A number of renowned former dissidents and prisoners of conscience from the former Soviet Union believe that President Bush is betraying the cause of democracy by claiming Russian President Vladimir Putin as an ally in the war against terrorism.
Vladimir Bukovsky, a human rights activist who spent more than 10 years in prisons, camps and psychiatric hospitals during the 1960s and 1970s, told The Jewish Week, “Bush’s position of equating the Russian war on Chechnya with America’s war on Islamic terrorism disturbs me. The Chechens are not Islamic fundamentalists but rather a people defending their motherland from invasion.”
Bukovsky’s comments came after he addressed a Nov. 4 dinner at the headquarters of the American Jewish Committee in Manhattan to honor former Soviet dissidents.
Yuri Yarin-Agaev, a leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group until he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1980, said, “Putin does not deserve the support of George W. Bush. It’s an illusion that Russia is a genuine partner. It is impossible to have a democratic state that is controlled by people from the KGB.”
Eduard Kuznetsov, who was sentenced to death at the infamous Leningrad Trial of 1969 for plotting to hijack a plane out of the Soviet Union, but later had his death sentence commuted and immigrated to Israel, said that “Bush is guilty for supporting Putin even though he is taking Russia back into authoritarianism. When Bush first met Putin, he said he looked into his honest eyes. That’s really laughable.”
Attendees at the event organized on behalf of the Gratitude Fund, which raises money to help former dissidents and prisoners of conscience who are sick or living in poverty, also heard Tatyana Yankelevich, daughter of Elena Bonner and the late dissident Andrei Sakharov, read a recent article written by her mother from Moscow.
In the article, Bonner asserted that under Putin, “The [Russian] Constitution was demolished. The two-chamber parliament was destroyed … the elections violated [and] independent courts are being liquidated … The war in Chechnya, monstrous by its cruelty, goes on. And the Russian authorities are deceiving the whole world by presenting this war as a struggle against international terrorism.”
Yuri Federov, a non-Jewish human rights activist who served 15 years in the gulag for his part in the “airplane plot,” is the organizer of the Gratitude Fund.
“Our main point is to provide financial support to former prisoners of conscience who are still living in Russia,” said Federov, who lives in upstate New York. “Many are old and sick and the state does nothing to help them besides providing tiny pensions that are not enough to live on. These fighters for freedom who helped to bring down the Soviet Union receive no recognition in a country that today glorifies the exploits of the KGB.”
While the event had a sobering theme and a melancholy flavor, as participants read the names of comrades in the human rights struggle who have died in recent years, there were some light-hearted moments. Former dissidents and prisoners of conscience, who gathered from around the world for the occasion, ate heartily, saluted each other with wine and vodka, and reminisced over old times when the possibility that any of them would ever live in freedom seemed remote.
“It is good that through all the changes, the links forged decades ago between Russian dissidents and the Jewish community remain strong,” said Yarin-Agaev. “The fact is that no Jew can feel secure until there is democracy in Russia.”
Sam Kliger, a refusenik in Moscow during the 1980s and today the coordinator of Russian Jewish Affairs at the AJCommittee, paid tribute to legendary former prisoners of conscience in the room, including physicist Yuri Orlov and philosopher Alexander Esenin-Volpin, both of whom recently turned 80.
Kliger told the assembled fighters for democracy in the Soviet Union during the ’60s and ’70s, “My generation mostly fought to exit the Soviet Union, but you fought for a broader and nobler cause, namely how to build an open society with a free press and democratic government. You represent the best of the Russian intelligentsia. We learned from you how not to be afraid.”