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Hostility on Human Rights

December 27, 1987

Hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union on human rights has a long history. As long as the Soviets seem unable even to understand what Americans mean by human rights, the hostility will have an even longer future.

President Reagan, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev and their successors will work together on arms control because the unthinkable consequence of an unintended nuclear war is a shared nightmare. But as long as Soviet citizens are deprived of basic freedoms to think, to challenge their government, to pray or not pray, as they see fit, the relationship will not amount to much more than counting each other's warheads.

The hostility goes back at least as far as 1903, when Theodore Roosevelt tried to present a petition to the czar signed by thousands of Americans. It protested the first of a wave of violent attacks by ordinary Russians on Jews, a pogrom that left hundreds dead and thousands homeless, attacks on which local police often turned their backs. In a cavalier refusal even to accept the petition that still echoes through the Kremlin, now under new management, the czar told President Roosevelt to mind his own business.

The human-rights portions of the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe should have brought Moscow and Washington closer to common ground on the meaning of human rights. They did not. The harassment of Moscow citizens for the "crime" of monitoring Soviet compliance with the Helsinki accords, along with other deprivations of personal freedom, shows that there is not yet enough common ground for the two nations to stand shoulder to shoulder, let alone to move very far forward.

As Times correspondent Don Cook reported last week from Vienna, 35 nations are reviewing how, or whether, the Helsinki agreement has changed lives for the better in signatory countries, including the lives of upstarts who challenge oppressive government in their homelands. Although the Kremlin has released 200 political prisoners--including physicist Andrei Sakharov, who personifies the vivid and moving description prisoner of conscience-- Americans say that 450 others remain in prison.

For now, the United States is willing to settle for what by American standards would be minimal citizen rights. One is the right of Soviet citizens to travel abroad. Another is the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate, a privilege that in recent years has been treated more as a gift to improve U.S.-Soviet relations than as a freedom that in this country comes with a birth certificate. A third is the right of religious belief.

The Reagan Administration has said that it will not link human rights to progress in arms control, but will simply keep pressing for improvement. But in Vienna human rights is, for now at least, a barrier that must be cleared away before talks can begin in earnest on cutting back the numbers of troops, tanks and aircraft massed along the border between Eastern and Western Europe.

The history of human rights in the two nations makes it as easy to pity Soviet citizens as to react with outrage against a government that still treats its citizens as properties of the state. Centuries of oppression and brutality by conquerors, czars and Soviet bureaucrats have pounded so many citizens into submission that the three decades since Josef Stalin died make the present Soviet government seem benign by comparison. The United States has grown up free, thanks to ancestors who escaped from oppression and, in the case of those who fled the pogroms, brutality.

But then was then, and now is now. People who are free to speak their minds in public, to go where their curiousity leads them, to honor the whispers of conscience will not accept, without reservation, those who cannot do so. No amount of Soviet pleading for more global tolerance of their government and its goals will change that.

After Gorbachev took office but before his reforms took shape, a group of California journalists met in Moscow with a professor of journalism. The Californians said their impression was that younger people getting into the newspaper business were better educated and more serious than they had been a generation earlier. The Moscow professor had the same impression of his students. But he said that as a group they were too timid, not aggressive enough in challenging the status quo.

It seemed both apt and adequate at the time for the Californians to ask what you would expect in a nation that rewarded timidity and a lack of aggression and punished challengers of the status quo. The same response on matters of human rights is neither apt nor adequate. Moscow has come some distance since it treated Teddy Roosevelt's concern over the pogroms as meddling. It has a long way to go--and, in a time when not moving fast enough could prolong the threat of nuclear misunderstandings, longer than is wise.

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