The Polish anticommunist hero and Solidarity co-founder Lech Walesa declined a meeting last week with Barack Obama on the Polish leg of the president’s European trip. “It’s difficult to tell journalists what you’d like to say to the president of a superpower,” Walesa told Polish broadcaster TVN24. “This time I won’t tell him, I won’t meet him, it doesn’t suit me.”
The snub may have had something to do with the president’s decision, not long after taking office, to scrap a planned missile defense installation in Poland.
“It wasn’t the shield that was important,” Walesa said at the time. “It’s about…the way of treating us.” (The decision was announced on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland.)
Needless to say, Walesa’s snub sparked an uproar in Poland, where some accused the Nobel laureate of personal pettiness.
On the twittersphere, Walesa drew the wrath of the American progressive establishment. One commentator, long-time “Nation” magazine editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, was particularly scathing.
“From Solidarity to hubristic individualism,” she tweeted. “Lech Walesa says he just doesn’t feel like meeting w/ Pres Obama.” Walesa, vanden Heuvel wrote, had gone from political dissent to “political descent.”
Former Polish President Lech Walesa caused an uproar in Poland for declining to meet Barack Obama.
Vanden Heuvel’s harsh remarks about a man who had risked everything to help defeat totalitarianism in his native Poland appeared, at first glance, as just another ill-considered, 140-character reaction to the day’s headlines.
But to those familiar with vanden Heuvel’s — now long forgotten — history of attacking anti-Soviet dissidents during the 1980s, there was a more sinister dimension to this throwaway line: a tragic reminder of the hostility too often displayed by “The Nation,” the flagship journal of the American left, toward Eastern Bloc freedom fighters, particularly those active in diaspora communities.
A History of Recklessness and Distortion
The lowest point in this history came in March 1988, when “The Nation” published a vanden Heuvel article about the Center for Democracy, a New York-based Russian émigré organization.
At the time, the Center regularly published English translations of “Glasnost,” a reformist Soviet journal which, as even vanden Heuvel and her co-author Kevin Coogan acknowledged, had become an invaluable resource for both Russian democrats and Western journalists hoping to better understand political developments in the secretive totalitarian regime.
Even so, vanden Heuvel and Coogan charged, “Glasnost” had “a potential albatross around its neck”: its English-language distributors at the Center were being funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (N.E.D.) to run “a program that more closely resembled intelligence-gathering than human rights work.”
They accused the Center’s founder, Vladimir Bukovsky — a man who had endured more than a decade in political prisons for exposing Soviet use of psychiatric detention to silence dissidents — of colluding with “neoconservatives” and N.E.D. hawks to “advance the Reagan administration’s foreign policy objectives.”
Center for Democracy founder and former Russian presidential candidate Vladimir Bukovsky
To support their allegations, vanden Heuvel and Coogan pointed to the Center’s Independent Exchange Program, which encouraged Western tourists to visit dissidents and, according to “The New York Times,” “presumably to look into their welfare and encourage private contacts with them.” Heaven forbid!
They also cited a 1984 proposal for a “Soviet studies research center” developed by Yuri Yarim-Agaev, an émigré physicist and later the Center’s executive director, while he was based at Stanford.
In his proposal, Yarim-Agaev had suggested that the underground human rights network be used to gather information about various aspects of Soviet society, including data on “the black market, government and its administration: laws, instructions, regulations, secrecy, police, and the KGB.”
Yarim-Agaev also recommended that the proposed center develop intelligence on the militarization of Soviet civil society.
What they neglected to mention was the fact that there was no direct connection between Yarim-Agaev’s Stanford proposal and what eventually became the Center for Democracy.
No matter: in the eyes of “The Nation’s” editors, Bukovsky and Yarim-Agaev were émigré stooges of Reaganite reaction and thus undeserving of the slightest benefit of the doubt.
Physicist Yuri Yarim-Agaev developed the idea of a Soviet studies center.
To help drive home the point, the magazine’s editors paired the piece with an illustration of an ominous looking figure sporting leather gloves, fedora, and dark sunglasses; the man was shown hiding his face behind an issue of Glasnost – his large nose protruding from behind the broadsheet page.
In their closing paragraph, vanden Heuvel and Coogan claimed that they were driven to pen this vicious attack on two veteran Russian human rights activists out of concern for the safety of dissidents inside the country and the future of Gorbachev’s reform agenda.
“In this struggle for growing tolerance and openness, any effort … to use Soviet citizens for ulterior purposes can only end badly all around…” they said,
“The Center for Democracy’s reckless and provocative schemes, and the National Endowment for Democracy’s support of them, give ammunition to Soviet conservatives who oppose the current liberalization and the rapprochement with the West.”
Putting Dissidents in Danger
As it turned out, “Glasnost” and other dissident voices were undermined in the aftermath of this episode. But the blame belonged not to the Center and its leaders but to vanden Heuvel and Coogan’s own recklessness.
A “New York Times” investigation conducted less than a month after the appearance of the “Nation” article revealed that Coogan had discussed their as yet unpublished piece with Iona Andronov, a Soviet journalist with the hard-line “Literaturnaya Gazeta,” and even provided him with an advance galley.
Neoconservative scholar Joshua Muravchik
Subsequently, Andronov — widely believed at the time to have been a KGB operative — smeared Sergei Grigoryants, the well-known publisher of “Glasnost,” and other dissidents as “stooges of Western intelligence,” citing documents provided by Coogan during an interview. (Coogan admitted to “discussing” the piece with Andronov and tendering the galley, but claimed the interview was a fabrication.)
Then, three months after the publication of their piece, vanden Heuvel and Coogan’s journalistic and ideological follies were subjected to an extended critique by Joshua Muravchik, writing in “Commentary.”
Muravchik showed that the link between Yarim-Agaev’s Stanford proposal and the Center’s actual purpose and programming was tenuous at best, and charged that vanden Heuvel and Coogan deliberately ignored documents that made this abundantly clear.
In response, vanden Heuvel and Coogan took to the famously contentious letters pages of “Commentary,” accusing Muravchik of misrepresentation, bias, libel, and the like, and once again underlined their claim to have been motivated by concern for the welfare of Soviet dissidents — even though their having discussed the article with a hard-line Soviet journalist and suspected KGB agent was by then in the public record.
Muravchik retorted with a devastating letter of his own. Vanden Heuvel and Coogan feigned concern for the dissidents, Muravchik wrote, when “it was they themselves who furnished the Soviet government with the very accusation that they claim[ed] to fear!”
Even more damning, however, was a letter from none other than Grigoryants, “Glasnost’s” embattled publisher. “It would be tragic if Glasnost was silenced as a result [of the Center’s activities],” vanden Heuvel and Coogan had warned in their original article.
Well, here was Glasnost’s own publisher, writing that “the article in the Nation … has brought us nothing but trouble.” Indeed, “[e]ven now [in November 1988] Miss vanden Heuvel and Mr. Coogan’s materials are still being used in the USSR for badgering the independent press.” And what became of Glasnost after vanden Heuvel’s courageous “exposé?”
“The campaign ended in the destruction and robbery of the editorial offices on May 9, 1988, from which we have still not recovered.
“We have also not managed to find new office space, and trying to put out issues from tiny private apartments has slowed us up doubly.
“If there were once 200 copies of the journal circulating in Moscow, today the situation is such that Glasnost is practically the only publication in Moscow which people are afraid to copy and distribute, so great is the threat of persecution and arrest.”
So much for the theory that one can protect dissident voices by accusing them of aiding Western agendas.
Sad Episode All But Forgotten
For men like Bukovsky, Yarim-Agaev, and Grigoryants, these dark moments would soon give way to a brilliant democratic dawn — one they actively helped usher in, the efforts of their detractors on the Western left notwithstanding.
Vanden Heuvel, meanwhile, has likely all but forgotten this sad episode from her early career. Hence she can so coolly dismiss a figure like Lech Walesa as a “hubristic” individualist.
A few minutes after her original tweet, vanden Heuvel came back with another update, this one more deferential toward her subject’s stature and moral legacy:
“Lech Walesa as leader of Solidarity was remarkable historical figure/But where is humane spirit of Solidarity today? That we need 2 seek/find,” she wrote.
I would suggest vanden Heuvel look to Iran’s courageous pro-democracy activists, including those in the Persian diaspora, who have consciously taken up the spirit of Walsa’s movement.
Alas, “The Nation’s” editorial line in recent years has consistently framed “Iranian exiles” as misguided stooges of hawkish agendas — rather than good faith advocates for an undeniably just cause.
Some things just do not change.
Sohrab Ahmari’s writing appears in the “Boston Globe,” “The Weekly Standard,” and “Commentary,” among other publications. The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL