Metta Spencer

The Soviet Peace Movement at the Time of the Coup

Presented in War and Peace Section, American Sociological Association convention, Cincinnati OH, August 25, 1991

By Metta Spencer
Department of Sociology
Erindale College, University of Toronto

The peace movement that will be described here is the constellation of important groups that existed on the day of the coup -- the same day when I left the Soviet Union after a five-week visit. One may expect many changes of these groups in the political aftermath of that event. The significant question is: what are the resources that the movement can offer for preparing a nonviolent resistance against the renewal of totalitarianism?

The evidential basis for my analysis derives chiefly from a decade of contacts with peace activists in what was recently the "Eastern Bloc," including five visits to the Soviet Union, the present one lasting five weeks in Russia and Ukraine. This tour culminated in the annual convention of the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) August 13-17 in Moscow, where numerous interviews were carried out.

Expanding the Room for Democracy

The move toward democracy can be measured in terms of the growing strength of "civil society," which in the terminology of North America might be called "voluntary associations," or "non-governmental organizations." Theorists in Eastern Europe today are preoccupied with the same processes that Alexis de Tocqueville first described in Democracy in America: the ways in which liberty can be preserved against tyranny in a mass society, and they too claim that civil society is the key.

Dissidents in all totalitarian countries have independently discovered a common strategy for expanding the room for democracy. Timothy Garton Ash describes the approach that was proposed by Leszek Kolakowski, during the early period of Solidarity, which came to be universal. [1]

While `bureaucratic despotic socialism' would not be transformed from above, Kolakowski argued in a seminal essay, `On Hope and Hopelessness,' its internal contradictions made it susceptible to pressure from below. To exert this pressure the Poles should organize themselves outside the structures of the Party-state. These `self-organised' social groups and movements would then gradually expand the areas of negative liberty and self-determination open to the citizen. In the end the structures of the Party-state might become little more than stage sets, the facades of a Potemkin village for the eyes of the new Tsars in Moscow, while behind them Polish society would be reformed in any increasingly open, democratic and pluralist way.

All Eastern bloc peace movements have recognized a fact that long eluded many Western activists: that the defence of peace is possible only in a society where freedom of expression and other democratic relationships are secure. The activity of peace groups has two important effects, therefore: it directly promotes particular policies related to the means of waging conflict and it builds the relationships of civil society which strengthens the opportunity for people to mobilize pluralistic groupings independent of would-be dictators. The building of civil society -- especially a community of peace activists -- is therefore the chief strategy of those seeking to establish democracy in the Soviet Union.

While the best-known peace groups are named here, along with some that are small or obscure, no analysis of such organizations can possibly be complete. The array will also be regarded as strange from another perspective: it includes groups that are not primarily devoted to questions of peace but to the environment, human rights, "personal growth," and nationalism. They have been included because they are in practice involved in the community of peace activists and have important influence in that community.

Officialdom and Conscientious Objection

The Soviet peace movement can be described meaningfully by locating it in a two-dimensional space, where

  • the horizontal dimension, "Officialdom," represents the group's subordination or independence with respect to the Soviet regime -- a measure of civil society.
  • the vertical axis represents its degree of commitment to nonviolence.

Officialdom. In a totalitarian society there is no room for independent organizations that might become the source of criticism, lobbying, or even opposition to the regime. Organizations that are organized and controlled from above, by the regime, are "official" ones, but the independence of peace groups is not entirely an either-or matter, but a continuum. Some are staffed by former officials, receive funds from official sources, and have known KGB agents among their executives. Even among former officials, there are wide differences. Some are whistle-blowers and tattle-tales, while others can be found in social situations showing great cordiality (e.g. addressing by the intimate pronoun) toward their former colleagues, who still are active in the official organizations.

At the opposite extreme on the officialdom scale are certain activists who oppose the regime so vigorously that they are still being imprisoned, even in a democratic Moscow, for making public speeches urging that the regime be overthrown -- albeit with nonviolent means.

Commitment to Nonviolence. In practical, political terms, the indicator of the second, vertical dimension is the group's engagement with the campaign against conscription into the army. The Soviet Union is going through a process now that was accomplished in other Eastern European nations two or three years ago -- the promotion of the right to conscientious objection against military service and the right to alternative service in lieu of military conscription for those who object to fighting.

Unlike the situation in Western Europe and the situation among the leading peace groups themselves, the popular impetus behind this Soviet anti-conscription campaign is not primarily a principled commitment to pacifism on either religious or ethical grounds, but practical and nationalistic objections. Within military units, theft of military supplies is rampant, along with alcohol and drug abuse, hazing, and even homicide.[2] Six thousand young men die each year during peacetime in the Soviet army -- from suicide, accidents resulting from poor training in the use of dangerous materials, from physical maltreatment and malnourishment, and from fights. Many of these violent acts reflect the ethnic conflicts within wider Soviet society. Slavic soldiers are disproportionately represented among those who have died.[3] For this reason, many of those objecting to military service say they would serve in their "own" armed forces but not in that of the Soviet army, which they sometimes regard as an army of occupation. Many young men simply do not report for duty when the conscription notice summons them. The percentages submitting to the draft call from various republics are as follows: [4]

This year

Last year
















One can easily justify these young men's disobedience, even if it is based more on nationalism than on the ethical pacifistic principles that motivate the leading peace activists in the Soviet Union. In any case, the motives converge when it comes to the campaign for alternative service. Alexander Kalinin, a radical deputy in the Moscow City Council (Soviet) has circulated a petition calling for recognition of the right to conscientious objection, and for a system of alternative service to be established that will allow objectors to devote their time instead to suitable civilian projects. President Boris Yeltsin endorses this proposal but, at least until the coup took place, had not assigned much priority to it.[5]

At the left side of this space are situated the powerful official peace groups, the Soviet Peace Fund and the Soviet Committee for the Defence of Peace (SPC). While wide differences of opinion exist within these two official organizations, overall they do not generally focus on questions of violence or nonviolence, and therefore they will be diagrammed as located in the middle area of the vertical axis, in a neutral position. In the upper right corner of this space are located those groups that are strongly opposed to the regime but which are not committed to conscription or to nonviolence as a principle -- although they may in practice use nonviolent means. Groups may be located in the middle of the square space for a number of reasons; for the most part such groups are not notable for opposing the regime or for dealing with conscientious objection or with nonviolence as a principle; instead, their chief concerns are with other related issues, such as environmental ones and opposition to nuclear testing. Finally, the nearer a group comes to being mapped in the lower right corner of the space, the more opposed it is both to violence of any sort and to the regime.

Diversity Within the Regime. As the coup demonstrated, the Soviet regime itself is far from being unified, and it is possible to oppose it on the basis of two very different critiques -- that of the hardline militarists and that of the democrats. However, the range of views represented within the regime is narrower than the range among the regime's critics. For example, both Yeltsin and Gorbachev would be on the extreme left side and lower on the vertical axis than Yazov, the Defence Minister -- yet none of these three men would favor total disarmament of all military forces, as some of the peace groups would like to do. The military hardliners within the regime occupy the extreme upper left corner; no peace group can logically be described as occupying such a space.

The Groups and Their Projects

The Soviet Peace Fund is, nominally, a non-governmental organization, but in fact it is an official and wealthy body. Each Soviet citizen is asked to contribute to it a suggested sum each month at her workplace (say, 5 roubles) and most still do so. No accounting is made public for such funds, although a degree of democratization has been taking place in the organization. During the past two or three years, as the Soviet economic and national crises intensified, money that was formerly spent for peace marches and conferences began to be turned to the solution of internal problems, such as aiding the victims of Chernobyl and the refugees from areas of nationalistic conflict. According to the Vice-President of the Peace Fund, only 15% of the funds are now forwarded to the central administration in Moscow; 70 percent remains in the locality where the donors live. Of that, about half is now spent on environmental problems. Unfortunately, in my discussions with Ukrainians, I did not hear any confirmation of these assertions about democratization, and I am awaiting replies from other SPF officials to resolve the apparent contradictory evidence about the true state of affairs.

The Soviet Peace Committee. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has sponsored a number of projects since the 1950s that were designed to generate support for Soviet policies. The most important organ for these projects globally has been the World Peace Council (WPC), based in Helsinki, to which other pro-Soviet peace councils in many countries around the world are affiliated. The Soviet Committee for the Defence of Peace (Soviet Peace Committee or SPC) is obviously the main one of these national bodies and it also receives funds from the Soviet Peace Fund. Until the Gorbachev era, the Soviet Peace Committee always defended Soviet policies, while roundly criticizing the military policies of the Western nations. Its inner workings and sources of funds were never disclosed and, although its leaders pretended to be nongovernmental and nonofficial, it was obvious that the structure was hierarchical and managed from the top. Both SPC and WPC hosted a number of expensive conferences throughout the 1980s with Western peace activists and experts.

The reforms of the Gorbachev years brought real changes in all three of these groups, without nevertheless making them any less official. Some staff members quit the party and in recent years have managed to keep their jobs afterwards. The WPC is virtually nonexistent today -- probably because one staff member, Tair Tairov, wrote a letter to Gorbachev explaining the organization's shortcomings, whereupon its Soviet funding was cut off.[6] The SPC is greatly reduced today but continues to publish policy papers in several languages and to organize conferences on a smaller scale than before.

The SPC is headed by a famous cosmonaut and the vice-president is a famous elderly poet. The organization has opulent offices in many Soviet cities, including the one in Leningrad housed in a baroque mansion with gold panels that a noble family once called home. When any Western peace organization invites Soviets abroad, it must be particularly insistent if anyone goes except SPC officials. Even invitations directed through the SPC continue to be "lost" if they are meant for independent activists.[7]

Proposals for reform have not been lacking, but have resulted in no significant structural changes. Two successive secretaries of the organization, Vladislav Kornilov and Andrei Melville, have proposed democratization measures, such as that the SPC building and some of its funds be made available to grass-roots peace organizations, and that the board be people who represent real activist constituencies. When these proposals were rejected, the officials quit (or were dismissed) and the peace committee continues as before. As sizeable proportion of the staff are known by the others to be KGB agents. Different republics have their own peace committees and they are not all equally hierarchical. Some degree of criticism of Soviet policies is now acceptable, now that the government itself is polarized. Nevertheless, it is fair to call the SPC an official organization. All organizations to its right on the map are elements of "civil society" but not all of them are equally so.

IPPNW and SPAN. I have placed two organizations rather near to "officialdom" -- the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and "Save Peace and Nature" (SPAN). IPPNW has been effective in influencing Soviet policy, especially with regard to the testing moratorium, and it markedly influenced public awareness of the risk of nuclear war. It won, and richly deserved, the Nobel Peace Prize. However, some of the important members were government officials whose judgment had been compromised. Thus Dr. Yevgeny Chazov, the co-founder of IPPNW, once wrote a criticism of Andrei Sakharov, and Dr. Marat Vartanian, an IPPNW member who travelled extensively with Western members during the 1980s, was a psychiatrist well-known for missing every opportunity to correct the misuse of psychiatry as a punishment for political prisoners. For this reason, the organization, despite its prestige, is questionable as a bulwark against totalitarianism.

The case of SPAN is somewhat different. Registered in 1989, this organization is headed by Vladislav Kornilov, a former secretary of the SPC whose personal relations have been consistently liberal and democratic but who continues close contacts with SPC members who are well-known for their hostility toward independent peace activists. SPAN's budget is large in comparison to other peace groups (500,000 roubles) and there are over 50 collective members of the organization. Individual membership was introduced in 1990.[8]

Neither IPPNW nor SPAN calls for nonviolence, but each addresses more narrowly the control or elimination of weapons of mass destruction.[9] While they are indeed elements of civil society and may be very effective because of their relative prestige, they would seem to offer little challenge to officialdom.

Shield is an organization constituted by military men and their families who object to the poor conditions facing soldiers, such as insufficient pay, poor housing, frequent exposure to crime and violence, the violation of their human rights, and the deplorable circumstances of their demobilization. In most cases they are forced to return to the area where they were born, where no housing may be available and where they may have no personal ties. Shield is not opposed to military service on principle, and regards violence as sometimes necessary, but it demands that the Soviet Union convert to a small professional army instead of relying on recruits. It can be considered a peace group only in a limited sense, but its independent functioning nevertheless contributes to the wider strategy of developing a pluralistic civil society of activists.

Rukh and Sajudis are not peace organizations as such, but nationalistic movements. Nor do these groups entirely lack xenophobic, chauvinistic objectives. However, these and several other similar organization have connections with the Green movement and are, at least superficially, in favor of nonviolent means of struggle. For this reason they are listed as peace groups. Rukh, in particular, so far deserves that title. A year ago its members staged a hunger strike in Kiev that forced the Republic's prime minister to resign and extracted several pledges, including a promise to phase out the remaining Chernobyl reactors. At one point, a delegation of war veterans marched through their tent city to place flowers before the statue of Lenin. There was a possibility of confrontation, but instead of this, the protesters kept total silence. Their leader spoke to the veterans and thanked them for their contributions to the defence of Ukrainian society, explaining that now it was Rukh's turn to do as much, but in a different way. The veterans, moved to tears, embraced the young protesters and gave them the flowers that had been meant for Lenin.[10]

Nevada-Semipalatinsk is, like IPPNW, especially focused on the dangers of nuclear weapons, and not against violence or militarism in the most general sense. I have placed this group to the right of IPPNW and SPAN because they are definitely outside the establishment and in their opposition to nuclear testing, they are not above resorting to civil disobedience. With respect to both dimensions, Nevada-Semipalatinsk resembles the Green Party and Green World. The latter is chiefly an environmental movement but has undertaken campaigns against nuclear power and also opposes nuclear testing. It was from Green World that the Ukrainian separatist movement, Rukh, split off, and the two movements continue to collaborate. Indeed, with some exceptions, the general sentiment within the Soviet peace movement is favorable to nationalistic movements, despite the obvious danger that they can turn chauvinistic and resort to, or provoke, violence.

Golubka and Nextstop are two of the numerous organizations that practice "citizen diplomacy." Despite the term "diplomacy," these tend not to be politically-oriented groups, but instead try to bring Eastern and Western citizens together in settings that are conducive to friendship, on the dubious assumption that this will overcome enmity between groups. (Research suggests otherwise. Not only are most murders committed by people who know each other well -- family members -- but research on inter-ethnic conflict shows that prejudice is normatively required of members of certain ethnic groups according to collectively-established status claims. Prejudice, as Herbert Blumer used to remind us, is not built up by individuals on the basis of personal experiences, but are generalizations that live lives of their own, hardly affected by observable realities.

Nevertheless, it must be said that, if there is any place for citizen diplomacy, it is in the Soviet Union. Until a few years ago, any Soviet citizen had real grounds for avoiding contact with foreigners. To invite a Westerner home for a meal was enough to ruin a career. There is a great need on the part of these people for such ordinary social interaction. Isolation has been so prolonged that they often have unrealistic ideas about Western society. Whether or not such simple human contacts can affect military institutions, they have other benefits. In hotels throughout big Soviet cities, one encounters groups of American hairdressers or architects on tours to visit their counterparts on the job. Although citizen diplomats may not discuss such abstract issues as conscientious objection, their implicit purpose is to prevent violent relationships. They are not necessarily critical of either government or of officialdom, but nor do they belong to the Establishment.

Helsinki Citizens Assembly is a new transnational organization with a headquarters in Prague, where it intends to function as a citizens' house parallel to the CSCE, which is also based there. Each nation belonging to the CSCE is organizing a committee to address the problems throughout the year that the HCA will deal with collectively in its regular conventions. Although the Soviet group is addressing the issue of conscientious objection and alternative service, the HCA deals primarily with arms control and disarmament issues, and therefore it has been placed near the centre of the North-South axis. Its members are not close to the government, which they tend to criticize for being unwilling to undertake meaningful reforms, so they are positioned toward the right side of the East-West axis.

Four groups resemble HCA when it comes to their stance toward the regime, but are somewhat more specifically pacifistic than HCA. These are the Helsinki Group, the Civic Peace Coalition, the Russian Peace Society, and Memorial. The Helsinki Group is primarily a human rights organization but considers conscientious objection to be an important human right. The Civic Peace Coalition is an umbrella organization that took most of the responsibility for hosting the successful END convention in Moscow, and had performed another important service during the previous winter when there were food deficits throughout the Soviet Union. The German government sent large shipments of food aid, which initially were to be distributed by the army and the KGB. When it became clear that the food was not getting through, Tair Tairov, the coordinator of Civic Peace, was asked to take charge, which he accomplished by mobilizing his affiliated groups. After completing this project and the END convention, Civic Peace is planning to organize a conference on conscientious objection and alternative service.

The Russian Peace Society is a new group with a quaint purpose: to revive the Russian pacifist tradition that had been represented by Leo Tolstoy and that was suppressed after the revolution. The group organizes expeditions to Tolstoy's home and celebrates Russian culture without evidently promoting chauvinism. (There are, nevertheless, grounds for apprehension about groups that advertise their Russianness; often such slogans imply anti-Semitism, as for example in the pamphlets sold on the streets by Pamyat.)

The fourth group in this cluster is Memorial, a huge organization consisting mostly of old people. Its purpose is to identify the victims of Stalinism, which are now estimated to total 40 million -- 20 million of whom died. Memorial also sponsors seminars and related activities aiming to explain the rise of totalitarianism and ways of preventing its re-emergence. The organization has endorsed Kalinin's petition concerning conscientious objection and alternative service.

Mothers of Soldiers is a large and highly visible organization comprising women whose sons are -- or were -- in the army. A large proportion of these women lost sons, and all of them are passionate about the subject. They are committed in principle to nonviolence, but as Alexander Kalinin explained to me, they do not always live up to this ideal. Often they have to be physically restrained from assaulting military officers during street demonstrations. They are vigorously opposed to officialdom -- especially to the army -- but, because of their personal violence, must be placed above the point that their ideology would indicate that they belong.

The Transnational Radical Party, to which Kalinin belongs, is an international group with its greatest strength in Italy. It pursues three objectives: obtaining the right to conscientious objection and alternative service; opposing the death penalty; and legalizing the use of drugs. Many of the members have been imprisoned for their peace activism and for refusing to be inducted or for deserting the army. They are vigorously opposed to the militaristic elements of the regime. Kalinin is one of the members.

Democratic Union is the most famous and the most radical of the peace groups. Its leader, a stylish and articulate young woman named Valerija Novodvorskaya, was on a hunger strike in prison during most of my stay in the Soviet Union. Her organization is small but well-known for its bold, even reckless, politics. They deny being anarchists, but it is hard to think of a different category for them, since the primarily purpose seems to be to unseat the government, and only then to think about policies. Interviewed in the spring by Alexander Kalinin, Novodvorskaya was asked about her commitment to nonviolence. She replied,

Everything depends on the goals of the political struggle; if the goal doesn't include establishing of dictatorship, but the movement to democracy (because it's impossible to establish democracy, only dictatorship can be established) violence is useless. If the society is not mentally ready for democracy, one can't force them to live according to democratic criteria. And if people are ready for democracy, violence is not necessary. We have nobody to force. " Freedom must be inside you, it is impossible to conquer it by forcing submission. The question of power can be solved violently, but the coming to democracy is not the question of power but of changing orientation of mentality. ...

Kalinin: Do you know any problems that can't be solved without violence?

Novodvorskaya: Not all problems can be solved, as a matter of fact. But if a problem can't be solved without violence, the more so it can't be solved violently. That's why Democratic Union rejects the death penalty in its program. When KGB inspectors during the interrogations asked us, "What shall you do with us if you come to power?" we always responded: "We`ll set a guard near your door to protect you from infuriated people." ... The only possible punishment is to ostracize them.


The coup raised a question concerning the ability of Soviet society to protect its new democracy against the substantial number of people who would prefer a dictatorship. It is clear that there are grave problems in the country and that these problems can be attributed largely to the reform movements, which have liberated citizens but have failed to institutionalize practical economic plans. Not only is there hunger, but there is also violence and crime in the society at large. One frequently has a real experience of being in danger. Some 40 percent of the population, especially in rural areas, and especially older and less educated citizens, agree with the Ukrainian worker who told me, "I would like for a strong man to come to power and put a stop to all this."

When the coup came, one had to ask whether, with all their enthusiasm for nonviolence, the peace activists were realistic. How much thought had they given to winning a real struggle against armed might? In the event, however, they proved themselves. Yeltsin had a copy of the 196 means of nonviolent resistance that Gene Sharp had enumerated in his classic book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. He saw to it that photocopies were made and distributed to the crowd, who strummed guitars, sang, and stuffed flowers into the barrels of the tanks' big guns, perfectly in the style of nonviolent resisters of the Velvet Revolution and Corazon Aquino's People Power.

Pacifism and Civil Society have come to the Soviet Union and perhaps already have even saved that society in what was became, within days, a coup for nonviolence. How was this possible? Many reasons could be identified, but I will mention only three:

  1. The opponents to the coup won over enough of the military to prevent intentional bloodshed. This was partly because the soldiers were themselves disenchanted with militarism (their own mothers were massively opposing their conscription) and partly because the defenders of Yeltsin used nonviolent tactics that did not threaten, but rather appealed to, the military.
  2. Civil society and the independence of organizations from officialdom has come to flourish, and now compares reasonably well with societies that have a long history of democracy.
  3. The peace movement has chosen issues and developed tactics wisely, basing them on sophisticated principles of civilian based defence. This latter point neverthless could stand some strengthening. The peace groups need to do more than preach nonviolence; they need to show how it can be made to win. They won this time for a combination of reasons, but next time (if such an occasion arises) they need to have a population fully prepared with a plan for civilian based defence.


[1] The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. London: Granta, 1991, p. 25.
[2] For a personal account of this situation, see Dmitry Gabyshev, "Counterstroke: Notes of a Deserter," Twentieth Century and Peace, Nov. 1990, pp. 20-28.
[3] Interview with Maria I. Kirbasova, founder of Mothers of Soldiers, on August 15, 1991 in Moscow.
[4] Paper presented by Nicholai Khramov to a session on conscientious objection, END Convention, Moscow, August 15, 1991.
[5] By no means all Soviet "democrats" favor the motion. Sergei Stankevich, the Deputy Mayor of Moscow, is among those who dismiss it. See Alexander Kalinin, "Soviet Military Doctrine: Why Does it Change So Slowly, If At All?" Peace Magazine, May 1991, p. 7.
[6] Tairov had a chance to see the document later, with Gorbachev's notes marking its margins, and the command: "Look into this and get back to me about it."
[7] According to interviews in Moscow, August 1991, this outcome occurred during the past six months.
[8] Vladislav Kornilov, "The Soviet Association `Save Peace and Nature,'" END Convention News, August 15, 1991.
[9] This assertion is qualified by the fact that at the IPPNW Convention in Stockholm a few weeks before the coup, IPPNW expanded its mandate to the prevention of war in general, not only nuclear war.
[10] Interview with Alex Kuzma and several leaders of Rukh and Green World, on the Dnieper River, August 1991.