Moscow: A Chill in the Air


A trace of nastiness runs through the mood of Moscow. The relatively mellow search for accord, prompted several years ago by the Nixon-Kissinger détente strategy, has been dissipated by a new crotchetiness that flows gradually from the pinnacle of power down through the sprawling Soviet bureaucracy until it taints even some low-level Soviet-American contacts. It is a symptom of deteriorating relations.

An American banker has lost his easy access to Soviet trade officials. An American diplomat, harassed by ceaseless midnight phone calls, has been tailed so ostentatiously by four KGB agents that they have followed him into a restaurant, evicted customers from an adjacent table, and sat to watch him eat dinner with his wife.

American correspondents, never very popular even in the best of times, now face especially ominous threats—the most eloquent delivered in June to Robert C. Toth of the Los Angeles Times, who was bundled into a car by five KGB men and hauled off to Lefortovo Prison for interrogation. Ostensibly he was detained for receiving a paper on extrasensory perception, which authorities ludicrously contended was secret. In fact, as it became clear, his unwilling testimony was sought in building a fraudulent case against a prominent Jewish dissident, Anatoly Shcharansky, who had been charged with treason as part of a broad Soviet campaign to smear and intimidate human rights activists and the Western journalists who write about them.

A certain amount of unpleasant background noise is always present in relations between the two great powers, and its volume is a good indication of the level of friction at the moment. That level is higher now than in years, a sign of détente gone sour. Jimmy Carter’s big grin has been met by scowls in the Kremlin. Almost from the day Carter entered the White House, his behavior has touched a point of conservative reflex within the Soviet Union’s political hierarchy. Many of his positions, which could be logically welcomed in Moscow, demand a redefinition of international relationships that the aging Kremlin leadership is not ready for, and so the reaction has been anger, suspicion, apprehension.

The new President has proposed nuclear arms reductions. But Moscow wants only a ceiling on future deployment—and a high one at that—with no limits on a technological race. Carter has called for cuts in conventional weapons sales. But the Russians still see such sales as key tools for gaining advantage in developing countries. He has begun a more determined effort to end white minority rule in southern Africa. But the Kremlin has long enjoyed its role as the benefactor of the black nationalists, and would be content to see the United States identified with the doomed white regimes right up to the day when the blacks seize power.

The Soviet Union is not even pleased by Carter’s call for a shift away from the anticommunist obsessions that have governed American foreign policy for the past three decades. The Russians resent any outlook that diminishes their importance in world affairs; they like to believe they have won the right to be an obsession in Washington. Ironically, the old men of the politburo seemed more comfortable with Richard Nixon, whose conservative image of a bipolar world matched their own, than they are with the crusading and potentially innovative Jimmy Carter, a man without any evident commitments to old assumptions or traditional ways of conducting international diplomacy.

Moscow’s nervousness is compounded by a new flexibility in American foreign policy since the end of the Vietnam War. American conservatives have found a new maneuverability now that the political restriction and emotionalism of that era are gone, and renewed attention is being paid to the Soviet nuclear threat. U.S. positions in Asia and Africa are shifting, too—away from the support of old losing causes, it seems, and toward new alignments that may erode Soviet influence.

Furthermore, the President’s principled but tactless outspokenness in support of Soviet dissidents has angered the Russians more deeply, and perhaps more permanently, than anything the United States has done since the U-2 incident in 1960. Nothing so dramatized the Kremlin’s edginess as the banning of the U.S. ambassador’s traditional Fourth of July remarks on Soviet television because of a reference to human rights, and Brezhnev’s subsequent lecturing of the envoy, Malcolm Toon, on President Carter’s failure to produce a “constructive” foreign policy.

Carter’s one-sided proposals for a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, sent to Moscow with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance last March, provoked intense irritation, not only because the negotiations seemed to be sliding backward but also because extensive U.S. publicity made Washington look like the disarmament advocate and Moscow like the obstructor. So serious was the Russian public relations problem that Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko called a news conference after Vance’s departure to explain the Soviet rejection of Carter’s plans. It was a masterful performance by a witty, incisive Gromyko.

Conservative spirit

The Soviet leaders are undoubtedly baffled by a system that can catapult an unknown such as Carter into the seat of power. Leonid Brezhnev, now seventy, has spent his entire adult life carefully gathering authority, climbing slowly through the party ranks by embracing caution and choosing judiciously the prevailing sides of debates. Well schooled in a political system that seldom rewards innovation, Brezhnev has developed an aversion to adventures and gambles. He is not a man of great vision or ideological creativity, and he has no real stake in liberalism, since he personally benefited from the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, moving up through posts left vacant by party officials sentenced to labor camps or firing squads.

Brezhnev’s power has been enhanced by the changes of last spring—the draft of a new constitution and the ouster of Nikolai Podgorny from the politburo. When he took Podgorny’s place as president, adding it to his own more powerful role as head of the Communist party, Brezhnev made no real change in the locus of authority. But he did reaffirm the dominance of the moderate conservatism that governs Soviet politics.

It is an axiom of this conservative spirit that internal control is more important than anything else, including détente. This is especially true since détente has failed to give Moscow the two things it wanted most: a durable SALT agreement and extensive trade with the United States. Furthermore, there is one strain among Soviet political impulses that regards reduced international tension as inherently destabilizing, both for Soviet society and for the Eastern European bloc as a whole. This means that control may be easier at home in a period of tension and confrontation abroad.

The view is consistent with the common conviction of Western experts that relaxed relations and freer exchanges with the United States are more likely to promote an open Soviet society than Cold War hostilities, which play on the forces of Russian xenophobia, fostering a siege mentality and a tougher crackdown on domestic dissent.

Moscow’s apprehensions about internal control have been brought to the surface by Carter’s direct contacts with Soviet dissidents, including his preelection telegram of support to Vladimir Slepak, a Jewish electronics engineer refused permission to emigrate; his letter to Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and nuclear physicist; and his White House meeting with Vladimir Bukovsky, a former political prisoner who was exchanged for Chilean Communist party head Luis Corvalan. The reaction here is comparable to what Americans’ would have been had Brezhnev cheered the Weathermen and the Black Panthers and invited Bobby Seale to the Kremlin. For some patriotic Russians, such foreign endorsement discredits the dissidents and gives the government an excuse to accuse activists of working for subversive forces, including the CIA. At the same time, Carter’s attention has made the handful of dissidents more influential as components of international affairs, and therefore more dangerous in official eyes.

Even before the President’s actions, Moscow was jumpy and defensive about the 1975 Helsinki accords, the human rights provisions of which became common ground for diverse strands of dissent. Would-be emigrants to Israel, separatists in Soviet Georgia, persecuted Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists, ethnic Germans trying to leave the country, underground artists trying to paint freely, Russian Orthodox believers, and secular intellectuals seeking democratization—all became more insistent against the background of the Helsinki pact.

An important catalyst in this process was a short, toughly built physicist named Yuri Orlov, who began introducing dissidents to each other and assembling committees to investigate and publicize Soviet violations of the human rights provisions. As the frequency of the committees’ reports grew, and the approach of the follow-up conference on human rights, held in Belgrade this summer and fall, increased their significance, Orlov was jailed, along with half a dozen other committee members in Moscow, Tbilisi, and Kiev.

Dissent also bubbled up in Eastern Europe. Czechoslovaks formed a group called Charter 77 to press complaints on the government. A few Hungarian intellectuals signed a protest. East Germans applied in record numbers to emigrate to the West. Polish workers rioted to protest announced price rises, forcing the government to rescind the increases. The Polish events, in June 1976, must have raised special cause for alarm in the Kremlin: they demonstrated the potential link between economic grievances and liberal ideas, between the average man’s material problems and the intellectuals’ drive for individual freedom.

The link has not been realized in the Soviet Union, where dissident intellectuals remain isolated from the masses of workers and peasants. But economic difficulties are severe. Brezhnev conceded in a speech last spring that “an uninterrupted supply of meat for the population has yet to be achieved,” and unconfirmed rumors of worker slowdowns over meat shortages have reached Moscow. It is reasonable to assume that the leadership is concerned about the potential for unrest.

Their nervousness must be magnified by the average Russian’s access to information. Since the authorities stopped jamming the Voice of America and the BBC several years ago, dissidents have been able to speak to the Soviet population—their statements are made to Western correspondents in Moscow, published abroad, picked up by the foreign stations, and broadcast in Russian back into the Soviet Union.

The constant intercourse of ideas is worrisome to a state bent on enforcing political orthodoxy. Even Communist recalcitrance is unwelcome. The independence of the West European Communist parties, especially the Italians and the Spaniards, has given a certain legitimacy to the push for political freedoms in Eastern Europe. In Moscow’s view, to preach pluralistic democracy under the banner of Marxism-Leninism is not only ideological heresy, it is politically unsettling.

This may explain a good part of the Kremlin’s attack last June on the Spanish Communist party: the verbal assault, in the Moscow journal New Times, accused the Spaniards of undermining Communist internationalism. It was probably meant as an instruction for Soviet and East European party members, warning them that the Spanish party’s liberal ideas were anathema.

This all has been part of a turning in, a closing up, a clamping down —a period of new drives for conformity, of less tolerance, of cleaning house, of polishing brass for the sixtieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution this year. Coming in the midst of it, Carter’s challenge to the safely stereotyped views of world power relationships is an acute aggravation.

Can Brezhnev, the old party chief, and Carter, the new President, overcome their poor beginning? Carter is plainly determined to try, and by midsummer he was speaking to the Soviets in softer tones. Much will depend on the personal chemistry that emerges when the two men finally face each other. Such a meeting has been delayed by Brezhnev’s insistence that a new SALT pact be ready for the two leaders to sign. Again, this reflects Brezhnev’s cautious instincts—a recognition of the risks of summitry and the need for some carefully prepared show of progress to overshadow the inevitable disagreements that will arise. Both men can be petulant; both can be self-righteous. But they seem to share an abhorrence of nuclear war—not a bad place for them to start. —DAVID K. SHIPLER