MOSCOW — For a generation of Soviet dissidents, Article 70 is as familiar as their telephone numbers or their birth dates: It is one of the key provisions in the Soviet penal code used to silence critics of the state.
Article 70 bans "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" and provides for sentences of up to seven years in prison followed by five years of exile for anyone who circulates, prepares or even possesses what the authorities deem to be "slanderous fabrications which defame the Soviet state and social system."
Of the 700 "prisoners of conscience" identified by Western human rights organizations as being locked up in Soviet jails, camps or psychiatric hospitals at the start of this year, about 200 were originally sentenced under Article 70.
So it was regarded as significant news when Soviet officials announced during a live, televised human rights debate with two U.S. senators last month that the infamous provision would soon be changed.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 10, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 5 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
In its Nov. 3 editions, The Times reported that the newspaper Moscow Pravda had cited a survey showing that 43 of 700 Soviet judges believe criminal defendants are guilty before their trials begin. The story should have said that this view is held by 43% of the 700 Soviet judges surveyed.
What those Soviet officials failed to tell viewers, however, is that in redefining anti-state activity, the latest proposed draft of Article 70 eliminates certain obscurities only to introduce a new one so glaring that even the dullest prosecutor could fashion an open-and-shut case against Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The text of the draft, revealed publicly for the first time by officials at the Soviet Union's Institute for State and Law in an interview with Times reporters, makes it clear that the ban applies only to the spreading of seditious views by the mass media, not through private action.
But then it defines as anti-state any advocacy of "the overthrow or change of the Soviet constitutional system."
The institute officials conceded that the new wording is inconsistent with Gorbachev's call for "openness" and the "restructuring" of Soviet life. And they said it may be revised further before the overhaul of the 25-year-old penal code is completed.
What the rewriting of Article 70 demonstrates is the spotty Soviet record on traditional human rights issues, considered by many in the West as a vital test of Gorbachev's sincerity and good faith.
The Soviet Union has made a number of important and well-publicized moves on human rights since Gorbachev came to power in March, 1985.
The Soviets have freed dissident Natan Sharansky and some 200 other political prisoners, allowed Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei D. Sakharov to return to Moscow from internal exile, loosened travel restrictions for Soviet citizens and permitted a significant increase in the rate of emigration for Soviet Jews and Armenians.
Moscow also has volunteered to be the site of an international conference on human rights next year under the auspices of the 1975 Helsinki Agreements on Security and Cooperation in Europe. And Soviet rulers also have agreed to make human rights--long said to be an internal affair and not subject to negotiation--a legitimate topic of discussion with the West.
"We are considering human rights not as a ground for confrontations and mutual accusations against each other but as a ground for searching mutual compromises and mutual dialogue for tackling all issues which have accumulated between the countries over the past years," Vladimir Kartashkin, the Soviet spokesman on human rights questions, said at a press conference in July.
But the record is negative in some respects. Although 200 dissidents have been released this year, another 400 are believed to be still languishing in prisons and camps. Compared with the few dozen well-known activists allowed to emigrate, an estimated 200 Soviet Jewish families that for 10 years or more have been refused permission to emigrate are still waiting to have their cases reviewed.
While the regime has shown a new tolerance toward public demonstrations, it also has imposed important new limits. And while there have been no known political arrests in recent months, the police have briefly detained some activists--including, ironically, the editors of a new journal called Glasnost--and harassed others.
Most of all, the leadership so far has done little to alter fundamentally the mechanisms of repression; as long as they exist, the new, more humanitarian face of the Soviet Union can always revert to what it was.
Sakharov, a physicist who was once the dean of Soviet dissidents, has welcomed much of Gorbachev's program, but he says he fears that many of the measures "are not sufficiently decisive." The problem of transforming Soviet society into a more open society, which Sakharov says is "absolutely necessary" if the Soviet Union is to play a constructive role in the modern world, has been compared to the challenge of leaping an abyss, Sakharov noted in an interview.
"It can't be done in two hops," he said. "This is a very elegant metaphor. We can't stop midway or we slide back. We shall see."