be punished.

This is all embellishment to explain this amazing fact that I did not previously know. May 1968. Sakharov finishes and puts out his article Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Co-existence and Intellectual Freedom through the underground press. It was a considerable length – nearly 80,000 characters. 

In Sakharov’s archive in Moscow there are copies of the now declassified reports by the head of the USSR KGB Yury Andropov to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of 22 May 1968, № 1169-А/ОВ, and of 27 May 1968, № 1201-А/ОВ. These say that “the KGB received the full text of the hostile document prepared by Sakharov…” with an appendix of the full text of the Reflections.

In the archive there is also a copy of instructions from the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, Leonid Brezhnev: “Members of the Politburo. I request you to familiarize yourselves with this” – with signatures from A.N. Kosygin, N.V. Podgornov. A.Y. Pelshe and others, with the date of reference. Of course, Brezhnev himself studied the brochure.

But then, a miracle occurs. Sakharov in Reflections proposes an agreement with the USA on the banning of missile defence systems. He repeats his own suggestion, and those of other leading nuclear scientists (Yuly Khariton, Yevgeny Zababakhin), which were previously communicated to the leaders of the USSR through the usual official channels and were ignored. Suddenly, in June 1968, there is an 180° turn. On the 1st July, still 10 days before the first publication of Reflections in the west, the US President, Lyndon Johnson, declares that, as the USSR had changed its previous negative position, he would agree to negotiations on a missile defence system ban. This agreement was indeed concluded by the USSR and the USA in May 1972

But that is not enough. In Reflections Sakharov calls for a move away from the edge of the thermonuclear abyss, calling for an end to confrontation with the capitalist world. So, in 1969, on the initiative of the Soviet side, secret discussions began between the USSR and the USA on easing tensions between the two countries and beginning a new political process, the process of “detente”. In subsequent years, the head of the USSR L.I. Brezhnev establishes good relations with US Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter; French Presidents Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing; and German Chancellors Brandt and Schmidt.

Of course there was still a long way to go, and Sakharov was well aware of this fact. In August 1973 he spoke out openly against the “false détente”, and said that economic détente without a democratic transition in the USSR might, “result in the whole world being infected by the evil that is festering within the Soviet Union”. The authorities’ response came in the form of a famous letter signed by 40 academicians and a large-scale media campaign against Sakharov, which ended unexpectedly on 9 September – the day on which Brezhnev returned to Moscow from a holiday in Yalta. The document adopted at a meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR on 28 September 1973 was a draft resolution endorsing the proposal to strip Sakharov of his awards and place him under house arrest, or alternatively to exile him to Narym, but for some reason this document remained a draft and never became a resolution.

On 23 January 1980, the day after Sakharov was exiled to Gorky, Brezhnev wrote in his “Diary” (declassified and published only four years ago) about his discussions with various individuals regarding “Sakharov’s stunts”.

And so it was that the USSR set out on the path towards détente. The first outcome delivered by this new policy was an initiative launched by the Warsaw Pact countries (i.e. by Brezhnev) to hold a conference in Helsinki in the summer of 1975. At this conference, 35 countries signed the Helsinki Accords together with their “third basket” – undertakings by the signatory states to improve their observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In Sakharov’s Nobel Lecture, which he wrote several months later, in October 1975, he welcomed the Helsinki Accords and their “basket” of human rights. At the same time, however, he very wisely noted that, “Obviously we cannot speak here about a guaranteed result.” And further on: “I should like to speak mainly of my own country. During the months that have ensued since the Helsinki Conference there has been absolutely no real improvement in this regard. In fact, in some cases, attempts on the part of hardliners can be seen to have ‘given the screw another turn’.” 

On 12 May 1976, human rights activists announced the founding of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which is why we are meeting today. Yury Fedorovich Orlov’s inspired idea to set up an independent monitoring group to ensure compliance with the humanitarian articles of the Helsinki Accords made it abundantly clear to the whole world that there was a gulf between the words and actions of the Soviet leadership.

It is also useful to remember that Article 49 of the USSR Constitution adopted in 1977 (the “Brezhnev” Constitution) stated the following in black and white; “…Prosecution for criticism shall be prohibited. Persons responsible for such prosecutions will be held to account.” On the advice of Sofya Vasilyevna Kalistratova, I myself found this particular article very helpful when I was being interrogated in Lefortovo and Lubyanka in connection with the cases involving Tanya Osipova and Yury Shikhanovich; I cited it as justification for my refusal to testify in response to the investigator’s first question, and then simply dictated the same answer over and over again to be noted in the court record; “Please refer to my answer to Question One.”

But despite this, prosecutions under Articles 70 and 190-1 of the Criminal Code that criminalised ‘criticism’ continued in a blatant fashion, including the arrests of members of the ‘Helsinki groups’. It’s true, they also charged Tolya Shcharansky with ‘State Treason,’ for which the prosecutor demanded the death sentence!

In other words, it was obvious that all these international obligations for which the General Secretary of the Communist Party signed up did not influence the real policy of the USSR.

At the same time I want to underline that Sakharov never accused Brezhnev of insincerity. He said something else to me: ‘There is very little Brezhnev can do.’ In general Andrei Dmitrievich never swore and never attacked any one in a personal manner. Tatyana Mikhailovna Velikanova, who was herself someone of unique spiritual qualities, very clearly and accurately defined Sakharov’s attitude towards people with the phrase, ‘presumption of decency.’

Sakharov understood that the huge inertia of the conservative bureaucratic state machine was simply incapable of noticing such small whims of Leonid Ilich Brezhnev as some Helsinki Act or other, or other agreements that he signed. He understood what tremendous forces were brought to bear in the Kremlin, ‘under the carpet’ (to use Winston Churchill’s expression). He understood that only forces comparable to them in strength would be able to bring them to make concessions even in small matters, let alone with regard to systemic reforms. And that what was needed here was not words but practical real measures that would bring results.

One such powerful and thoroughly non-trivial measure was to bring pro-Soviet fanatics such as the French, Italian and Dutch communists to defend Anatoly Shcharansky and other members of the Helsinki groups. I think this was a sensitive matter for the Soviet party nomenklatura, for whom communist ideology was the basis of their power and economic well-being.

In one way or another, it was just such powerful measures that proved effective in saving specific individuals.

And now let’s go nearly 50 years forward and compare the Soviet experience with the situation today. There is much that is similar:

– The bureaucratic system is exactly the same as 50 years ago and, just as then, specialises in avoiding giving a straight answer to any question. As for our work at Right of the Child, to save a specific child we have to constantly use bold and far-reaching methods analogous to those that enabled dissidents in the Soviet time to be saved.  

– As did the USSR, the Russian Federation suffers, mildly speaking, from an obvious deficit of political, economic and legal competition. And as an inevitable consequence of this total monopolism, there is a complete lack of public accountability of officials in their corresponding geographical areas the wealth of the country has been acquired by a narrow ruling group to the detriment of the many millions of Russian citizens.

As human rights defenders we are used to resolving insoluble problems, to save people in situations where it seems impossible to save them.

And for me it is somewhat strange and unfamiliar that for 10 years now we have not managed to help those families with children who live in absolutely unbearable housing conditions, or are actually homeless. And there is also the insoluble problem of extreme poverty of families with children.

The situation regarding these problems was dire before, but it has been made far worse today by the pandemic, the quarantine measures, and the massive loss of income. People are being evicted from their apartments for non-payment of rent, and they are also unable to feed their children.

One would think that an emergency situation like this would be the exact moment to announce the obvious emergency support measures being introduced all over the world, including:

1) a state rental assistance programme;

2) a food stamp programme, which was developed by the Ministry of Industry and Trade a while ago but is shelved year after year. 

Both of these programmes solve the dual problem of supporting those in dire need and stimulating business, including socially significant small businesses.

But these are the programmes that the budget never has enough money for. Yet even today, in what is an extreme situation for many individuals and families, billions from the state budget are being given to the oligarchs in the banking and construction sectors to compensate for ‘lost profits’ as a result of the pandemic. 

At the same time, just like in the olden days, there is a fantastically revealing discrepancy between the concern being expressed for the people and what is actually being done.

What is to be done? Let’s start with the most important question.

Where are the tremendous forces capable of inducing the bureaucratic, super-monopolistic behemoth that has emerged in Russia to turn and face the people?

Other countries are unlikely to help – these are the wrong times.

In June 2015, Yury Orlov, Liudmila Alekseeva and I directed an appeal to the OSCE leadership entitled ‘Violations of Social Rights: A Threat to International Peace’, in which we proposed that a new ‘fourth basket’ of international obligations should be developed to address the crisis of social rights threatening international security. Nobody responded. I then wrote to various people more than once, but, again, there was no response. As I said, these are the wrong times.

We need to rely solely on ourselves, on forces within Russia. The defence of human rights is not politics. And, as human rights defenders, we do not engage in politics and we do not fight for power. But to achieve our objectives and protect the rights of specific people, we have to appeal to politicians, put pressure on politicians. It has always been that way.

And it is truly a great drama of the New Russia that, over the 30 years of its existence, there has never been an electorally significant democratic party, or maybe not a party, but an unofficial National Coalition of independent candidates, united by a common anti-oligarch, anti-corruption and anti-monopoly programme.

A coalition like this could really compete with the four ‘parties of bosses’ in elections at all levels, from local to federal. But without such a strong competitive political force, there is little hope that the critical problems being faced by millions of Russians will be addressed.

As human rights defenders, it is hardly likely we could organise something here. But we are obliged to raise these issues, which I am doing now.

Thank you!

Translated by Alissa Valles, Verity Hemp, Joanne Reynolds, Simon Cosgrove and Nicky Brown.

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