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Reprinted From Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty.
The Polish anticommunist hero and Solidarity co-founder Lech Walesa declined a meeting recently 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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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