Old Greenbelt, where I live, is a successful planned community, with a deep and abiding cooperative spirit dating from the town's origin as a New Deal project. In such a place, with such a history, it was natural that in the early '80s there developed a strong peace movement.
The Greenbelt Peace Committee, with a core of about 50 activists, all unpaid volunteers, was a moral force in the town. And in the spring of 1984 the Peace Committee proposed that Greenbelt, in the interests of Soviet-American friendship, establish a "sister-city" relationship with a similar town in the U.S.S.R. In fact, the committee, with the help of the antinuclear group Ground Zero, had come up with a specific place. It appeared to them to be a place just like Greenbelt: relatively small, with a lake, near a major railroad line. The town was in Soviet Latvia. Its name was Rezekne.
Gail Drake, the energetic head of the Peace Committee, proposed Rezekne to the Greenbelt City Council on March 2, 1984. The city council, good-hearted people all, duly made it official. Moved by the cause of world peace, they invited Rezekne to become Greenbelt's sister-city and authorized the dispatch of official and unofficial greetings to its government and people. Many private letters of friendship were included in the large packet sent off to the U.S.S.R.; among them were many letters written by the children of Greenbelt Elementary School. The Greenbelt-Rezekne Exchange Project was organized, with hopes not just of establishing a continuous exchange of letters, but perhaps even personal visits of citizens from one town to the other.
The problem was that there was never any response to Greenbelt from Rezekne: nothing, for two years. This March, Gail Drake, as coordinator of the exchange project, finally took action. In Moscow with a delegation of American physicists, she searched out Yuri Menshikov, secretary of relations between Soviet and foreign cities. Menshikov was pleasant enough, but also very firm. It was against Soviet policy to establish sister-city relations with places that have populations under 50,000, and, in any case, Ground Zero had failed to clear the choice of Rezekne first with the directorate of relations between Soviet and foreign cities. Therefore, there had been no answer to Greenbelt from Rezekne. Greenbelt should, Menshikov said, "forget about Rezekne."
Drake wrote in the local paper, the Greenbelt News Review, that she was shocked by the attitude of Menshikov. "I told him," she said, "that Americans believe it is human courtesy to answer invitations to friendship."
The likelihood is that we will simply never know what happened to the packet of letters Greenbelt sent off to Rezekne with such high hopes in 1984. But this is not quite the end of the story.
Drake's article in the local paper led me to consult a book by Avraham Shifrin, published in 1980, and titled "The First Guidebook to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union." Written by a survivor of the camps, with the aid of hundreds of e'migre's and Soviet dissidents, this book is the first comprehensive and exact geography of the Soviet prison world we in the West have ever had.
Intended primarily for scholars, the book can also be used, quite literally, as a "guidebook" to sights somewhat off the official Intourist itinerary. For instance: "Psychiatric Hospital No. 3, Udel'naya, Leningrad region. Special KGB wards are maintained here. Public transportation: Take bus No. 75 to Ozerski stop; or the electric train from the Finland Station."
In the index to Shifrin's "Concentration Camps" can be found: "Rezekne."
So, grotesquely, peaceful Greenbelt's sister-city seems to be part of the Gulag Archipelago. Rezekne is the site of both of a slave-labor camp and a KGB prison, according to Shifrin. Moreover, the Rezekne camp and prison are part of a section of the Gulag, the Latvian section, which is specially renowned for its brutality.
Greenbelt's idealistic peace campaign had by accident stumbled up against an uncomfortable fact of Soviet life. The fault for the fiasco lay not with the Greenbelters (who, after all, were merely a group of amateurs). It lay rather with Ground Zero, a nationally prestigious (and, presumably, more professional and experienced) organization, which failed to check out Rezekne thoroughly before recommending it. All Ground Zero had done with regard to Rezekne was to pick a place in the U.S.S.R. that corresponded in a rough geographical way to Greenbelt.
Once the bad news about Rezekne had appeared in the Greenbelt News Review, the Peace Committee was directly confronted with a moral dilemma: whether to acknowledge officially Rezekne's gulag problem, and explicitly call for the cancellation of Greenbelt's invitation to Rezekne to become its sister-city.
Now, the Peace Committee has certainly had no problem in the past in taking strong moral stands; but as of this writing, the Rezekne question appears to be a moral dilemma the committee prefers to duck, or simply does not know how to handle. Drake says that since Rezekne clearly is never going to answer Greenbelt's invitation, it is best just to let the issue die. But this sidesteps the question of whether, on moral grounds, the Greenbelt-Rezekne relationship ought not to be explicitly killed by the Greenbelters. Instead, the committee seems prepared to take Menshikov's advice literally. They are ready to "forget about Rezekne."
Drake told me that she wasn't much concerned about the failure of the Rezekne project, because the program had had an important moral impact on Greenbelt itself, and this was what really counted. Participation in the project had made many people feel good about themselves and feel proud of Greenbelt and its peaceable traditions. "We can only be responsible for what we do, not for Rezekne," she said.
Drake is right that the attempt to establish friendship with Rezekne has been a typical expression of Greenbelt's wonderfully benign character. But if the overriding issue here is purely and simply the moral character of Greenbelt, then it would be more logical for the Peace Committee to insist (precisely for the sake of Greenbelt's own moral character) that the association with the gulag be broken, and broken officially. Yet there is evidently very little committee interest in pressing the issue. Instead, all energies are now being turned to a new project: trying to get a suburb of Moscow as a sister. I suppose this is an example of "positive thinking."
Here the Peace Committee has come face to face with what seems to be a central moral dilemma of the peace movement: to what extent should moral qualms about the nature of the Soviet state be sacrificed for the sake of possible communication in the good cause of "international goodwill and understanding"? Even Gail Drake, who is a tough-minded person as peace activists go, has been unable to resolve this conundrum. In truth, it is very difficult to strike the correct balance. But one moral sacrifice the Peace Committee is making is the avoidance of any public protest of the gulag at Rezekne, a place the committee itself urged on Greenbelt. Partly, this is because of committee fears that such protest might jeopardize the new Moscow project.
Some lessons, nevertheless, have been learned, both in Greenbelt and at the Peace Committee. Drake thought all along that establishing a sister-city relationship with a town in the Soviet Union would be a difficult and delicate business. She is determined to push ahead. But she also says that Shifrin's "Concentration Camps" will be consulted before the Peace Committee recommends any new sister-city to Greenbelt.