I was beginning my ninth year in the Gulag when that memorable Pravda arrived. In our isolation we were so thirsty for news that even the official organ of the Communist Party was eagerly awaited. This time it contained a transcript of Mikhail Gorbachev's interview with the editors of Time, his first interview in which questions not submitted in advance were permitted.
Hungrily, we searched in it for questions on our issues: human rights, Helsinki accord violations, Jewish emigration. Nothing. "It's censored," I assured my fellow inmates. "I know American journalists. They ask pointed, penetrating questions. This is a censored, 'Pravda version.' " I was wrong. The interview, enthusing over Gorbachev's voice, demeanor and smile, and scrupulously avoiding "embarrassing" questions in the best tradition of Soviet journalism, had been faithfully transcribed. The questions had been "censored" by the American journalists themselves.
Last month, in a 12-page spread on Gorbachev's reforms in the same publication, human rights were again practically ignored. And the new Soviet emigration law, designed to deal a death blow to the hopes of a Jewish exodus from the Soviet Union, was nowhere to be found. And again I wondered how the West, having experienced Soviet liberalization spasms in the past, not to mention similar czarist "openings" since Peter the Great, could still fall so readily for promises, smiles, changes of style and a generous strewing of well-publicized crumbs unaccompanied by real change in areas that matter most.
That Gorbachev wants to invigorate the Soviet economy, reverse its decline and correct what the Soviets perceive as an unfavorable shift in the "correlation of forces" is a given. He knows that internal reforms, even if successful, cannot by themselves achieve this, for the limitations inherent in the communist system preclude successful competition with the capitalist countries.
He knows that only greater access to Western trade and credit can give the Soviet economy the boost it needs. He realizes that he must blunt the ferment among the Soviet intelligentsia and artistic community by giving them at least as much freedom as their colleagues in other communist countries have been enjoying for a decade or more, and that he must harness the restless energies of Soviet youth, for whom anything Western is a seductive symbol of liberty, by legitimizing rock, jazz and jeans. To achieve these ends, reforms are an imperative.
The West, in turn, naturally welcomes Gorbachev's liberalization, regardless of his motives, in the hope that it may have an irresistible momentum of its own and ultimately smash the chains of totalitarian oppression. But to make a folk hero out of Gorbachev, to glorify him as a great lover of humanity whose zeal in search of peace, accommodation and good will is second to none, is to let wishful thinking triumph over common sense.
A comparison with the last reform "revolution" in the Soviet Union, which brought Nikita Khrushchev to power, may be instructive. Then, the KGB chief was executed, and the KGB's iron grip on the government and the populace weakened. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, were released from the Gulag, exonerated and rehabilitated. Artists and writers were allowed unprecedented freedom of expression and travel abroad, while artists from the West were invited to the U.S.S.R., regardless of their affiliations and sympathies.
Compared with those changes, today's reforms are meager indeed. The KGB may be more sophisticated and subtle now, but there is no sign that its powers have been curtailed. Under the rubric of "glasnost," Nazi-like anti-Semitic groups have been allowed to organize and assault Jews, doing the KGB's dirty work without its reflecting on the regime. But there has been no admission of error and none of the falsely convicted have been exonerated. Cultural exchange is still a force in which the Soviets determine which Soviet artists are "reliable" enough to appear in the West and who among Western artists is acceptable for appearances in the U.S.S.R.
Most disturbing, the Soviet government, while regaling the West with dramatic releases of celebrated prisoners and an increase in emigration far below the demands, has fashioned a new emigration law that strictly limits eligibility to apply to those who have blood relatives of the first degree -- parents, children or siblings -- abroad. It thus excludes over 90 percent of the 400,000 Jews who have indicated their desire to leave. Worse, after promising Western leaders that of those who are eligible only possessors of "state secrets" would be turned down, the Soviets notified "re- fuseniks" that previous reasons for rejection were now being canceled only to be replaced by "security considerations."
In a bitter twist on the "zero-zero option," Soviet policy seems to be aiming at a typical Moscow compromise: zero "prisoners of Zion" and zero Jewish emigrants. And, indeed, if the law is allowed to stand, if it is not changed under Western pressure, the number of emigrants will be practically zero, and Soviet Jewry will be doomed.
Will Western pressure come? Here, too, the comparison with past experience is discouraging. The new law is far more draconian than a previous effort to strangle emigration: the education tax of 1972, which required would-be emigrants to pay a huge ransom in the guise of a refund for the cost of their education. The uproar then was loud and universal, and the subsequent events dramatic and dizzying. The Soviets stopped enforcing the law within months, the U.S. Congress started discussions and then passed the Jackson Amendment linking trade and credits to Soviet human rights policies, and up to 1980 almost a quarter of a million Jews left the U.S.S.R.
Now, there is no recognition of the gravity of the danger, and the silence is ubiquitous and deafening.
This silence cannot all be attributed to indifference. Many believe that we must "help Gorbachev against opposition in the Kremlin" by uncritically cheering him on. The very fact that the talk of "opposition" originated with Kremlin spokesmen should have put us on guard.
In fact, the opposition to Khrushchev, who subdued the KGB, was real and powerful and -- at the time -- a jealously guarded state secret. Gorbachev, on the other hand, was a prote'ge' of KGB chief Andropov, and his grip on power seems complete. But even if opposition to Gorbachev exists, we must question the logic of "not rocking the boat." A friend told me of suggesting to a high Soviet official that granting immediate emigration permits to the 15,000 to 20,000 refuseniks -- those whose applications for exit have been rejected -- would make Gorbachev the most popular man in the West. "But he already is," was the smiling reply.
Clearly, if opposition to Gorbachev really exists, Western pressure -- not unreserved Western adulation -- helps him justify the need to deliver on his many hints and promises. And if there is no opposition, then there is certainly no reason for us to withhold our demands.
It will be tragic if, during Foreign Minister Shevardnadze's coming visit and the summit that will likely follow, the public, press and political leadership are so dazzled by rhetoric, charm and wardrobe that they avoid "embarrassing" questions.
We must keep asking pertinent questions and pressing for relevant actions until we find out if "glasnost" is a harbinger of a new era or a cruel ruse. We in the Free World and those struggling for freedom in the Soviet Union have a right to know if the Soviets intend to adhere to numerous human rights treaties to which they were signatories and if they intend to make the right of Jews to leave the Soviet Union a part of their extravagantly publicized "glasnost." Indeed, we have to know -- for the sake of our future -- if signing agreements with the Soviets is a step toward greater trust and cooperation or an exercise in futility and an acquiescence in repression. The writer was active in the Soviet Jewish and dissident movements, served nine years in Soviet prisons and emigrated to Israel last year.