How a small group of anarchists took on the Soviet Union and won!
by Bob McGlynn, Fifth Estate
With the war in Ukraine and renewed US-Russian rivalry, the need has emerged for a "neither-nor" position of the kind some anarchists and anti-authoritarians took in the Cold War—building solidarity between anti-war and left-libertarian forces on either side of the East-West divide. In this context, the US anarchist journal Fifth Estate last year ran the following look back at the ground-breaking group Neither East Nor West, which took on such work at the height of the Reagan Cold War. Neither East Nor West co-founder Bob McGlynn recounts the little-known role of this and related efforts in a period whose history has suddenly become frighteningly relevant.—World War 4 Report
During the Cold War, there was always a sector within the anarchist/left-libertarian milieu in the West that took a special interest in dissidence and repression within the Soviet Bloc. This interest was in part due to the ultra-closed nature of Soviet Bloc societies and the lack of information about opposition and activism within them that did not come from a pro-Western perspective.
This changed in 1980 with the formation of Poland's Solidarity free trade union. With a nationwide general strike and 10 million workers signing on in two to three months, Solidarity exploded Communism's frontiers. Neither East Nor West-NYC (NENW-NYC) traces its roots back to this time, when a number of anti-authoritarians in the New York City metropolitan area took advantage of Solidarity's opening. Individual activists and members of the anarcho-syndicalist Workers Solidarity Alliance, along with the (now disbanded) Revolutionary Socialist League, met while doing Solidarity support.
Then in 1983, this crew joined with Soviet exiles in the US—particularly Sergei Batovrin—to form the New York Trust Group (NYTG), a sister organization to the Moscow Trust Group (MTG), a semi-aboveground and much persecuted organization that opposed nuclear weapons. (Following the Moscow lead, other Trust Groups formed elsewhere n the USSR.) Some in the committee were also members of the New York Anti-Nuclear Group and the Brooklyn Anti-Nuclear Group (BANG), such as myself. The NYTG and BANG helped pioneer putting the struggles of the subjugated within the Soviet empire on the agenda of the anti-nuclear movement in the US. The Brooklyn group's newsletter BANG Notes was the first anti-nuclear periodical in the West to chronicle parallel Eastern scenes.
Being involved with struggles against dictatorships automatically brought us into support work for political prisoners. The NYTG acted in part as a de facto section of the political prisoner support network Anarchist Black Cross (ABC). One successful campaign was launched after another against repression of the Trust Groups and on behalf of their detained members: petitions, pickets at the Soviet consulate in Manhattan, and so on. Others around the US and the world also took up this work up, some forming local Trust Groups.
Successful NYTG campaigns included: The freeing the MTG's Nina Kovalenko from mental hospital incarceration (where many were tortured and force-drugged, as she was); getting Truster Alexandre Shatravka "paroled" from his seven-year labor camp sentence (an unheard-of, precedent-setting victory); springing Yuri Popov of Moscow's counterculture/anarcho-pacifist Free Initiative from a mental hospital; and saving MTG leader Nikolai Khramov from being forced into exile.
The Soviet Trust Groups wanted "mutual citizen-based campaigns" to link easterners and westerners in common effort. Although much of the activity was a one-way street in supporting the Trusters in one human rights emergency after another, the Trusters also supported struggles abroad. For instance, the MTG protested the jailing of US draft registration resister Andy Major, and the Lvov (Ukraine) Trust Group sent a solidarity message to a protest at the Pentagon against US intervention in Central America (linking it to fighting Soviet intervention in Afghanistan).
NYTG work culminated on August 3, 1986: After months of secretive preparation, American members of the of the NYTG and Brits from UK Trustbuilders were accompanied by the MTG in a post-Chernobyl anti-nuclear leafleting at the entrance to Moscow's Gorky Park. The action was symbolically timed for the August 6 anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. We had a sign that said "No more Hiroshimas, No more Chernobyls—Peace and Environmental Safety for All." The team was, as expected, busted in five minutes and detained by the KGB. (Ann-Marie Hendrickson and myself from the NYTG, Peggy Walford and David Barnsdale from the UK Trustbuilders, and Nina Kovalenko from the MTG.) The action garnered coverage in major dailies worldwide.
One week later, Elizabeth Abrahm and Angela Mugan from the UK Greenham Common Women's Peace Encampment repeated the action at the Moscow Zoo—this time not getting detained, although surrounded by security forces. Glasnost was beginning to flower (unknown to many is that it really began with Chernobyl), and savage repression against the MTG was abating, pretty much ending with the Moscow actions. Sergei Batovrin, its rep abroad in the NYTG, concluded that the special support work could then be brought to rest.
In fact, one reason for the "Mission to Moscow" was to solidify the umbrella of protection some western anti-nukers had provided the Trust Groups against complete annihilation at the hands of the KGB. The MTG took a gamble that if they supported disarmament, just as the Soviet state propaganda machine purported to, then they might survive. And the western anti-nuke movement was watching. Much of the disarmament movement in the West was in the Soviet political orbit (e.g. through the "Soviet Peace Committee") and Moscow didn't want to risk losing some of them if the Trusters were smashed.The Soviets were trapped by their own propaganda.
The Trust Group work was a resounding success. The MTG formed as a brilliant way to prick open a hole in Soviet despotism by creating a "peace portal," taking advantage of Soviet propagandizing around "peace" which countered the West's "democracy" propaganda. Though victimized daily (unending surveillance, detentions, house arrest, beatings, torture, and, we were told, two extrajudicial executions), they survived, partly through our help—much to the astonishment of Soviet-watchers, the human rights establishment, and even themselves.
During this period we continued our Polish work and were involved where possible with other East Bloc countries—for instance, in protesting repression of Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 dissident human rights group. Soon after, in the fall of 1986, many of those involved in the NY Trust Group joined with others (including from New York ABC) to form NENW-NYC to continue the work—solidifying the agenda of mutual solidarity with all the peoples of the East. That is, not only did we picket for imprisoned Polish conscription resisters, but the Poles were asked, if they could (their conditions being far more repressive), to support struggles here. And yes, they did—for instance, petitioning in favor of NYC bike messengers fighting an attempted ban of bikes in part of midtown Manhattan. (Both campaigns winning—the bike ban was overturned and the Polish draft resisters freed!)
In the fall of '87 we published our first issue of On Gogol Boulevard (OGB, named for Moscow's artistic and alternative scene hangout), chronicling the news of not only the "traditional" Eastern dissidents, but of the newer peace, green, gay, feminist, youth, counterculture, anarchist, democratic-socialist and other oppositions. This was distributed within the North American anarchist scene, and some copies made it through to our contacts in the East. Political prisoner news was right up front, with a number of OGBs having a section on repression and political prisoners in the US, bringing easterners a trustworthy source of info from an anti-Western perspective (our anti-Soviet position giving us credibility). OGB was a networking tool for alternative oppositions in East and West., providing contacts, names, addresses, phone numbers, languages spoken etc.
As with the Trust Group, other NENW groups sprang up. Prominent among those in North America were Chicago NENW, Bay Area NENW, Toronto NENW, Lawrence KS NENW, Albany NY NENW, Miami NENW, and Mexico City NENW. We eventually coalesced as the North American East/West Network of almost 40 groups. OGB was the chief means of communication and networking.
Campaigns against repression and for political prisoners in this period were too numerous to list. A few stand out. In mutual coordination with Moscow's Free Initiative, we twinned the case of Soviet prisoner Sergei Troyanski with that of US prisoner Rainbow Hawk of the Rainbow Family counterculture network—both busted on fraudulent drug charges in politicized trials. We initially twinned Rainbow Hawk with two Moscow anarchist-punk political prisoners. The two and Sergei and eventually Rainbow Hawk were all freed. (Russia's Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists was pivotal in this campaign.)
We (and others) petitioned and picketed for members of the anti-authoritarian Polish Socialist Party-Democratic Revolution and anarchists in Poland's Freedom and Peace group who were denied passports and freedom of travel. All were given passports. In East Germany, a number of leading anti-authoritarian leftists were arrested. We immediately picketed local East German consulates. All the East Germans were quickly released and expelled to the West, but were allowed to come home after a short time—another precedent-setting victory. And we got one of them—Wolfgang Templin—to come to New York to make the rounds, give talks, and see the real America.
We and the Workers Solidarity Alliance went outside of the East in our work, and conducted an international campaign for the release of four political prisoners of Nigeria's anarchist Awareness League: Udemba Chuks, Garba Adu, Kigsly Etioni and James Ndubuisi. In yet one more precedent, the four were let out on bail—the first prisoners to be allowed bail under the emergency decree then in force. That we know of, 59 articles in 16 languages were published on the case from as far away as Turkey, Estonia, South Korea and South Africa; over 1,400 signatures on petitions from a score of countries received, and over $1,800 raised. There were seven demos at Nigerian consulates on an international day of action in February 1993: New York, Moscow, London, Dublin, Berlin, Hamburg and Rio de Janeiro. Protests were also held in Norway and Bulgaria, although these did not have Nigerian consulates at this time. (Awareness League leader Sam Mbah later toured New York and other US cities to network with our scene.)
This period saw a similar campaign for an imprisoned member of New York's Tompkins Square anarchist scene, Kenny Toglia. Tompkins Square Park was popular among the homeless, and as part of the gentrification war, a curfew was imposed on it by city authorities. The homeless and their squatter supporters were violently ejected from the park in a police riot in August 1988. Kenny was unfairly arrested on riot charges during a later confrontation in the park, and found guilty. We came to Kenny's campaign too late—after his trial was over. He did his minimum eight months—but on daylight work-release, which was a partial victory. At least he had the morale-boosting knowledge that at US embassies as far away as Moscow, Minsk, Warsaw and Mexico City, people were in the streets for him (with the Poles suffering beatings and arrests for their efforts).
We also had the case of punk promoter Bob Z, who wheat-posted flyers for his shows on New York's Lower East Side (I was his house poet). But along comes Big Brother, who gives him not one summons but 3,000—one for each flyer! We asked the Poles for help, sending a photo of Bob with a grin and his hands choking with the summonses. The Polish Freedom and Peace group responded with hundreds of signatures. These were delivered to the judge through radical civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, and the embarrassing case folded. Smartly done persistent protest, with planetary coordination, can get the goods.
We were also among the first to protest the World Bank and IMF as they began the capitalist re-colonization of the former East Bloc in the '90s. One protest appeal we participated in against these twin bodies of financial imperialism appeared in 16 languages. We also raised money for Prague's' spacious Ladronka squat along with NYC punk/art space ABC No Rio.
In the early 1990s, On Gogol Boulevard ceased publishing, but lived on as a section in anarchist publications such as Fifth Estate, Profane Existence, Love and Rage, The Shadow and RSL's The Torch/La Antorcha, which we continued to mail to hundreds of our contacts in the East.
The Neither East Nor West network remains alive, despite the demise of the East Bloc. Our focus on the East, or former "Second World," also served as a doorway to incorporating—in multiple and concrete ways—the concerns of the "Third World" and "Fourth World" (land-based indigenous peoples), with a particular focus on supporting activists and movements with anti-authoritarian and anti-Stalinist perspectives.
Photo: Anarchist contingent at anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow, May 2012. Banner reads: "We have a clear plan: Self-rule, Self-organization, Solidarity." Portraits show Peter Kropotkin and Nestor Makhno. Source: World War 4 Report via Facebook.
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Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Jan. 24, 2015