All men of conscience will be saddened by the disbanding of the Helsinki watch group in the Soviet Union. This intrepid band of dissidents, from the time of its founding in 1976, had met constant harassment from Soviet authorities in its efforts to report on rights violations, law abuses, and political trials. With many of its members imprisoned or in exile, and with the repression growing to intolerable proportions (the authorities were preparing to charge an elderly member of the group with anti-Soviet slander), there apparently seemed no way out but to dissolve.
It is an occasion to remind ourselves that one of the two most powerful nations in the world is afraid of the truth, afraid of open dissent, afraid to let its citizens honor the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act which it itself signed. Never should the advocates of freedom become blase about the repression and authoritarianism which remain the standard fare of Soviet society. Only a government that is unsure of itself and morally impoverished needs to rule by such massive force and to suppress the voices of those who, far from seeking to overthrow Soviet-style socialism, want only to secure the rights promised by their own constitution.
That the Moscow group felt compelled to dissolve - and that the dissident movement in general has been so shattered - is a telling sign of the times. The Soviet authorities have always sought to keep dissent under tight control and especially so - paradoxically - during the period of East-West detente when they feared influences from the influx of tourists, businessmen, and other Western visitors. But in today's political climate of US-Soviet confrontation the men in the Kremlin probably reason that they have nothing to lose by cracking down even harder on the Helsinki group and other dissident activities. Indeed, they probably savor the slap at the United States.
That is perhaps an unintended outcome of the present hard-line policy in Washington. Yet the fact is that the best hope for any kind of human rights advances in the Soviet Union is an international situation where the Soviet leaders have something to lose from the furor that arises abroad whenever they they act with particular brutality. Experience has shown that in a better East-West climate quiet diplomacy can be used behind the scenes to soften Soviet policy to some extent (as in the case of Jewish emigration) and at least to alleviate the worst cases of oppression. All the more reason, therefore, to try to improve East-West relations.
In the end, of course, nothing can silence the undercurrent of discontent in the Soviet Union. While the vast majority of Soviet people do not support the dissident movement, authorities will continue to confront the efforts of Jews, Armenians, Pentecostalists, and others to emigrate and the burgeoning of new groups such as the antiwar activists. The human spirit of freedom cannot be extinguished even in so benighted a land as the Soviet land of communism.