November 14, 2004
Soviet-era dissidents despise Putin
By Betsy Pisik
NEW YORK Physicist Yuri Orlov, one of the most celebrated of the Soviet dissidents of the 1970s, has railed against totalitarianism and government oppression for most of his 80 years. He knows what it's like to challenge a repressive regime, and his latest target is Russia under President Vladimir Putin. "Russia is flying backwards in time," said Mr. Orlov, a compact man with wild hair and a demeanor that is as Norman Mailer as it is Albert Einstein. "Putin is like Stalin, and he speaks in the language of the thug, the mafia," he said.
When Mr. Orlov and scores of other Soviet "refuseniks" gathered on Thursday evening for a reunion sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, Mr. Putin drew almost as much criticism as his communist predecessors. The Russian president's crackdown on Chechens, closure of independent news media and other restrictions has kindled outrage among this aging group of lions, many of whom spent more than a decade in Soviet work camps, mental hospitals and prisons because they openly criticized the Soviet government and demanded basic human rights.
They see alarming similarities between Mr. Putin's police and the infamous KGB he used to command. An increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church and lurching economic policies provide even more traction to curtail human rights so recently won.
The gray-haired "heroes of conscience" hugged and wept and, over small tumblers of Russian vodka and blended whiskey, denounced the renewed erosion of civil rights in their homeland and the passive support they say Mr. Putin receives from the United States and other Western governments.
"I am worried that the Bush administration is being duped," said Victor Balashov, 62, who emigrated to the United States in 1974 after a decade in a Soviet prison. "The government should be more thoughtful. It is like Mr. Reagan said, 'trust but verify.' You must make a judgment about Putin, ... and you can have no doubt that he is running a dictatorship."
The emotional evening, organized by the Gratitude Fund, which was established by dissident Yuri Fedorov to assist former political prisoners still living in the former Soviet Union.
Tatiana Yankelevich, the grown daughter of the legendary Elena Bonner who administers the Sakharov Foundation at Harvard University, said the global war on terrorism has been used "to justify the most brutal suppression and killing" in Chechnya.
"This is a grand deceit, and many wish to be deceived," she said, referring to many of those nations and organizations that worked to free her parents' generation.
The National Park Service is creating a traveling exhibit about the infamous Soviet prison camp Perm 36. Part of the international "museums of conscience" movement, the show will feature testimonies, a recreation of prison cells and recovered objects. It will open on Ellis Island, N.Y., in May 2006, and will travel to Boston, Atlanta, Topeka, Kan., Washington and Manzanar, Calif., where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II.