Was Chomsky Right? Did East European Dissidents Suffer Less?

A couple of weeks ago, I received a surprisingly long email from American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, one of whose statements on dissidents two years ago stirred up a fuss. He was reacting by email to my request for an interview on Václav Havel, and East European dissent in the late socialist period generally.

He wrote that he was sorry — because he remembered our earlier conversation — but a debate on the given topic wasn’t worth much.

I thought the correspondence would end here, but Chomsky, after respectfully declining, decided to continue:

“I didn’t apprehend the hysteria that arose in the Czech Republic after my statement on East European dissidents and which, what else, I obviously took note of. After all, for everyone interested in this matter, it’s a widely known fact that East European dissidents suffered far less than their Latin American counterparts.

“Read for yourself, for instance, John Coatsworth’s entry in ‘The Cambridge History of the Cold War.’ Coatsworth writes in the volume that from the beginning of the 1960s until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the numbers of political prisoners, victims of torture and executed dissidents in Latin America vastly exceeded the numbers of those subjected to the same practices in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites.

“And with the Latin American victims, figure in also the six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, whose brains were shot out by members of elite units trained and armed by the United States (they had recently returned, moreover, from further training led by American counterinsurgency specialists), who carried out their act on the instructions of the highest leadership and who had been in close contact with the American Embassy.

“And what was Václav Havel’s reaction to this killing? In an address Havel delivered at a joint session of the American Congress just a few weeks after this horrible act, he spoke of the United States as the ‘defender of freedom’ and was rewarded for his words with deafening applause. I spoke about all this at a Prague press conference during my visit to the Czech Republic. Only it was fully clear to me at the very moment I said it that Czech journalists — and not only they, but all the rest who were listening — didn’t understand even a single word I said.

“One of the many crimes of Stalinism has to be sought out with the tenacity with which it influences the intellectual culture of those countries it has passed through, which isn’t, if we’re to be frank, even very surprising. When Latin American dissidents were tortured and murdered by state terrorists with U.S. backing, they were only accorded modest international support.

“When, on the other hand, East European dissidents were subjected to awfully nasty (which I don’t deny in the least), but still far less brutal treatment, they became heroes, lofted up to heaven by the greatest propaganda system in the world – that of the United States of America. Therefore it really doesn’t surprise me that these people understand the world so little, and that they’re not even capable of learning anything about it.”*

Is Chomsky Right?

I don’t know whether he is, or whether his truth regarding the suffering of East Europeans isn’t even unduly dismissive; how is one actually supposed to measure suffering? With arid counts of dead and persecuted? On the other hand, I would concede one thing to him (and it seems to me the main thing, because comparison of suffering is only his way of taking jabs): Chomsky’s narrative is one that can teach us a lot. For instance, that not all the earth’s inhabitants consider the West to be, a priori, light, and the East darkness, but that both have had and continue to have the capacity to be darkness and the light on which those who suffer pin their hopes – and that, at the same time. And that’s why it’s good to listen to Noam Chomsky.

*Editor’s note: Noam Chomsky’s remarks, while accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

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