10/11 Independent Clubs Spread in Soviet Union; Members ...
Independent Clubs Spread in Soviet Union; Members Debate Once-Taboo Issues
By Celestine Bohlen
Washington Post Foreign Service
MOSCOW, Oct. 10 - From pacifists in Lvov to preservationists in Leningrad,
small groups across the Soviet Union are using the new policy of glasnost, or
openness, to try to make themselves heard.
Members of a growing crop of independent clubs with names like Commune,
Alternative, Direct Speech and Civic Dignity debate, lobby and issue platforms
and typewritten bulletins on subjects ranging from ecology to criminal justice.
In Leningrad, the Delta club is trying to block a dam project. In Moscow,
the Perestroika, or restructuring, club wants to build a monument to Stalin's
victims. Last August, a club in Kiev called Svetliza was gathering signatures
protesting the presence of nuclear power stations in heavily populated areas.
In Riga, a group called Socially Active People has set as its goal the
investigation of abuses of power.
"Several thousands of these groups are being started up by people, many of
them students, who know nothing about the dissident movements of the 1960s,"
said dissident historian Roy Medvedev. "They arise spontaneously and
authorities can't really control them. Either they forbid them or they stand on
the sidelines and watch."
Although some clubs call themselves socio-political organizations, the role
of these groups, some of which have 10 members or fewer, is limited in a nation
where the Communist Party allows no opposition. Still, as outlets for debates
that were forbidden not long ago, the clubs are considered a significant trend
that even the Soviet Sociological Association is now studying.
So far, most of the clubs have been tolerated, and, in some cases, even
encouraged by the authorities. In Moscow, 400 clubs reportedly have been
registered, and in August a gathering of 53 clubs from all over the country was
held in Moscow in a hall provided by the local Communist Party. This week, the
Soviet news agency Novosti even hosted a press conference for club leaders.
Some groups are wary of such official recognition and encouragement, which
they see as an attempt to coopt them. But others are eager to help in the
process of perestroika launched by party leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
At this week's press conference, Boris Kagarlitsky, a member of Commune and
of a newly formed federation of 15 clubs, told reporters the invitation to
participate was a "pleasant surprise" which he saw as a sign that the movement
"is a fact that is recognized at all levels."
Guarded tolerance for limited diversity appears to be part of the strategy
of Gorbachev's policy of openness. At a meeting last week with a French group,
Gorbachev used a new phrase, "socialist pluralism," which was repeated at the
Even radical groups campaigning for national and religious freedoms and on
behalf of political prisoners have been coming out of the shadows this year. In
contrast to the dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s, their activities are
conducted openly. Journals carry signed articles and activists feel free to
announce press conferences over the phone to foreign correspondents, even
though all conversations are monitored.
But the truce between the state and the more outspoken human rights
activists and other dissident groups is still uneasy.
Authorities have been swift to crack down on any public demonstrations,
particularly in Moscow after the adoption Sept. 1 of a city ordinance
forbidding unauthorized public protests. And activists in other parts of the
country continue to be harassed, although not arrested, by police.
In contrast to the dissident movement, the club phenomenon is relatively
tame. Almost all clubs pledge to work within the system and use the new
government policies as their guideposts.
"It became clear that the new trends of clubs and groups are part and parcel
of a new social fabric, also part of (the) broad public movement known as
perestroika," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a journalist who headed the press section at
last August's gathering.
The August gathering, due to be repeated in January, was tilted to what one
participant called the "left wing of perestroika," or, as another called it,
"the Soviet New Left."
The groups' representatives, however, defended the right of more "extremist"
groups to exist, such as the right-wing Russian nationalist group Pamyat, as
long as they do not foster violence.
Some of the clubs are now proposing to advance candidates in local
elections. When it was tried last June in Leningrad by various informal groups,
city officials found ways to strike all three candidates from the ballot.
When they began last spring, the groups in Leningrad, among the most active
in the country, were in open conflict with local authorities.
Their leaders were denounced in the local press and blackballed at work and
at the university. But the national press, principally the government newspaper
Izvestia, defended their right to speak out on "issues of the city's life,
history and future." Since then, the groups have expanded, creating an umbrella
coalition known as Epicenter.
Many of the groups are already publishing bulletins or journals, typed with
multiple carbon copies and distributed for free. Express-Chronika, a 10-page
weekly newsletter issued by a group headed by the former political prisoner
Alexander Rodrabienok, is attempting to keep track of various groups and issues
- from the status of political prisoners still in camps and psychiatric
hospitals, to new religious organizations and appeals, to battles over historic
Thus far, Express-Chronika has reported demonstrations by Baltic activists
demanding publication of the secret protocol of the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact,
petitions by Leningrad groups to change the name of a square named after the
late party leader Leonid Brezhnev, protests by Baptists, Pentecostalists and
Hare Krishna groups, a small gathering of pacifists in the city of Lvov and
even the efforts of Pamyat to erect a monument to a Russian saint outside
The distribution of Express-Chronika, like that of other new journals, is
limited by their lack of access to printing equipment. Typed with many carbon
copies, a publication's circulation usually averages about 100.
These difficulties are an example of the inherent restrictions on the
propagation of ideas other than those put forward by the Communist Party and
the media it controls. So far, the official Soviet press here has paid little
attention to the new clubs.