Science, Politics, and Human Rights: Lessons Learned from Russia

By Yuri Orlov

orlov Recent discussions of the political situation in China have revealed some emerging problems of defending human rights and, in particular, the human rights of scientists living in totalitarian regimes. The main problem seems to be stability. Opponents of strong human rights pressure on China insist that such pressure can dangerously destabilize the country given its huge, multiethnic and comparatively poor population. "Look at Russia," they sometimes argue. My answer is, "Yes, look at Russia!"

The return to a new type of totalitarian regime that may be less predictable than the previous ones is certainly possible in this country, because many people who thought democracy would provide a quick fix for all their problems are now disaffected with it. This is to be expected in any transition from totalitarianism to democracy. Even so, a large scale civil war is unlikely - Chechnya is a tragic exception - and the texture of political democracy in everyday Russia hasn't been particularly unstable. The pace of political democratization after Gorbachev and his reforms has been more or less normal. There have been some big bumps, of course, like the 1993 bloody conflict between the President and Parliament. However, a feedback system existed in this huge undeveloped democracy, and after the 1993 conflict both sides became much more careful. Basically, the country remains calm.

The major sources of instability in Russian democracy today are economic and legal. When the economic changes from the top came in 1992, they came as a kind of revolution: abrupt and inconsistent, without a prepared basis in law and law enforcement. The scale of crime and corruption in Russia today is the result of the revolutionary economic freedom, not political freedom. No one predicted these crimes, or how quickly people would exploit the new economic situation. The legal swamp in Russia - many laws in conflict, many needed laws absent - does represent a failure of the democrats and intelligentsia. It's hard to imagine how to create a real legal system and body of decent laws overnight, especially in a country with so little experience of them. This would be a problem facing any country shedding its totalitarian past, but certainly more progress should have been made in the last eight years.

A serious area of potential instability in the Russian Federation is multiethnicity. With the tragic exception of the war in Chechnya, there are no armed conflicts between minorities and Russians. Why? Precisely because the idea of solving the problem of national minorities in a maximally democratic way - giving them the full set of cultural, economic and administrative freedoms - was conceptually prepared by the democratic dissidents, who educated the intelligentsia in non-violent opposition to a violent regime for a quarter of a century. Today there are several generations of intelligentsia in Russia, and even high bureaucrats, who have been educated in this approach, as well as most of the latest generation of journalists, who help to shape public opinion.

The situation is very different in the former Yugoslavia, the Caucuses, and Central Asia, where anti- violent opposition to the communist regimes either has never existed or has been underdeveloped. As a result, mutual solutions of interethnic conflicts are hard and violent in these areas. This is strong evidence that long-time preparation of public psychology by an anti-violence democratic opposition is a crucial factor in avoiding civil war. For such preparation to work, this opposition needs very strong support from around the world. The fact that we Russian dissidents had our partial success, and survived to see it, is partly due to the strong and steady support we received in the West.

The crucial issue, I think, is this: What is really more dangerous for domestic and international peace and security? A repressive totalitarian regime that may gradually improve itself without pressure, or an unstable democracy? I think choosing the former is wrong.

A totalitarian regime like China is a special case. You have the usual repressive regime with almost unlimited political power, a state ideology and restrictions on other ideologies, and a degree of xenophobia and conspiratorial secrecy combined with aggressiveness. However, you also have the dream of being a nuclear superpower. One more super poser is perhaps not a catastrophic problem, if it is a strongly democratic one. For international peace and security, it is extremely important that China become democratic before it achieves that status. For peace inside China, a democratic approach to social, national and religious problems can help avoid violent revolutionary explosions. All this means that scientists concerned with democracy and world peace urgently need to keep up the pressure for human rights in China, and help that small number of our extremely brave Chinese colleagues who oppose totalitarianism and push their leaders peacefully in the direction of democratic political reforms.

But what if such pressure helps give birth to an unstable democracy in China? Unfortunately, there seems to be no formula for making a transition from a totalitarian regime to a safe democracy. This is an area that urgently needs study and work. It is true that unstable democracies have terrorism and thefts of nuclear and other dangerous materials that you don't find in a totalitarian regime. But disappearing plutonium and terrorist massacres are far less dangerous than having yet another confrontation with a totalitarian superpower.

What about a totalitarian regime improving on its own? The very notion of a totalitarian regime gradually improving itself, without permanent and hard pressure, can be a fantasy. (Recall that the Soviet regime was pressed very, very hard.) There is some threshold beyond which a totalitarian regime is too totalitarian to be amenable to improvements. It will suppress them unless pressured, and in the case of China, often suppress them if not pressured hard enough.

Human rights in China is our affair, if only because an undemocratic China is a threat to international peace and security. We may still be uneasy about actively supporting Chinese scientific colleagues who are trying to protest against political repression, on the grounds they are only a tiny part of the scientific community there. Some scientists insist that they are a small minority not because the majority is afraid, but simply because it supports government policy. Even if this is true, it still does not mean that the majority is right.

Moreover, determining who is or is not really opposed to their totalitarian government is a rather more complicated phenomenon than it appears. For scientists in a totalitarian society, the line between the professional and the political collapses because neutrality is not tolerated by the regime. Scientists have only two choices: cooperation (some might say, complicity) with the regime, or resistance to it. Remember, your salary comes from the regime. Your promotions, opportunities for publication, and travel abroad depend on political evaluations. Your outstanding work supports the regime by adding to its international prestige and, in the case of technological and military work, its economic and military power. A line cannot be drawn between the cooperation and non- cooperation of an active, working scientist. It can only be drawn between degrees of cooperation.

The responses to this dilemma by scientists in Soviet Union were radically diverse. In April 1956, I declared at an open Party meeting in ITEP that we needed democratization on the basis of socialism. Along with three other speakers, I was immediately expelled from the Party and fired from ITEP, without the right to work in any scientific institute in or near Moscow. Also at that time, about 20 leading physicists, including Kapitsa and Sakharov, were very active in writing collective letters to the leaders protesting attempts to restore or protect Stalinism.

The majority of scientists, however, were afraid to participate in such activity, and maintained an ambiguous or hypocritical public silence. Some did criticize the regime, but only in the privacy of the famous Moscow kitchens. Only a small minority expressed strong professional and public support of the regime, and lack of support for colleagues opposed to the regime. A tiny minority chose ideological confrontation with the regime, which cost them their scientific careers and in some cases incarceration in prisons, camps, and exile.

In 1970, I told a friend who was a famous physicist that I was preparing a letter to the Soviet authorities about the situation in Soviet science. "But," he asked, "Do you want to continue to work as a physicist?" There was nothing wrong with this concern and indirect advice. What amazed me was that after this conversation he always avoided me and at one scientific meeting bypassed me as if I were a pole on a complex plane.

Nowadays, truly amazing numbers of Russians, scientists included, present themselves as having been longtime dissidents and democrats. Still, it is true that from the mid-1960s until Gorbachev's time, there were more free kitchen discussions, more people listening to foreign radio broadcasts, more samizdat readings, fewer citations of Lenin and Marx even by Party-member intellectuals, and more non-dissident "outsiders," including scientists, secretly helping their oppressed colleagues by giving money and clothes, sending letters to camp, and helping to transmit our human rights information.

With regard to our colleagues in China, what should we do apart from active support of persecuted fellow scientists? We need to face the issue of collaborating with the fellow scientists who are officially acceptable to the regime. Their cooperation with the regime is a matter of degree, so it is desirable to examine each case, putting our emphasis on science but not closing our eyes to the obvious. Here it may be argued that any and all contacts with our Chinese colleagues are necessary to "keep lines of communication open" in order to have some beneficial effect on the regime. But what lines of communication are involved? Certainly not ones of genuine, serious political discourse. During the 1930s Stalin had several thousand Americans and Germans working in Russia, and it didn't make a bit of difference.

Furthermore, it is one thing to invite Chinese scientists to the West, and quite another to go to a conference in China. We organize independent, scientific conferences. They organize official conferences that are always mixtures of science and state politics. Western scientists who think that scientists should not be involved in politics should bear this in mind: attending a scientific conference in China is participating in a political situation. Attending such conferences is constructive if one publicly speaks out in defense of scientific colleagues being punished for their political views. Keeping silent in such circumstances helps the regime by legitimizing the persecution of colleagues.

In short, just as scientists in a totalitarian society cannot separate the professional and the political, neither can visiting western colleagues going to China or any other totalitarian state. This is one of the many reasons why totalitarianism is an affront to us as scientists and as human beings. It is one of the reasons why we should do our best to oppose it.

Yuri F. Orlov, recipient of the 1996 APS Nicholson Medal for Humanitarian Service, is at the Newman Laboratory, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. This article was adapted from a lecture given at the 1996 APS/AAPT Spring Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana. A longer version appeared in the October 1996 issue of the newsletter of the Forum on Physics and Society.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

January 1997 (Volume 6, Number 1)

APS News Home

Issue Table of Contents

APS News Archives

Contact APS News Editor

Articles in this Issue
Friedman Chosen as APS Vice-President in 1996 Election
Inside the Beltway
Bederson Lead APS Journals Into Electronic Age
International News
APS Announces Primakoff Lectureship and Forum Award Endowment
Plasma CVD, Etch Tools, and Displays Highlight 49th Annual GEC
Research Corporation Supports Basic Research in Academia
APS Honors Two Young Physicists With 1996 Apker Award
In Brief
APS Views
In Search of an Improved Science and Public Policy Process
The APS Mass Media Fellowship Program
The Back Page