"What would you think if our Russian correspondents in the United States had friendly ties with dissident groups like the Weathermen and the Indians at Wounded Knee?"
"Your country consists mainly of immigrants, so insisting on the rights of immigrants is a politically popular doctrine, even a kind of fetishism. But a state like the Soviet Union will not give way to outside pressure when carrying out domestic policies, especially when dictated by those circles."
"Foreign journalists in this country study two things. In the morning they get up and read the official press. In the evening they go and see those who want to emigrate. But the truth about Russia is not in the official press, nor with the dissidents. It is in between, with the millions of Russians who want to live here and improve the climate."
Those comments were made to me in Moscow by three fairly important Russians in the week before the trials of Anatoly Scharansky and Alexander Ginzburg. I cite them not because I think they are right. But they do put a corrective on the reaction of offended outrage so widespread in the United States, and a corrective is needed in the interests of the dissidents themselves, not to mention Soviet-American relations.
The first comment was made by Georgi Arbatov, director of the U.S.A. Institute in Moscow, and the leading Soviet student of America who has close ties to the Kremlin. Most Americans. I believe, would be irate if the correspondents of Tass, Izvestia and Pravda were in touch with such groups as the Weathermen and the Indians at Wounded Knee on a distinctly favorable basis.
But that tends to be the case with American reporters and the dissidents in Russia. So if nothing else, there are traces of a double standard in the unbridled American reaction to the trials.
To be sure, the analogy is weak. The Weathermen and the Indians committed acts of violence against other citizens. The pressure of the dissidents could easily be relieved if only they were allowed to leave Russia.
However, the Soviet Union has long regarded those who want to leave the country as enemies of the regime. The leaders tend to identify overt pressure on behalf of would-be emigrants as pressure against the regime. They tend to react negatively to such pressure.
That is a main reason why the trials were held. It is the point of the second comment, which was made by Leonid Zamyatin, the former director of Tass, who now serves as kind of a personal press man for Leonid Brezhnev.
The third comment, which seems to me the most important, was made by a leading Soviet painter, Yuri Glazunov. I think he is right in asserting that the dissidents who want to leave Russia are not representative figures. On the contrary they are a tiny minority, largely Jewish, whose complaints have become an international cause celebre precisely because they have contacts abroad through the press and television.
The Jewish dissidents are not simply unrepresentative. They are, as Glazunov suggests, an object of suspicion to many Russians. It is highly tempting for the regime to persecute them particularly when, as now, it is frustrated in efforts ot improve the domestic economy and promote the policy of detente with the united States. Given that temptation, indeed, the lumping of the trials in the same week, the relatively innocuous play in the Soviet press, as well as the access allowed Western reporters to relatives of the defendents, are signs of a certain restraint.
The unwillingness to go all-out for a long series of anti-Semitic show trials suggests that there is in the Soviet Union a group that cares about improving conditions. That group is built around sensitive, humane Russians with skills and abilities forged in the West that give them influence in the leadership. Its members do not want to leave their country, and they are not particularly partial to the dissidents.
But they represent the best instrument for promoting change for the better in Russia. So the United States should spend what little capital it has with Russia in dealing cards to them rather than to the Jewish dissidents. For while the reformers are small in number and not great in influence, they and they alone hold out the possibility of the kind of internal evolution required to improve American relations with Russia over the long pull. And they and they alone can make the extraordinary heroism shown both before and during their trials by Anatoly Scharansky and Alexander Ginzburg what it should be: unnecessary.