The Dark Side of Glasnost

By , Dr. Kent R. Hill is director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of ``The Puzzle of the Soviet Church.''

AMIDST the exciting news of movement towards multiparty democracy in Eastern Europe there are disturbing signs that the fledgling democratic movement in the USSR is under assault. On August 5 the Russian Orthodox human rights activist Alexander Ogorodnikov founded a new political party - the Christian Democratic Union. In the tradition of other West European Christian Democratic parties, the new Moscow-based party was accepted in September as the 54th such party in the world by the international congress of Christian Democrats, in Guatemala.

In light of recent events in Eastern Europe, some had hoped that the formation of such a party would arouse no resistance. But Moscow is not Warsaw, Budapest, East Berlin, or Prague. Mikhail Gorbachev has in the past dismissed appeals for multiparty democracy as ``nonsense,'' and, as recently as Nov. 26, Pravda quoted the Soviet leader as connecting the success of perestroika with ``the advisability of keeping the one-party system.''

Though Gorbachev has played a key role in touching off the exciting recent events in Eastern Europe, at home his regime is playing hardball with those who advocate an end to the communist monopoly of power. Evidence of official intolerance is mounting.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

When I was in Moscow in September, I met an impressive human rights activist - Sergei Savchenko. We attended a concert together. Walking home after that concert was the last time I would ever see him. Early on the morning of Oct. 23, Sergei was killed when a car jumped onto the sidewalk and struck him.

What got Sergei in trouble was his participation in the Christian Democratic party - and his advocacy of religious freedom. A talented physicist, Savchenko was also a photojournalist documenting the destruction of churches under the communists. Six of every seven Orthodox Churches open in 1917 have been destroyed or closed by the authorities; the vast majority remain locked up under Gorbachev.

The circumstantial evidence pointing to foul play in Savchenko's death is strong. Between his ``accident'' and the time the morgue notified his friends, his entire photo archive of desecrated churches was stolen from his apartment. His death conveniently coincided with his wife being out of town. One of his best friends, the ambassador from Holland, was away as well.

What may have contributed most to Savchenko's death was his association with Alexander Ogorodnikov and the Christian Democrats. Nor is Savchenko's ``accident'' the first time someone close to Ogorodnikov has suspiciously died. On. Nov. 18 last year Ogorodnikov's brother, a 37-year-old priest and monk was killed - also in a car ``accident.''

Threats and ``accidents'' have been a common way to deal with independent voices in Soviet history. Recent reports from Lithuania, Georgia, and the Rostov region indicate the practice has not ceased during the Gorbachev era. Even Anglican priest Dick Rodgers of London has received veiled threats from Soviet officials because of efforts to give Ogorodnikov a printing press.

In September, when I met with Ogorodnikov and other editors of their samizdat journal, the Bulletin of Christian Opinion, I was told of the theft in April of a computer and subsequent beating in June of one of their journalists in Leningrad. When our meeting broke up at 2 a.m., I was moved by a blessing which Friar Victor Grigoriev gave to Ogorodnikov.

On Nov. 7, the holiday celebrating the Bolshevik Revolution, Grigoriev was left alone in the offices of the Bulletin to stand guard. Through a ruse that could only have succeeded by tapping the phone, two strangers gained access to the apartment. They beat Grigoriev into unconsciousness, and stole three computers, two printers, and a fax machine.

When Ogorodnikov returned to the USSR earlier this fall from a trip to the West, he was interrogated at the airport and 79 books were confiscated. The latter violates new Soviet customs laws.

Do these attacks on the democratic movement mean glasnost is a charade? The recent Soviet publication of the first section of Solzhenitsyn's ``Gulag Archipelago'' in a print run of 1.6 million says otherwise. Under Gorbachev there has been more religious freedom, though harassment continues.

The absence of any constitutional provision for multiparty democracy, the continuation of suspicious accidents, and the hoodlum-like tactics of theft and beatings aimed at proponents of democracy and religious freedom - do not bode well for the future of either glasnost or perestroika.

We do not know to what extent Gorbachev is personally responsible for the recent attacks on the new Christian Democratic party. Nor is there absolute certainty regarding the tragic death of Sergei Savchenko. But Gorbachev's denunciations of the notion of multiparty democracy have created a climate in the USSR very different from that which is emerging in Eastern Europe.

In the wake of the meeting between Pope John Paul II and Gorbachev, and the Malta summit, it is time to sift soberly through these remarkable events. There is reason to hope, yet there is also reason to be concerned.

Glasnost without democracy cannot long endure. Attempts to reform the economy without affirming political freedom and religious liberty cannot succeed. That's what the Eastern European countries are beginning to see. But is Mr. Gorbachev able or willing to allow Soviet citizens to enjoy a multiparty democracy?

The success of glasnost and perestroika may depend on Gorbachev's ability to learn from events he unleashed in Europe.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...