Citizen Diplomacy in the Soviet Union in 1987
by Joseph Preston Baratta
This account was originally written in a letter to the New York Times on 16 August 1987. It was too long to be printed, but it reflects popular efforts to end the Cold War. In 1987, the Times reported that some 200,000 Westerners took advantage of the new policy of Glasnost to visit the Soviet Union in order to bring people power into play. The world statesmanship of Mikhail Gorbachev accomplished the ultimate achievement.
I have just returned from a three-week trip to the Soviet Union on the Volga Peace Cruise. I would like to share with you and your readers my impressions and conclusions.
The Volga Peace Cruise (the sixth since 1982) was organized by Howard and Alice Frazier of Promoting Enduring Peace of Woodmont, CT (203-878-4769). We went on a mission of goodwill, to build trust between American and Soviet societies. The trip was another instance of “citizens’ diplomacy,” which is being increasingly employed by concerned citizens, at a time of continuing danger yet great opportunity. The goal is to end the nuclear arms race and gradually to replace hostility with peaceful competition and even with cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Volga Peace Cruise consisted of 142 Americans, 4 Canadians, and 28 Soviets. The Americans and Canadians were drawn from a broad spectrum of the peace movement: The Center for Defense Information (Admiral Eugene Carroll), SANE/Freeze, American Friends Service Committee, Physicians and Educators for Social Responsibility, the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, World Citizens’ Registry, World Federalists, students, teachers, and press. Also with us was Bill McLinn, an imitator of Mark Twain, with droopy mustache and white bowtie, who was a great hit with the Russians. The Soviets included Cosmonaut Georgi Grechko, retired Lt. Gen. Mikhail Milstein, members of the Soviet Peace Committee, researchers associated with the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, writers, and press. Cartoonists from the Russian humor magazine, Krokodil, enlivened our encounter, and I exchanged with them some copies of the New Yorker. Our trip was extensively reported in the local and national press and on national television in the Soviet Union.
I went to the Soviet Union with the usual apprehensions (this was my first trip), but no restrictions were placed on my movements or inquiries. My first impression, after landing in our Aeroflot Ilyushin-62 at Moscow, was hearing on Moscow radio a Russian rock version of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.” We were whisked through customs without inspection, found ourselves on a multi-lane highway in a modern, built-up city rather like Copenhagen or Stockholm, and, after dinner at the Rossia Hotel, had an opportunity to walk about Red Square without supervision. For the next ten days, we travelled aboard the Maxim Gorky, a river vessel built in Austria, from Rostov-on-Don, through the Lenin Canal connecting the Don and Volga rivers (1952), to Volgograd (Stalingrad), Togliatti, Ulyanovsk (Lenin’s birthplace), and Kazan, stopping along the way. We then flew to Leningrad, where we spent a few days, and then boarded the Red Sleeper for a night-time train trip to Moscow, where we had several final days to visit the city. We talked freely to people at all levels — from the “elite” to engineers and working people on the streets, to women, teachers, veterans, students, and children. In Moscow, a delegation of six were received by Vice-President Piotr Demechev (equivalent to Vide-President George H.W. Bush), and another delegation of twelve called on U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock, who sent his deputy, J. Michael Joyce, to receive us. Our “Volga Declaration” (appended) was presented to both; Mr. Demechev stated that each of its principles could be accepted by the Soviet Union, while Mr. Joyce remained more cautious, especially about a joint nuclear weapons testing moratorium and a comprehensive test ban.
After a three-week trip, we do not pretend to know the whole truth about the Soviet Union, but we are convinced, as Carolyn Cottom of SANE/Freeze said, that it is not what we are taught in the United States. We found Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) at work everywhere in Soviet society. I myself found no evidence of opposition, though I have read it is present. Our Soviet friends openly admitted to “stagnation” in the economy and to “mistakes” in the past. The new policies were said to be many years in the making and irreversible. The people are obviously in the midst of difficult, internal adjustments, which include democratic election of local and middle-level Party leaders, election of plant managers, profit-and-loss accounting, deregulation of prices (including housing and food), voluntary (not binding) compliance with the five-year plans, and family-scale private enterprise. While the new policies clearly mean greater rewards for individual initiative, there will be no retreat from the great achievement of the Revolution, such as public ownership of heavy means of production and protection for labor.
Volgograd is an unforgettable place. Here, 800,000 Soviets gave their lives in the decisive battle of World War II. We visited one mass grave of 30,000 and the impressive memorial ensemble on Mamayev Hill, including a heart-rending sculpture, Mother’s Grief, and the awesome, 100-meter Armed Victory. We visited many such memorials to the war, including one in the little Russian/Armenian village of Krim, where 600 gave their lives, and the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery in Leningrad, where about 500,000 are buried in 186 mass graves. One cannot go away from these places without the conviction that the Soviet people’s desire for peace is very real, born of immense suffering in war, to a degree that Americans can hardly appreciate. When we saw the Russian word Mir (peace, community) emblazoned everywhere — on apartment buildings, on billboards — we could believe that “peace” is not just a propaganda slogan of the government, but an expression of the deepest wish of the people. We could believe that current Soviet arms control proposals, including their proposal for the total elimination of nuclear weapons by the year 2000, are sincerely meant, in order to transfer funds from the military to the domestic economy.
In Volgograd, some of us visited the local Volgograd Peace Committee, where we pressed our hosts closely on their relations to the Soviet Peace Committee in Moscow and to the government generally. The Volgograd Peace Committee operates in a headquarters building provided free of charge by the city council. It has a paid staff of three, in addition to one from the Soviet Friendship Society. The two organizations govern some twelve urban chapters in the region and many local chapters in the schools, industrial plants, and government offices. They are supported by the Soviet Peace Fund, to which the Volgograd populace contributed four million rubles (600,000 from the Russian Orthodox Church) last year. Specialized groups, like Artists or Physicians for Peace, may conduct local activities spontaneously, but on international questions they are “supervised” by the Volgograd Peace Committee, and in turn by the Soviet Peace Committee.
My sense is that this supervision is sought voluntarily, not imposed dictatorially. The Soviet people have had so much experience of war that they know they must remain united under central authority in matters of defense. The result is that the peace movement in the Soviet Union is popular, well organized throughout the country, and highly centralized, though legally independent from the government. The Soviet Peace Committee (founded in 1949) is an association of about 450 people from all nationalities, social strata, ages, Party, non-party, and religions in the fifteen union republics and the autonomous republics and regions in the U.S.S.R. (Its secretary, Igor Filin, was with us, and he turned out to be a retired KGB major general!) The Soviet Peace Fund (1961) receives no money from the government. Yet the committee cooperates closely with the government, appears not to criticize Soviet foreign policy (except perhaps now of the policy of the past), and seems to influence policy only by slow, internal debate.
This situation creates a difficulty for the peace movement in the West, which is divided, competitive for funds, and often critical of the U.S. government. We applaud many official Soviet peace proposals as statesmanlike and deserving of respect by the United States, but we cannot appear to be instruments of the Soviet government. Arms control, disarmament, and strengthening international institutions are good in themselves, no matter which government proposes them.
During the cruise, we had intensive discussions on, among other topics, “myths and perceptions in U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations.” We began with history, which after all is the custodian of myths, and reviewed our mutual perceptions of each other as expansionist or imperialistic, while our perceptions of ourselves remained that of a peace-loving people who would never start a war. One of the Soviets, Vladimir Nadein, an editor of Izvestia, argued that the image of Americans in Soviet journals, films, and TV is not as ugly as that of Soviets in American media, such as the brutal series Amerika. The Phil Donahue – Vladimir Posner series was much more fair. Other American authors who he thought were helping to build bridges included Cynthia Wright, Gore Vidal, and Hendrick Smith. “We must reach out to destroy the image of the ‘enemy’ in both countries,” he said. “Mutual confidence will obviate the charge of ‘propaganda.’” Another Soviet, Anatoli Golubev, a writer and publisher, outlined a plan to bring the “best” contemporary Soviet writing on “non-sensational” themes in the spirit of Glasnost to Western audiences, including Anatoly Rybukov’s The Children of the Arbat and Vladimir Bogomolov’s In August, 1945. “There are very few still things in life or in a nation,” he explained. Golubev is seeking American distribution of six kinds of books: literature, detective stories, science fiction, sports, women, and children.
The artist Gennady M. Dobrov (ДоБров, Геннадий) has produced a stunning series of anti-war drawings in the headquarters of the Soviet Peace Committee in Leningrad. He was wounded in the war and lost two arms and a leg. Nevertheless, he was able to hold a pencil in his toes and still make vivid drawings of the scenes of war. The title in Russian, I believe, was: Хотат лӥ русские Воӥны. If those drawings got to the West, the containment policy would have to be reevaluated.
I also met a biologist on the dock in Ulyanovsk whose story was touching. He apparently was a researcher at a nearby agricultural station and very much wanted to see back issues of the American Journal of Agricultural Science, particularly on the subject of nitrogen fixation by microbal agents. Soviet biology had been so far set back by Lysenko that ordinary researchers had fallen very far behind Western progress. That journal was priced outside his institute’s ability to pay at $145/vol. He asked if I might help him by sending surplus issues from America, and I eventually contacted the publisher (Cambridge University Press) and scientists at the University of Minnesota. Imagine the effect on some people far from Moscow who should receive direct from some comparable place in the West a fine scientific journal that would simply help them to improve their production of food! Would not that be a truly friendly gesture?
One of the hardest questions we received was, How can we in the peace movement bring the truth about the Soviet Union to the American people? We generally agreed that this would be the result of fairer journalism, increased exchange of literature, much increased personal contacts like that of the Volga and (next year) Mississippi Peace Cruises, and finally by daring national leadership and working cooperation, like President Nixon’s opening to China in 1971.
To sum up, I found the Soviet Union to be a large, multinational society, under a federal government, with a high sense of purpose. There will be no wavering from building socialism, but the Soviet peoples are sincerely determined to reduce the threat of war by reducing their nuclear weaponry according to mutual agreements, by improved measures of common security, and by increased cooperation with Americans, to whom they remain friendly. I soon came to feel perfectly comfortable in their country. I never saw a policeman with a gun on his hip, and I felt safer on the subways than I do in New York. (The subways, by the way, are a model of beauty, cleanliness, quiet, speed, and safety.) The people seemed to feel that their society, though relatively poor, was fundamentally just, without the extremes of wealth and poverty that we find in the West. Moreover, they were determined to come to grips with their internal economic and political problems. The Soviets seemed to me to be very good at large-scale planning, as in their new city of Togliatti, but the final execution or finish of their designs seemed not so good. With us in the West, it is just the opposite: our buildings are excellent, but the cities are chaotic.
Someday, I think, Americans as a people will discover the Soviet people and realize that they have something to teach us. That will be a great day for peace.
V O L G A D E C L A R A T I O N
29 July 1987
An extraordinary event has occurred among a group of 173 people who are traveling together on the Volga River at the invitation of the Soviet Peace Committee and several American peace organizations. We are Americans, Canadians, and Soviets. We include an admiral and a general. One of us is a Soviet cosmonaut. The rest of us are in the fields of education, medicine, law, business, the arts, engineering, and science. Above all, we are people.
We embarked on this voyage to explore the possibilities of People’s Diplomacy as a means of reducing distrust and misunderstanding between our countries.
Our experience of sharing, informing, and debating have convinced us that adherence to a set of common principles that say no to the insanity of the nuclear arms race will lead to a more secure world of trust and understanding.
With these concerns in mind, we dedicate ourselves to the principles of the Volga Declaration:
When in the evolution of mankind the knowledge of how to destroy all living things on this planet has been joined with the capacity to do so, it becomes necessary to set forth certain fundamental principles:
- That a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
- That no government has the right to participate in a nuclear war but only the obligation to prevent one.
- That no government has the right to deploy weapons in space.
- That every government has the obligation to immediately undertake substantial reductions in its nuclear arsenal.
- That every government has the responsibility to commit itself to the establishment of a common global security system by the year 2000, leading to the total elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.
- That adoption of these principles will promote our common goal of peaceful coexistence.