Reporting on Soviet Dissent: The Forgotten People


In many respects, reporting on Soviet dissent in major American newspapers has been penetrating and sympathetic. Readers have been treated to a growing number of vivid, true-to-life portraits of Soviet nonconformists and their families. There are, however, serious deficiencies in current reporting that impair a balanced understanding of the range and scope of Soviet repression.

Stories of repressed Moscow dissidents and Soviet Jews conform to editorial notions of hard news. While they figure prominently in American reporting, equally important dimensions of Soviet dissent—the plight of persecuted Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and dissidents from non-Russian ethnic groups—receive scant attention. Prominent newspapers that treat Soviet violations of human rights as urgent business rarely detail the plight of these people. Too often their suffering is ignored, minimized, or simply brushed over in detailed reports on Soviet dissent.

UNIMAGINATIVE REPORTING When stories about these other dissidents are viewed as newsworthy, they usually manage to appear only in the world-news-in-summary columns of American newspapers. For example:

• On March 25, 1979, on page 5 in the world news column, under the heading "Soviet Said to Sentence Elderly Religious Leader," the New York Times carried the following three-sentence wire story on the fate of a prominent Soviet religious leader and human rights activist:

Moscow, March 24 (Reuters)—The 83-year-old leader of the Soviet Seventh-day Adventists was sentenced to five years at hard labor after his conviction yesterday on charges of slandering the state and infringing citizens' rights under the guise of religious activities, according to informed sources.

Vladimir Sholokov [Shelkov], who has led the Seventh-day Adventists for the last 30 years, was one of five members of the denomination convicted yesterday in Tashkent, the sources said. Another of those convicted, Ilya Lepshin, was also sentenced to five years and his house was confiscated, the sources said.

• On March 29, 1979, again on page 5 in the world news column, under the title "Ukrainian Rights Activist Is Reported Beaten Again," the New York Times covered the brutal physical and psychological attacks upon a respected human rights activist with this three-sentence wire story:

Moscow, March 28 (Reuters)—A young Ukrainian human rights activist in Kiev has been beaten for the second time in a week by men believed to be members of the K.G.B., the Soviet Union's security police, Andrei D. Sakharov, the dissident leader, said today.

Dr. Sakharov said that Pyotr Vins, the 23-year-old son of Georgi Vins, an imprisoned Baptist leader, was set upon yesterday in the streets of the Ukrainian capital by four men in plain clothes. The same four men picked up Mr. Vins several days ago, drove him 40 miles from the city and beat him after he tried to see an American consular official, Dr. Sakharov said.

• Earlier, on March 13, 1979, the New York Times devoted even less coverage to the disappearance of Oles Berdnyk, an internationally known science fiction writer and a founding member of the Ukrainian Public Group to Promote the Observance of the Helsinki Accords. A Reuters wire story, reprinted in the Times, noted that Berdnyk disappeared following a KGB raid upon his home.

This reportage is in many respects typical of the treatment that Soviet dissidents, prominent in their own country but virtually unknown outside the USSR, receive when their lives are clearly in danger. The failure to provide essential background information, human-interest details, and photographs is conspicuous. Particularly disturbing, in the weeks and months that follow such brief wire stories, is the absence of follow-up reports, news analyses, and commentaries on the victims and issues involved.

There are notable exceptions. They include detailed and sympathetic reports in many major newspapers on sensational events such as the occupation of the American Embassy in Moscow by the Vaschenko and Chmykhalova families and on Soviet Pentecostals repeatedly denied permission to emigrate. Also widely reported was the April 1979 exchange of five Soviet dissidents, including Ukrainian historian Valentyn Moroz and Baptist leader Georgi Vins, for two Soviet spies imprisoned in the United States.

Particularly noteworthy were two-page features in the Christian Science Monitor on July 18 and 24, 1979, on the condition of Soviet Protestants. Their tragic attempt to emigrate was humanized in uncommon detail in these reports. Most importantly, their suffering was placed in the context of thousands of similarly repressed Soviet religious believers, and core issues were deftly probed.

Generally speaking, however, American reporting on the situation of repressed Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and non-Russian dissidents has not been penetrating. This situation is curious. It contrasts strikingly with the plethora of discerning, humanistic accounts on the suffering of Soviet Jews and Russian dissidents in Moscow, raising questions that beg for an answer: Why are these tragic stories routinely reported with less detail, scope, and imagination? Why is the suffering of these people judged less newsworthy?

INFORMATION FOR THE ASKING This poor reporting defies simple explanation. It certainly cannot be attributed to a lack of adequately detailed and reliable information, for the evidence available on many of these neglected victims is rich and varied.

The most authoritative source, according to Soviet affairs specialists, is A Chronicle of Current Events, the underground journal of the Soviet human rights movement. This time-saving catalogue of the voluminous writings of the Soviet underground describes in detail the extremely brutal and incessant attacks upon religious believers, non-Russian dissidents, their families, and other victims of repression.

Available for more than a decade, the Chronicle has been described by prominent American newspapers as an invaluable and reliable source of information on Soviet society. Its factual record is checked for accuracy by human rights activists in Moscow and double-checked in London by Amnesty International, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights organization. The New York Times has commented: "What makes the Chronicle so impressive is its utter lack of melodrama."

American journalists reporting on Soviet dissent often face formidable constraints—the limitations of time, the need for specialized knowledge, official Soviet secrecy, and the effective isolation of these victims from reporters. No one is more aware of these obstacles to communication than the human rights activists and sympathizers who compile and disseminate the unofficial reports that fill the pages of the Chronicle. These individuals of conscience bridge the information gap created and actively sustained by Soviet authorities. Natalya Gorbanevskaya, an exiled Soviet dissident and a founder of the Chronicle, explains in an interview published in the January-February 1977 issue of the Index on Censorship:

Perhaps the Western reader sees this [incredible volume of information in the Chronicle] as normal, perhaps he thinks that this information gets to us via some ordinary channel, by post—but I know how difficult it is, how complex and almost impossible, and how it reaches us thanks to the gigantic efforts of all the people involved, and the gigantic risks taken, both by those in the camp or prison and those on the outside who do this.

In the cases of Vladimir Shelkov, Pyotr Vins, and Oles Berdnyk, imaginative use of the Chronicle could have measurably enhanced reportage. Reporters and research staffs consulting the Chronicle could have easily come up with photographs and gleaned essential background material and human-interest details on these cases. A quick check of issue number 49 of the Chronicle, published in 1978 in English by Amnesty International, reveals in illuminating detail the brutal, massive, and destructive raids by KGB officials on unregistered Adventist communities in the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Latvia in March and April 1978 that culminated in the arrest of Vladimir Shelkov and many others. The same issue of the Chronicle also contains a factual account of the arrest, trial, and sentencing of Pyotr Vins in early 1978 for human rights activity; it underlines repeated efforts by members of the Vins family to emigrate. Similarly, even a cursory survey of recent issues of the Chronicle discloses sufficient information to personalize the brief wire story on Oles Berdnyk.

Additional details and photographs of neglected victims can be culled from other equally reliable unofficial sources. They include the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, the Bulletin of the Council of Relatives of Evangelical Christian-Baptist Prisoners, and the innumerable memorandums and bulletins of Helsinki Watch groups in various Soviet republics. Most of these sources are available in English and easily accessible to journalists.

SHADOWY ANONYMITY The chronic failure of American newspapers to probe essential dimensions of Soviet dissent has serious consequences. For the neglected victims of Soviet repression, the effects are incalculable. Denied the protection that so often follows negative public reaction, they are repressed in darkness, silently, unheard.

Media inattention to the plight of these victims does not go unnoticed by Soviet authorities who monitor the Western press. It fosters the Soviet perception that Americans are selective in their defense of human rights, and it permits Soviet officials to assert and assiduously propagate the mistaken notion that all dissidents are Jewish and that Jews are the only sizable group of persecuted Soviet citizens currently seeking to emigrate. This misconception is perhaps the most significant factor behind the exclusion of Christians and non-Russian dissidents from emigration.

For American readers, the implications of this imbalance in reporting on Soviet repression are virtually unseen. Even the most perceptive reader of major American newspapers remains only dimly aware of the separate reality of repressed religious believers and non-Russian dissidents. There is no widespread appreciation of the sense of urgency that colors their struggle for physical, psychological, and spiritual survival. American readers see only gray, lifeless shadows where living people breathe, suffer, and die for human dignity.

Few Americans are aware of the severe persecution of these neglected victims. Soviet Protestants, for example, who refuse to permit the KGB to take the place of God in their church are routinely beaten, threatened with denial of parental rights, fined, arrested, and imprisoned; often they are tortured, sometimes raped and murdered, invariably for their religious convictions. Since its founding in 1961, Amnesty International has documented more than 1,000 cases of Soviet Protestants imprisoned for their beliefs. Added to these are countless other religious believers—Ukrainian and Lithuanian Catholics, Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox believers, Buddhists, and Muslims.

On the treatment of Christian prisoners, Ukrainian prisoner of conscience Rev. Vasyl Romanyuk wrote from his place of internal exile in Yakutia in early 1979: "They face twice as much repression as other convicts. They are abused by camp administrators, the criminal prisoners and the guards, and this goes unpunished." Testifying before the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on June 7, 1979, exiled Soviet dissident and Baptist leader Georgi Vins confirmed Romanyuk's eye-witness testimony, adding that the inhuman treatment extends to all religious prisoners, Christians and non-Christians alike.

UNREPORTED TRAGEDIES Most Americans are also unaware that non-Russian dissidents typically incur maximum prison sentences and frequent resentencing. It is not uncommon for these individuals to spend 25 years of their lives in prison for demanding Soviet compliance with the country's own laws and the international agreements that its officials have signed.

Nor is it widely known that non-Russian dissidents make up a disproportionately large percentage of political prisoners in Soviet camps and prisons. Nobel Laureate and Moscow dissident Andrei Sakharov and exiled Ukrainian dissident Valentyn Moroz have separately estimated, in 1977 and 1979 respectively, that Ukrainians account for more than 50 percent of the population of Soviet political prisoners. In an interview with exiled Russian dissident Alexander Ginzburg, readers of the New Republic learned that in Mordovian Camp Number One, where he was interned, more than 80 percent of the political prisoners are Ukrainian. These figures take on added meaning with the realization that Ukrainians constitute roughly 20 percent of the entire Soviet population.

Added to the Ukrainians are other non-Russian political prisoners—Balts, Georgians, Armenians. It was only natural, then, that a list of 14 imprisoned and exiled Helsinki monitors in the USSR prepared by Amnesty International in June 1979 contained the names of 11 non-Russian dissidents.

Few Americans realize that thousands of Christians and non-Russian dissidents in the USSR are systematically denied permission to emigrate despite their unyielding efforts. The fact that more than 20,000 Soviet Pentecostals alone have been repeatedly denied their right to emigrate has not figured prominently in the spate of newspaper reports on Soviet emigration policy. American reporting on Soviet emigration, following the official Soviet line, typically reduces the subject to Soviet Jewish emigration. Almost invariably, journalists ignore or treat peripherally the attempts of "the others."

The inverse relation that exists between newspaper reportage on these neglected victims and their significance for any serious assessment of the range and scope of Soviet repression reflects a conspicuous and unwarranted habit of reporting. There are no cogent reasons for journalists and editors to brush over the severe plight of these victims. That they do so is particularly appalling given the considerable influence that prominent American newspapers can exert on Soviet officials by publicizing their human rights violations. They can move the neglected victims of repression from obscurity to light or, through inattention, can cast them into shadowy anonymity.

What is called for here is no less than careful, discerning, and sympathetic reporting about all victims of Soviet repression, regardless of their ethnic or religious background, regardless of the group influence of their counterparts in the West. Needed are journalists and editors willing to discuss frankly and openly the serious imbalance in American reporting on Soviet repression, individuals determined to bring convincing detail and breadth of perception to important but sorely neglected dimensions of Soviet dissent. Otherwise, religious believers and non-Russian dissidents will continue to be the forgotten people of the USSR—forgotten by all but their persecutors.

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On January 27, 1980, at the age of 84, Vladimir Shelkov died in a Siberian labor camp in the autonomous republic of Yakutsk.

Walter Parchomenko is a free-lance writer based in Washington. D.C. He specializes in Soviet and East European affairs. He has published in the Christian Science Monitor and Commonweal.