In Search of Civil Society: Independent Peace Movements in the Soviet Bloc, edited by Vladimir Tismaneanu, New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 193 pages, $35.00
To understand the phoenix-like emergence of civil society in the former Soviet Bloc, one must appreciate the imaginative ways that individuals have found to circumvent the limits imposed by totalitarian governments. Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Romanian by birth and education who was recently named associate director of the Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies at the University of Maryland, is eminently equipped to explore this theme. His examination of independent peace movements, which includes excellent analyses by Central-Eastern European scholars and activists, sheds light on the project of reconstruction after the fall of communism.
Peace movements offered an unusual opportunity for dissidents within the Soviet empire to escape the rigidity of the totalitarian system. Since "peace" was, after all, the domain of official communist rhetoric, its traditionally anti-Western and anti-capitalist overtones served to mask, at least temporarily, the true objectives of the independent movements. Thus, Tismaneanu writes, "single issues of broad social significance—human rights, peace, conscientious objection, ecology, preservation of historical monuments, and so on—are embraced and promoted by independent activists in the attempt to further their agenda for change without granting the government a rationale for overall repression."
The underlying goals of the independent peace movements in the Soviet Bloc distinguished them from their Western counterparts. The two sets of movements had different motivations, interests, and philosophical principles. The Eastern dissidents not only consistently opposed the communist system in which they lived, they tended to identify with the capitalist and classical-liberal ideology to which the Western movements were hostile. This is not to deny, however, that in many areas the two sets of groups have cooperated, allowing the Eastern movements not only to survive but often to provide seeds for other organizations—the beginnings of a genuine civil society.
The independent movements are more than a decade old, dating at least as far back as the Charter 77 initiative in Czechoslovakia, whose main inspiration was profound opposition to Soviet occupation. The following year, the East German Evangelical Church signed a concordat with the ruling Socialist Union Party to try to temper East Germany's militaristic course. Futile as that particular initiative may have been, efforts within the GDR continued into the early 1980s, when a group called Social Service for Peace called for a civilian-service alternative to the draft.
Pacifism emerged even in the USSR, where 11 Moscow intellectuals founded the Group to Establish Trust between East and West. In May 1983, the group declared that true détente cannot exist until "international cooperation and contacts become part of the day-to-day existence of the average citizen."
In Poland, the birthplace of Central European anticommunist activism, pacifism took over by storm in the spring of 1985. A group of Polish independent pacifists formed the organization Freedom and Peace in response to the trial of Marek Adamkiewicz, a young draftee sentenced to a stiff prison term for refusing to take the military oath. A year later, the Chernobyl accident provoked a brush fire of pacifist actions throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Later that year, the supranational aspect of the movements became evident: In November 1986, independent activists from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the GDR, the USSR, and Yugoslavia signed an appeal to the signatories of the Helsinki Accords emphasizing the interdependence of the three "baskets" of the Helsinki Final Act. Contrary to the official Communist line, the independent activists rejected any attempt to trade genuine freedom for peace.
This stand led to friction with Western peaceniks. In his chapter on Czechoslovakia, diplomatic historian Milan Hauner describes an exchange of letters in the early 1980s between "Vaclav Racek," the pseudonym for a Czechoslovakian critic of the Western peace movements, and E.P. Thompson, a British social historian and member of European Nuclear Disarmament (END). Speaking on behalf of the East Europeans, Racek refused to subordinate human rights to "peace."
He added that Thompson's aim of a nuclear-free Europe was naive and impracticable. Indeed, Racek implied that had it not been for the NATO nuclear deterrent, the Soviet totalitarian system would have crushed the liberal freedoms of the West long ago. He told Thompson that his "identification of both blocs with 'Exterminism' is unacceptable." Racek charged that END, far from being a force for freedom, was rather "an unconscious analogy of the appeasement of the Thirties."
Hauner also cites a fascinating clandestine survey conducted in 1985 that indicates a Czechoslovakian attitude toward Western peace movements very different from the line pushed by the official propaganda machine. Commenting on that survey, analyst Zdenek Strmiska notes that "among the strongest supporters of Western pacifist movements there are those who are pro-Soviet and refuse to designate the USSR as an imperialist power."
Polish historian Christopher Lazarski's study of his country's independent peace movement makes a similar point in connection with Freedom and Peace, whose strong libertarian proclivities would place it more on the spectrum. In July 1985, for example, the Polish pacifists declared that "a man ready to fulfill any order threatens peace more than the neutron bomb." They asked the Fourth European Nuclear Disarmament Convention in Amsterdam to "permanently include justice and civic freedoms in the notion of peace and to treat the struggle against totalitarian systems as equal to the efforts toward disarmament."
Freedom and Peace has differed sharply with Western peaceniks. For example, the group opposed the idea of unilateral disarmament, which it perceived as playing into the hands of Soviet militarism. In an open letter to American peace activist Joanne Landy in 1987, Polish pacifist Piotr Mienczyk expressed his concern that Western peace movements might become "a tool of Soviet policy and propaganda."
The Trust Group, a quasi-independent peace organization in the Soviet Union, was also at odds with Western peaceniks. In his analysis of the peace movement in the USSR, former Soviet dissident Eduard Kuznetsov quotes from a 1987 article by Trust Group member Aleksei Myasnikov: "Some of the Western peace activists complain that Trust Group members who wind up in the West join up with the 'right-wingers'.…What does 'right-wingers' mean? Western peace activists call 'right-wingers' adherents of the strategy of nuclear deterrence or disarmament on the basis of parity. But what do the 'left-wingers' propose—unilateral disarmament?.…The success of pacifism in one of the superpowers could lead to a heavy defeat."
And thus the ideological fault lines were drawn. Unlike Western peaceniks, activists in totalitarian countries perceived that a commitment to "peace" is also a commitment to liberty.
The path to both is plotted in a chapter by Miklos Haraszti, a well-known human rights activist who represents the opposition Alliance of Free Democrats in the Hungarian parliament. Haraszti describes the three stages, or "eras," that he believes necessary for any communist nation in transition to democratic capitalism.
The first era is post-Stalinist, its essential feature the rise of independent initiatives. The second, which he calls post-totalitarian, involves democratization and the development of an embryonic civil society; the authoritarian regime, at this point, is on the defensive. The third phase, post-communism proper, involves the emergence of true democracy, "which builds on the forms, energies, experiences, and pluralization that were already given shape in civil society."
Implicitly skeptical of the Gorbachev approach of reform from above, Haraszti believes that the third stage cannot take place without the other two. The civil society cannot be manipulated; it must create itself. This requires time and a certain logical sequence of events; their absence in Romania explains the current chaos in that country.
This book will be helpful to anyone seeking to understand the nature of the anticommunist revolution and the direction of change in the former Soviet Bloc. While there is much reason for hope, a great deal of philosophical and practical work must be done before observers of those traumatized nations can speak not only of monochromatic "peoples" but of vigorous, pluralistic societies.
Juliana Geran Pilon is vice president of the National Forum Foundation in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Cloaking Device".