Yakov Rabkin: I left the USSR to enjoy free speech in the West
- fifty years later, it no longer exists
In the 1970s, the Soviets made it impossible to access the foreign press. Now the US-led bloc is doing the same with Russian media.
By Yakov Rabkin, a professor emeritus of history at the Université de Montréal, author and public intellectual
© D-Keine/Getty Images
Fifty years ago I left the Soviet Union for one reason: My desire for freedom. I was disgusted by the one-sided world view fostered by the banning of foreign publications and the jamming of Western radio stations. The obedient media, toeing the party line, repulsed me and made me laugh.
Fear of the authorities (even if they were far more "vegetarian" than in Stalinist times) restricted open discussion of politics to the "kitchen cabinet,” with a small circle of trusted friends.
I left behind my hometown (then Leningrad, now St Petersburg), my friends, my brother and the graves of my parents and grandparents. Applying to emigrate meant taking a risk, because you almost always risked losing your job, many friends and even relatives, with no guarantee that you would even be granted an exit visa.
I was lucky. Just a few months later, my Soviet citizenship was revoked and I was able to buy a one-way train ticket to Vienna. My dream of freedom had come true. Although I was only allowed to take $140 out of the Soviet Union, the first thing I bought in Austria was a copy of the International Herald Tribune newspaper.
In November 1973, I joined the University of Montreal, which has since become my professional home. In addition to teaching and research, I followed with interest the political debates about the Vietnam War, the CIA's role in overthrowing the Salvador Allende government in Chile, and the implications of the October War in the Middle East. Debate raged over America's flirtation with China and, of course, relations with my own country. Some praised the Brezhnev-Nixon détente, others feared its pitfalls.
What struck me most in the newspapers and on television was the diversity of opinion. Letters to the editor offered a wide range of viewpoints, some of which not only criticized Western policies but also offered alternatives. It wasn't long before I began to express my own views, first in letters to publications and then in articles. I was excited by the opportunity to engage in free political debate and to make my contribution as a citizen and a scholar. After all, society had created the conditions for me to share the results of my research and observations broadly.
However, things have changed. Today, when it comes to some important international political topics, freedom of discussion is severely restricted.
One such issue is Israel. It takes a lot of courage to criticize the country without fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. In the early 1970s, Abba Eban, a South African by birth, whose eloquence as Israel’s UN representative and later foreign minister became legendary, devised a long-term strategy. His aim was to silence his country's critics by accusing them of anti-Semitism. His efforts continue to bear fruit: accusations of apartheid against Palestinians in Israel, and even boycotts of Israeli supermarket products, have been officially banned in many Western countries as manifestations of anti-Semitism. Israel's policy towards the Palestinians is thus removed from the realm of open debate.
An even more important issue that has disappeared from rational discussion is policy towards Russia. This issue is all the more important because Moscow has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Long before February 2022, when President Vladimir Putin announced the military campaign in Ukraine, most NATO countries (as well as Kiev itself) had restricted access to Russian media, something that did not happen in the West even during the Cold War. Just as the Soviets justified their jamming of Western radio broadcasts with the need to protect against "ideological sabotage,” NATO and its member states have created many institutions in recent years to protect citizens from, so-called, "Russian disinformation."
Once prominent Western scientists such as Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago have all but disappeared from the mainstream media: their criticisms of Western policy towards Moscow are often dismissed as Kremlin propaganda. Their views must now be sought on alternative websites in the vastness of the internet.
Moreover, the few attempts to take a dispassionate look at Western policy in Eastern Europe face insurmountable obstacles. Recently, for example, the association Montréal pour la paix (Montreal for Peace) attempted to organize a debate between prominent international relations experts on Canadian foreign policy. It promised to present "facts you have never read or heard from our media or from the offices of Justin Trudeau and Melanie Joly" (Canada's prime minister and foreign minister respectively). The institution that had initially agreed to rent space for the event, according to its staff, succumbed to pressure from its "Ukrainian neighbors" and cancelled the deal. Another institution agreed, but quickly changed its mind "so as not to offend its regular customers.”
The event had to be moved to a nearby park, where several dozen middle-aged people gathered to listen to the panel. About the same number of young people arrived waving Ukrainian flags and anti-Russian posters. Police arrived to separate the two groups to prevent violence. The demonstrators tried to drown out the speakers by occasionally singing loudly or shouting "Glory to Ukraine!” But there was something strange about their behavior.
When one of the experts, Yves Engler, author of several books on Canadian foreign policy, said that Ukrainians had the right to resist Russian troops, the demonstrators began chanting "Shame!" The event was held in French, but it turned out that most of the bold demonstrators not only did not understand French, but also had difficulty speaking English. So their anger could not have been directed at what the speakers were saying. It was clearly against freedom of speech on the war in Ukraine.
Freedom of speech is not just a democratic right. It is also a way of defining and weighing alternatives. When conflict becomes an epic struggle between good and evil, rationality is replaced by moral judgment and noble indignation. This undermines all diplomacy and, in turn, exacerbates the danger of nuclear war, the inevitable consequence of which, as US military strategists recognized as early as 1962, is Mutually Assured Destruction, or ‘MAD’.
Unanimity, una voce, one-sided debate – call it what you like. But this is about more than just the denial of free speech. The climate it has created threatens the very survival of humanity.