Commentary Magazine

“Glasnost,” the KGB, and the “Nation”

Sergei Grigoryants, who has spent ten of his forty-six years in Soviet prisons and labor camps, was among some 150 political prisoners released in 1987 by order of the Politburo, in the first dramatic demonstration of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of openness or glasnost. Today, however, the threat of persecution again darkens Grigoryants’s life, a threat brought on by his insistence on taking the promise of glasnost seriously and abetted by a slanderous article featured in the American weekly, the Nation.

Soon after his release, Grigoryants announced that he was launching a magazine which would operate without government control or censorship, but which—unlike previous clandestine dissident publications, known as samizdat—would appear openly and seek legal recognition. The obvious purpose was to test or stretch the bounds of the new “openness.” To underline the point, Grigoryants named his new journal, Glasnost.

Glasnost quickly became a symbol and barometer of the new atmosphere. It is not so much a journal of opinion as of news, the kind of news rarely found in the official press: about protests and appeals, dissidents and refuseniks. One can also find in it occasional wry reports about the Soviet establishment.

The authorities have responded to Glasnost with some ambiguity, at one point even implying a willingness to consider granting it official recognition, at other times threatening and harassing Grigoryants and confiscating copies of the magazine.

Recently, things have taken a turn for the worse. Grigoryants reports that the magazine has “been forced to abandon [its] offices” because pressures were brought against the person who had provided it space. Some contributors have also had their phones disconnected. Others have been accosted on the street. Paruir Airikyan, an Armenian nationalist whose open letter to Gorbachev was published in Glasnost, has been arrested. And a strident assault against Grigoryants has been launched in the Soviet press.

It is both an irony and a disgrace that this campaign has made heavy use of an article by Kevin Coogan and Katrina Vanden Heuvel in the March 19, 1988 issue of the Nation. Titled “U.S. Funds for Soviet Dissidents,” it focused on “a small New York-based foundation run by Russian émigrés” called the Center for Democracy, which publishes the English-language edition of Grigoryants’s Glasnost with a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The article charged that the Center has also received U.S. government funds through the NED for “a program that more closely resembled intelligence-gathering than human-rights work.” Calling the Center “a potential albatross,” the authors warned that “it would be tragic if Glasnost was silenced as a result” of this association.

For all their ostensible solicitude, the authors seem to have given little thought to the consequences of their own words. Their article was heralded by a press release from the Nation marked “for simultaneous release in New York and Moscow.” The intention, says Miss Vanden Heuvel, was to distribute copies not to the Soviet press but to American correspondents in the USSR, where she was traveling at the time of publication—and even this intention was never fulfilled. Nonetheless, within days of the article’s appearance it was picked up in the Soviet weekly, Literaturnaya Gazeta. In a piece called “Pawns in Someone Else’s Game,” that journal used the Nation story to portray Grigoryants as a tool of U.S. intelligence who “had been given the job of provoking the flareup” in Armenia by “his patrons” at the CIA. The New York correspondent of Literaturnaya Gazeta, Iona Andronov, also reported that:

A local journalist, Kevin Coogan, gave me a more detailed and authentic account of the secrets of the New York publishers of the pseudo-Glasnost. He had earlier excited my curiosity by giving the lowdown on the new anti-Soviet magazine and securing semi-secret information about it. Coogan’s collaborator in this was Katrina Vanden Heuvel, who works on the liberal weekly Nation. Their joint article for the Nation is already in the galley-proof stage. But Coogan agreed to share his information with Literaturnaya Gazeta.

Coogan has acknowledged furnishing Andronov with advance copies of the galleys and discussing the story with him (though he later sent Literaturnaya Gazeta a letter-to-the-editor protesting that Andronov’s article “misrepresents” their conversation). In any event, once having given Andronov the galleys, and realizing that he was likely to write about this story, the two Nation authors emended their own galleys to stress their concern for Grigoryants’s well-being.

It is hardly surprising that the Soviet press seized on the Nation story. The accusation of links to Western intelligence is precisely what Soviet authorities are wont to level against their most troublesome dissidents. Anatoly Sharansky, for example, was sentenced in 1978 for spying for the CIA—a spurious charge that according to the Nation‘s star columnist, Alexander Cockburn, had more truth to it than the “self-censor[ed]” American press would admit. And the Soviet journalist Iona Andronov is precisely the man to write such a story. A flamboyant figure, Andronov was the leading Soviet propagator of the theme that the CIA rather than the KGB had been behind the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. (It was in this connection, apparently, that Andronov first met Coogan, who was working on the same angle.) According to Herbert Romerstein, a former staff member of the House Intelligence Committee, Andronov has “a long history of KGB activity.”

The accusations in Andronov’s story went far beyond those in the Nation, but Soviet authorities also saw fit to republish the Nation piece itself—not once, but twice. The translation appeared both in the weekly Za Rubezhom (“Foreign Life”) and in the party daily Sovietskaya Rossiya. In short, as a spokesman for the Center for Democracy noted wryly, the Nation article reached an audience of thousands here, millions there.


But was it accurate? Has the Center for Democracy been engaged in some kind of intelligence activity? The Nation reported that in March 1984, the exiled Soviet human-rights activist Yuri Yarim-Agaev “wrote a proposal for a new ‘Soviet studies research center,’ which later became the Center for Democracy. At the heart of the proposal, a copy of which InterNation obtained through FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests, was a bold idea: to use the Soviet human-rights network to gather political and military information on the USSR.”

The Nation, however, misrepresented the March 1984 proposal in two crucial ways. First, the proposal did not involve “military information.” A sentence from the proposal quoted in the Nation referred to the sorts of information shared among human-rights defenders within the USSR and then declared: “this network has not been concentrating on gathering military, technological, and strategic information, nor can it do so.” To this the Nation added: “Yarim-Agaev proposed to rectify this.” But Yarim-Agaev proposed nothing of the sort. Here are the relevant passages:

. . . this network has not been concentrating on gathering military, technological, and strategic information, nor can it do so.

However, the spectrum of [its] information has considerably broadened to include many social, economic, and political aspects of Soviet life. . . .

To understand and predict the policy of the Soviet leadership it is indispensable to have access to reliable and detailed information on developments within the country, changes and adjustments in internal and external policies, and the attitudes of the many different nationalities, social strata, groupings, etc. in the USSR.

The proposal then went on to enumerate the eleven areas of research that Yarim-Agaev had in mind. None of the eleven involved military information, although one category was headed “the military and society.” Needless to say, the Nation gave heavy emphasis to this category, and simply ignored the majority of the other research subjects. But even here, as was made crystal clear in Yarim-Agaev’s proposal, the information to be gathered was of a sociological nature, and had nothing to do with deployments of forces.

To Soviet authorities, of course, almost any true information is sensitive. Thus, numerous refuseniks have been denied emigration because they have had access to economic or sociological data that the Kremlin regards as “state secrets.” And, perversely, the Kremlin has a point. In a century of total war and of long-term ideological/power conflicts, all kinds of social facts may bear on the power of the state. In the West, nonetheless, we draw a line between information about, for example, the GNP, or the quality of our schools, on the one hand, and about the location of our submarines, on the other hand. Yarim-Agaev’s proposal aimed only at the kind of information that is available about the United States in every issue of the New York Times. When the Nation used the terms “intelligence-gathering” and “military information” to describe the Agaev proposal, it was thus in effect employing totalitarian definitions.


The Nation misused the proposal in a second and still more egregious way when it claimed that the contemplated research center “later became the Center for Democracy.” This is simply false. Indeed, the proposal died within weeks of its birth, having been rejected by the staff of the National Endowment for Democracy, which did not even send it on for consideration by its board. The staff felt that research of this kind was already being done by competent academic institutions, and that the proposed activity, though perfectly legitimate, would be too vulnerable to attack by Soviet authorities.

Instead, the NED agreed to fund a small feasibility study conducted by Yarim-Agaev, Vladimir Bukovsky, and others. As a result of that study, the Center for Democracy was created in 1985 and began receiving support from the NED in 1986. In the two years since then, the Center has worked purely as a human-rights organization, channeling moral and material support to Soviet dissidents, serving as an authoritative source of information here about their plight, and publishing Glasnost. Although the findings of the feasibility study, the proposal for the Center for Democracy, and each of the Center’s quarterly reports were supplied to the Nation in response to its FOIA request, not a word from any of them was cited in the article.

In response to the Nation‘s attack, several recently arrived dissidents have spoken out in defense of the Center. The noted poet Irina Ratushinskaya and her husband, Igor Gerashchenko, wrote:

[W]e can attest to the fact that the Center never turned to us for any intelligence information but helped us when we were in the Soviet Union—from sending vitamins for the women’s labor camp to providing material support and information for many dissidents. . . . We know now that one can always turn to the Center for information on prisoners of conscience . . . who is in which camp, who has been released, who has been arrested again, who is in internal exile, who in a psychiatric prison.

As this inventory of activities suggests, the Center takes an aggressive approach to its work. For example, for a year it ran an “independent exchange program” which actively directed Western travelers in the USSR to Soviet dissidents desiring more contact with outsiders. While the Center’s supporters believe that such programs help to protect dissidents against persecution, some critics have complained that such “high-profile” activity, conducted with public funds, may actually increase their jeopardy.


This controversy provided additional grist for the Nation‘s mill. The authors of the March 19 article quoted five authorities—the exiled Soviet dissidents Ludmilla Alexeyeva and Pavel Litvinov, the American Sovietologists Richard Pipes and Herbert Ellison, and an official of Helsinki Watch, Catherine Fitzpatrick—apparently criticizing the activities of the Center for Democracy. All have subsequently acknowledged that they were quoted accurately, but four of the five say their words were used by the Nation in a misleading way, and the fifth is deeply unhappy with the article.

When Katrina Vanden Heuvel was asked whether she believes that the Center for Democracy is engaged in intelligence-gathering, she replied coyly: “I refer you to the quotes in the article from a wide range of people.” But only two of those quoted—Catherine Fitzpatrick and Herbert Ellison—mention intelligence. Although the article made it appear that they were talking about the Center, both say that this was not so. As Miss Fitzpatrick has explained:

It seems to me there is no evidence—I don’t think the Nation has come up with any evidence certainly (I think it’s a misleading article in that sense)—that this group is involved in intelligence work. So far as I know about their current work, it’s all about political prisoners and arrests and people in trouble. So I’m certainly not accusing them of engaging in intelligence work.

And Ellison says, “What bothers me very much about this article is that it equates the original proposal with the structure and function of the Center for Democracy. That is careless and inaccurate.” Moreover, according to Ellison, “the notion that there was an effort to acquire information of military-intelligence significance [is] a very misleading interpretation of the language of the original proposal.”


As for the others: Pavel Litvinov, who was quoted as saying several very harsh things about the Center, has since explained that he was not talking about the Center at all but about the March 1984 research proposal. The same is true for Pipes, who likewise says that his critical comments referred only to the March 1984 proposal. That proposal, he believes, “was indeed ill-advised, but the Nation‘s article does far greater harm to the cause of human rights in the Soviet Union by taking a rejected draft as a fact and blowing it up out of all proportion, thus providing the KGB with an excuse to harass Glasnost and Soviet dissidents with foreign contacts.” In fact, the articles in the Nation and in the Soviet press themselves illustrate the very misuse to which Pipes had feared the March 1984 proposal would be susceptible.

And Ludmilla Alexeyeva, an avowed critic of the Center, has said that “if the authors [of the Nation article] are concerned about people there, then they shouldn’t write this article,” adding: “I think that the real aim of this article is some internal fight”—i.e., among American ideological factions—“that I don’t understand and don’t want to understand, and I feel that people here shouldn’t use Soviet dissidents for these fights.”

She is right. Kevin Coogan and Katrina Vanden Heuvel’s intended target was not Grigoryants, but Yarim-Agaev and hs fellow leader of the Center for Democracy, Vladimir Bukovsky, and the NED’s president Carl Gershman. All these are vilified in the Nation article for their “militant anti-Sovietism and anti-Communism” (to cite the words one anonymous source used of Gershman).


Miss Vanden Heuvel now argues that “the unfortunate official harassment of Grigoryants and the journal has been under way for some time . . . and I think it’s wrongheaded or naive about the Soviet system to think that this article was required or played a part in anything that’s going on there.” But Herbert Ellison disagrees. “An article of the kind that the Nation has published,” he says, “is a very useful club with which to beat Grigoryants.”

Most tellingly of all, Grigoryants himself reports that Ellison’s view is correct. “Our situation and my situation have considerably worsened,” he asserts, and “in part this situation is a result of these articles” (i.e., the attacks on him in the Soviet press). Grigoryants plans to sue Literaturnaya Gazeta and its correspondent, Andronov, for slander in the Soviet courts. As for his self-proclaimed protectors, Kevin Coogan and Katrina Vanden Heuvel, their article, he says, “in point of fact has served the very clear slander of Iona Andronov.”

Thus has the Nation progressed from its long and dishonorable history as an apologist for Soviet tyranny to the still bolder and more dishonorable role of accomplice.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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