170. Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1



The Soviet regime’s behavior toward dissidents since the highly publicized trials last July2 has been a mixture of selective repression and guarded tolerance. The regime apparently continues to view the various dissident groups as a serious political problem. But rather than incurring the costs of draconian policies to root out all dissenters, the regime has adopted a strategy to contain the dissent. The latter entails on the one hand harassment and at times severe punishment of leading activists and on the other hand enhanced emigration of Soviet Jews and a cautious flexibility toward other religious and [Page 510] ethnic minorities. The regime’s approach has been successful, but only up to a point. While dissident groups remain generally isolated from one another, they have maintained contact with sympathizers in the West, and the spectrum of dissent is somewhat broader than it was six months ago. [handling restriction not declassified]

Morale among most dissident activists and religious groups dropped in the wake of the trials last July. The branches of the Helsinki Monitoring Group have been particularly affected. Two of the dissidents sentenced in July, Anatoliy Shcharanskiy and Aleksandr Ginzburg, were members of the Moscow branch. That group’s specialist on governmental psychiatric abuses, Aleksandr Podrabinek, was sentenced to five years of domestic exile in August. At a press conference in September, the Moscow branch’s spokesmen told of threats received by persons friendly to the group. They reaffirmed their intention to remain active even though only six of the group’s active members remained free at that time. Branches of the organization in Armenia and Georgia fared no better: Robert Nazaryan, a member of the Armenian branch, was sentenced to seven years total confinement and exile for anti-Soviet activities, and Avandil Imnadze, an associate of a member of the Georgian branch, received nine years for distributing anti-Soviet literature. Last November various members of the Helsinki Monitoring Group circulated a protest against a new Soviet law, which makes it relatively simple for the regime to deny citizenship in dissident cases; but in general the Group has been relatively inactive. [handling restriction not declassified]

Government treatment of Soviet Jews is the one clear illustration of the regime’s willingness to grant limited concessions to dissidents. The total number of Jews permitted to emigrate in 1978 exceeded 30,000 and may average 5,000 a month for at least the first part of 1979. The backlog of Jews in Odessa applying for exit permits reportedly caused the government to open a large, new office to handle it. In explaining the higher emigration figures, Soviet Jews themselves point to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, to the larger number of applicants, and, increasingly of late, to a desire by the regime to get rid of “malcontents” before the 1980 Olympics. [handling restriction not declassified]

The status of the Jewish “refuseniks” (those previously refused exit permits) may also be improving. According to Refusenik sources in Moscow and Kiev, some persons formerly denied emigration because they once held security clearances will now be permitted to leave. In addition, refusenik scientists held an international scientific conference in December. Authorities seized some of the conference documents from the residence of one of the organizers and denied visas to five US scientists who wanted to attend the event. The conference was held, [Page 511] however, with three US scientists present. [handling restriction not declassified]

The regime’s attitude toward various Protestant groups appears to be somewhat ambiguous. The All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists was given permission to import 25,000 Russian Bibles; the last time a Soviet government permitted a significant influx of Bibles was in 1947 when 10,000 copies were imported. On the other hand, Soviet media continue to inveigh against “Bible smugglers”, terming them “paid agents of Western intelligence.” [handling restriction not declassified]

There are several reports of harassment and persecution of unregistered Pentecostal congregations in Belorussia and the Ukraine. A religious activist from a town near Moscow received a year in prison for organizing a seminar on the “defense of rights of believers in the USSR.” In the Kirgiz SSR two citizens were each sentenced to three years in a labor camp for conducting a children’s Sunday school. An 84-year old member of the Seventh Day Adventists was slated to go on trial this month in Tashkent for illegal religious activity—he wrote an eight volume treatise condemning the “dictatorship of state atheism.”

The spectrum of dissent seems to be broadening once again. In October, an independent “trade union” surfaced in Moscow. Calling itself the Free Inter-Professional Union of Workers, the group focuses on genuine worker grievances. Reports indicate that the organization lacks internal cohesion and is plagued by diverse interests. On those rare occasions in the past when dissidents have tried to organize Soviet workers Moscow has reacted quickly and sternly. Several members of this group already have been arrested and one of its leaders has been confined to a state psychiatric hospital, but it has not yet been disbanded. [handling restriction not declassified]

[Page 512]

On another front, a new journal called Metropol appeared this month. The avowed intention of its publishers is “literary excellence” rather than political debate. The first issue, however contained articles critical of Soviet literary restrictions. [handling restriction not declassified]

Other forms of protest simmer along. Last August Crimean Tartars sent two petitions to Brezhnev requesting permission to return from Central Asia to their ancestral homeland. The government, as usual, made no direct response; one report claims authorities in the Crimea have bulldozed the houses of illegal returnees and deliberately stirred up local antipathy toward the Tartars. At Leningrad University, the “Left Opposition” was broken up in October—for the second time. A student leader was charged with anti-Soviet agitation and two other members of the group were charged with “hooliganism.” Students at other Soviet institutions for the moment are quiescent. [handling restriction not declassified]

In general, the Brezhnev regime is ready to punish individual dissidents harshly on occasion, and seeks in various ways to divide and demoralize all of them. But the leadership avoids recourse to draconian measures, out of concern for both its international image and its own perception of what is required to maintain the stability and cohesion of the Soviet bureaucracy. Perhaps the best illustration in recent weeks of the regime’s preferred method of handling dissidents was a reported directive from Moscow Party chief Grishin3 cautioning officials against firing Jewish “Refuseniks” lest they spread their “contagion” to their new place of employment. Under such circumstances—i.e. because the reasons for political protest continue and because the regime avoids using the harshest conceivable measures to deal with the protests—the dissidents are encouraged to persist in their activities. [handling restriction not declassified]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Global Issues, Bloomfield Subject File, Box 17, Human Rights: USSR: 7/77–5/79. Confidential. Prepared in the CIA’s National Foreign Assessment Center.
  2. Reference is to the trials of the Helsinki Monitoring Group, July 1978.
  3. Victor V. Grishin.