Autor: Tulle Elster

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The Peace March to Moscow


Der Friedensmarsch nach Moskau


Fachliche Unterstützung:

— Not one of us knows what effect we may be having or what we may be giving to other persons. It is hidden from us and shall remain so. Often we are permitted to see a very little portion of this, so that we may not become discouraged. Power works in mysterious ways.”
Albert Schweizer

Four years after the Scandinavian “Peace March Stockholm-Moscow-Minsk 1982”, I met Grigory Lokshin from the former Soviet Peace Committee again. Times had already changed in the Soviet Union. Breshnev had passed away. Andropov and Chernenko, both old men, had followed him, first as presidents, then to the grave. And finally — after 40 years of life terrorised by possible nuclear extinction — something new had happened. A man with new ideas got the chance, grabbed it and started a completely new process, soon known as perestroika and glasnost.

1) The then 42 year old Mikhail Gorbachev quickly won the hearts of ordinary citizens in the West with his new politics, which included proposals for real nuclear disarmament, an issue the peace movement had pressed for ever since Hiroshima. After our peace march in the Soviet Union, people had been discussing whether it had any impact on the democratic process that followed. Meeting Grigory again, I therefore used the opportunity to ask: 1)
2) “How did this ’glasnost’ and ’perestroika’ actually start?”
I have never seen such sincere incredulity in a face as when he answered: “And YOU ask that question!? YOU — who started it all!” I was flabbergasted: “ME? What do you mean?” “Don’t you remember”, he said, almost insulted,” was you who organized the first democratic meeting in the Soviet Union since before the Revolution!?”2)
3) I thought he was joking. Thinking back, however, I have since realized the truth in the old Chinese proverb: “Even the longest journey starts with a first step”. Although our initiative was neither the first nor the last, our peace march was one of many similar “first steps”, with a snowball effect which has lasted to this very day.3)
4) Our march inspired other actions, just as it was itself inspired by what others had done before us. In our efforts today we are indebted to small peace groups in Europe and the US at the beginning of the 18th century, mostly inspired by the Quakers. To a Bertha von Suttner, who in 1889, with her novel “Down with Arms”, translated into over 40 languages, shook the whole world (her book is still good reading) and who, two years later, at a peace congress in Rome helped establish the International Peace Bureau, the organization in Geneva which today consists of 186 peace organizations world wide.4)
5) The first nuclear bombs were used against civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Strong protests followed this crime against humanity, but it was not until 1957 that the first truly worldwide peace movement of the grassroots came about, i.e. systematic international cooperation for peace and disarmament. That year radioactive fallout from an American nuclear test in the Pacific had contaminated the crew on board a Japanese fishing boat, and this caused global outrage. During the next 5-6 years the peace movement raised public awareness of the terrible consequences of atmospheric nuclear tests. The yearly Aldermaston anti-nuclear marches in Britain were among the most famous demonstrations. Finally, in 1963, the US and the USSR signed a ban against atmospheric tests. With great relief the protesters went home, thinking they had “done it”. How wrong they were. China and France, who had not signed, continued their atmospheric tests, while the signatories took their ! tests underground and continued the arms race at full pace.5)
6) It was not until 1979 that the world would again see another major peace wave. Alarmed by reports that the US intended to deploy nuclear missiles in Western Europe, as an “answer” to Soviet missiles already in place, millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic took to the streets. Membership surged in the old peace organizations, and new ones were started.6)
7) Peace marches In Copenhagen four women met around a blue kitchen table and wrote an appeal against the madness. Within half a year 500.000 women all over Scandinavia had signed the appeal, and “Women for Peace” groups spontaneously popped up everywhere. In Oslo a young dancer, Rachel Pedersen, “had had a dream”, and in 1981 a colorful group of 3500 women and men marched out of Copenhagen for Paris carrying banners with “No to Nuclear Weapons in the West and in the East!” When the march arrived in the French capital — to which it was first denied access! — the crowd behind the demands had grown to 20 000 people. 7)
8) In other places people who had not been able to join, organised their own local marches. In Cardiff eleven young mothers took their prams and children and marched to Greenham Commons, one of the military bases set to receive the new nuclear missiles. After a small demonstration at the main gate, when the plan was to go home, one of the women suddenly chained herself to the gate and refused to leave. This was how a remarkable and long protest against nuclear weapons began. As the word spread, thousands of women from all over Britain rushed to the site, and many stayed, trying to block all the entrances. The result was a major protest camp that lasted for 14 years and still exists. Even if the mass media kept silent about the women, the rumour of their courageous action rapidly spread. Only four months later, 30 000 women from all over the world arrived at Greenham Commons to “surround the base” on the second anniversary of NATO’s nuclear deployment decision. Soo! n after there were “Greenham Women” around hundreds of nuclear bases and production plants; in Europe, the United States, New Zealand and Australia.8)
9) A small plane with a tail circled over our heads at Greenham Commons that wet and cold December day warning: “Attention! KGB is here!” As in Paris, we were told by the establishment that we walked in the wrong direction. “Go to the Kremlin!” they said, “They are the ones to blame” Of course neither they, nor we, thought it would in fact be possible to “Go to the Kremlin”. But, nothing is more stimulating than an impossible challenge! 9)
10) After nearly a year of negotiations with the authorities, our new Moscow-bound Peace March set out from Stockholm. Few of us had ever been to the Soviet Union and we didn’t really know what to expect. Predictions in the conservative press were that we would only be allowed to meet a “handful of communist party members”, or even that we would be driven around in closed cattle wagons, hidden from the sight of the Soviet people.10)
11) What a surprise! When we woke up the first morning in Leningrad thousands of people were waiting outside our hotel. Through Finland we had learnt to march four deep so as to look a bit longer than “only” the 300 of us. Bringing out our banners for our first march on Soviet soil, we lined up to start our march in the way we were used to. But as soon as we started moving we were joined by the waiting crowd. In less than a minute I had lost sight of all my Scandinavian companions. I counted. We were 16 to 18 deep and God knows how long, and on the sidewalks people loaded with flowers were thronging to see and greet and even touch. At the end of the day we were downloaded with flowers, balloons, buttons and postcards with greetings from people not only thirsting for contact with us from the West, but also expressing strong wishes for peace and democracy.11)
12) During the planning of the march together with the Soviet Peace Committee, we had refused to take part in any of their suggested sightseeings. We were not “tourists”; we were there to influence the public opinion and the Soviet government to disarm. We had, however, consented to a one-hour visit to the famous Winter Palace. So, the next day, buses came to pick us up for this event. 12)
13) I was just about to step onboard when someone pulled me back: “There’s a rumour that someone is organizing an open meeting somewhere after the tour of the Winter Palace.” Somebody has to sit down and make a plan, just in case the rumour is correct. I got hold of my roommate Agneta Aaberg and explained the situation to her. While the buses left, we stayed behind to discuss what could happen, what to do, and, not less, how to do it. 13)
14) And a meeting did happen. At a huge ballroom in one of the beautiful old buildings next to the Winter Palace, hundreds were already gathering at the entrance. More and more people stopped to enquire, and were invited in. The ballroom was soon so full that doors to an adjoining hall had to be opened before the meeting could start. Agneta and I seated ourselves on the podium, on each side of Lev, a distinguished Russian researcher from the US and Canadian Institute in Moscow. He started by wishing everybody welcome. But then went on with what we had already learned was likely to be an endless flowering speech on Soviet efforts for peace and disarmament. Agneta and I nodded to each other behind his back, and went to work.14)
15) I got up and, with polite thanks, took the microphone from him and informed the audience that anybody who wanted to say something just stand up, state their name and talk when their turn came. I was too exited to notice the expression on the faces of our official Soviet coordinators during the next couple of hours, but nobody interrupted either us or the many Russian men and women who wished to speak. In short, the meeting proceeded like any normal, democratic meeting at home. 15)
16) The impact of a single meeting or even a peace march like ours, cannot, for certain, be measured. But people who keep saying that our march had no impact at all, must be wrong. In addition to the many thousands who turned out to watch and walk with us, we were seen by millions on TV, had thousands of discussions; made hundreds of lasting contacts — the Iron Curtain was a little lower than before. 16)
17) Seeing Grigori again brought back all these memories of the overwhelming experience of meeting our counterparts after all those years of Cold War distance and suspicion. I did not take Grigori’s talk about us having started the perestroika too seriously, but some years later the tremendous effect of our march was confirmed in a talk with Natalia Bereshkova. In 1982 she had represented the Union of Soviet Women. She had continued her peace work and we met again during the International Peace Bureau conference in Moscow in 1997.17)
18) Not only had our march been “the most significant event in her life”, Natalia told me, but it had also had an immense impact on the Soviet political establishment: “The forces against letting the march into the country were so strong, she said, that we in the planning committee were holding our breath right up to the moment when we heard that you had actually crossed the border. After the march, everything started easing up. I think that the mere fact that you came, as ordinary people just seeking peace, gave our establishment a different view of the ’enemy’, just as you in the West saw that we were just ordinary people and not only ’communists’ or ’KGB agents’. After the march our bosses started to listen to us in a different way. This in turn encouraged us to speak out more freely. It also became easier to travel abroad, meet and discuss with people in the West, learn about human rights, your various social and educational systems etc.”18)

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