How a Humanitarian Trip to Moscow Revealed the Kremlin's Attitude Toward Human Rights

  It was especially cold in January 1985. It was so cold in Washington, DC that President Reagan took the oath of office inside. In Moscow, mid-January saw subzero temperatures. The dark coats in the street were in sharp contrast to the swirling snow carried by a chilling wind. It was here that Congressman Ben Gilman (R-NY), later to become the Chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, set out to visit Soviet dissidents; many of them so-called refuseniks, those denied permission to emigrate from the oppression they suffered in the Soviet Union. We lost Ben Gilman in December at the age of 94. He was a humble crusader who said plainly that, “being a public servant was an ‘honor and a privilege.’” Moscow was a dark city; dark coats, dark buildings, and a markedly dark, mean spirit that seemed a hallmark of Soviet officials with whom Gilman met. As a member of the group traveling with Gilman, I felt an uneasiness as we walked through the halls of the Kremlin at a time when there was some question of who was in charge. The Communist leader, Yuri Andropov, had recently passed away and his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, had fallen ill and was out of the public eye. It was a period of uncertainty in a country where trumped up charges against refuseniks and members of certain Christian churches led to the brutal harassment of these individuals. Indeed, credible reports told of U.S. embassy officers being roughed up as they tried to document these cases. For the next four days, Gilman and other members of his delegation met with Soviet officials during the day and went in the evening to meet with refuseniks in their apartments. He charged Soviet officials with human rights abuses and pointed to strong international condemnation of these conditions. He would watch as the initial, forced smiles of the Soviet officials gradually turned to hardened glares as the interpreter translated the congressman’s message. During a reception hosted by the diplomatic community, I overheard Georgi Arbatov, a chief Kremlin ideologist, making some pointed comments. He spoke of “that Gilman,” how his mention of human rights violations was not helpful, and that he better not make these points any longer. The U.S. ambassador was not moved by these comments, and commended the New York congressman and others for letting the Soviet officials see first-hand how strongly U.S. policymakers felt about these issues. It was from that reception that a Gilman delegation left quietly in cars on their way to an apartment of a refusenik who had arranged a meeting of some 20 people. As his car stopped at a light on that arctic-chilled evening, in the car next to him, a diplomat from the reception rolled down his window to let the congressman know “they” were following him. “They” being agents of the KGB—the Soviet security agency. They followed Gilman’s car to the apartment, parked at the curb, then followed him back to the hotel. “They just want it to be clear that they’ll be following you everywhere you go; part of their intimidation tactics,” said an embassy official. It was easy to see why dissidents were fearful. Inside, in a typically small Moscow apartment, we met individuals, many of them elderly, who had traveled in the bitter cold—from one bus to another—to meet Gilman and his group. The stories they told of persecution were more sobering than the night air outside. Prison sentences, lost jobs, revoking of important papers with which they got state and health benefits, disappearances—these were the stories they told. They knew from smuggled news reports of the statements, meetings, resolutions, and demonstrations in world capitals conducted on their behalf and they urged as strongly as possible that these efforts continue. Indeed, Gilman and many others ratcheted-up their efforts, producing successes such as the release of the world-famous refusenik Natan Sharansky and others amidst early signs of the Soviet empire’s collapse. Some thirty-six years after that January in Moscow, the world is still plagued by human-rights abuses committed by murderous regimes and equally heinous rings of kidnappers and extortionists. It is up to each of us to find the courage to enter a dark, cold, Moscow night we might encounter and do what we can to free those without freedom. About the author: Rich Garon received both his MA and PhD in Politics from New York University and began a career on Capitol Hill that lasted more than 25 years. For the last six of those years he served as Chief-of-Staff, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives. He currently chairs the Serve (Outreach and Mission) Committee at the Immanuel Anglican Church in Woodbridge, VA and coordinates the Homeless Ministry, with an emphasis on those living in the woods.    

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.