"This is the real human rights gang," said human rights activist Richard White as he looked out over the 350 gathered at the Jack Rasmusen gallery on Saturday night. "They're all here -- the left, the right; a real cross section of class and ideology. And what's really interesting is that for once, they seem to be getting along."
It was an evening "dedicated to Human Rights in the Soviet Union," sponsored by a Washington chapter of Amnesty International; its star attractions were former congressman Father Robert Drinan and several Soviet dissidents, four of whom spoke briefly and sometimes emotionally to an audience abuzz with speculation about where human rights will fit into Secretary of State Alexander Haig's hard-line views on Soviet intentions.
In adition to the "human rights gang," who came from groups as diverse as Amnesty International's Washington group, and the Supreme Committee for Liberation of Lithuania, there were many from the local Russian community -- academics, emigres, and many Americans who'd spent time in the U.S.S.R. as journalists and diplomats and the spouses thereof.
"This is a real Russian turnout," joked journalist Hedrick Smith early in the evening from the speaker's dais. "Overly large, very intelligent and just a little drunk." His audience laughed hard, mostly because the dense crowd made the idea of walking upstairs for refreshments a futile one.
It was a night full of Moscow memories:
"I am now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology," said Yuri Yarym-Agaev, a Moslem and a dissident scientist, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. He is also a friend of Anatoly Scharansky. Yarym-Agaev was ordered to leave the Soviet Union last summer because "I did what I wanted to do in the Soviet Union. I wrote letters of dissent. I do what I want to do in the United States, too. But the difference is that in the Soviet Union, doing what you want to do is forbidden.
"There was a wave of arrests in the summer of 1979. And they have now begun to arrest many women. There is no danger for me now," he said. "But I cannot forget the others who are not here -- Tatyana Osipova, and Irina Grivinina, friends who are imprisoned. It is now my job to try to help them."
"He had been offered a place at Standord University," said Helen Yakobson, a friend and a professor of Russian at George Washington University. "But he is worried that if he takes it he will be less useful to his friends." She shook her head. "But he should take that job. The stronger he is here, the more help he can give to his friends. It is a long struggle."
"They came and searched my flat," said Valentin Turchin, like Yarmyn-Agaev a scientist and one of the co-founders of the Moscow branch of Amnesty International. "They found the drafts of my book, 'The Inertia of Fear.' They had found copies of it in the apartments of other people. I was forced to leave in 1977. If I didn't go, they told me, there would be a trial, and then seven years in prison. I live in New York now, in Queens. This is good. But the situation in the Soviet Union is worsening. At least two dozen of my friends are imprisoned. In 1980, the authorities decided that any dissidence was dangerous. There is no feedback allowed. Nothing. Now is the worst time for dissidence in the whole post-Stalin era.
"I would not oppose a drive against terrorism," he said. "I would welcome it, in fact. But it should not replace the drive for human rights. That would be a tragedy."
"As a foreigner, a journalist, in the Soviet Union," said Hedrivk Smith, whose book "The Russians" came out of his experience as a Soviet correspondent for The New York Times, "you have scores of wonderful one-time experiences with people. But the most difficult thing in the world is to develop a sustained relationship. For any Russian, it is a matter of risk. But these people," he said, referring to the "human rights network" in the Soviet Union, "have extra courage. They are incredible people, with an incredible curiousity, a desire to know about the outside world. Whatever time and money we invest in them, it's not too much."
"I was depressed when I came over here tonight," said Father Drinan, now teaching international law at Georgetown University, in a reference to Alexander Haig's recent remarks on terrorism and U.S. human rights policy. "The people in the moderately repressive regimes we'll be supporting will need Amnesty International now more than ever. Russia is waiting for new signs and new protests. Being here tonight," said Drinan, his voice booming in the best campaign-trail style, "I know that freedom is alive and well."
Gallery owner Jack Rasmussen, who busied himself picking stray wine glasses off picture frames, and guiding errant elbows away from wide expanses of canvas, looked frazzled but happly at the end of the evening. Why had he turned his gallery into an activists' convention? "I'm a Republican with a guilty conscience," he laughed.