Courtesy: Independent Institute
Courtesy: Independent Institute

The global Cold War has been variously interpreted as the conflict between two Great Powers for global hegemony (John Mearsheimer) or conflict between two strong versions of nationalism (Jawaharlal Nehru). But, the most prevalent explanation of the Cold War pits it as a fight between two opposing universalistic ideologies- liberalism and communism. The presence of nuclear weapons and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) prevented direct military confrontation between the two powers. However, the proxy war which was in full swing included the promotion of competing visions of the arrangement of society. 

The US and its Western allies saw themselves as the promoter of individualism, democracy, freedom of expression, consumerist prosperity, human rights, and free markets. Communist USSR saw itself as the defender of the oppressed against Western imperialism and capitalist exploitation by presenting an alternate model of planned economy and authoritarian polity, euphemistically called the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The global extent of the Cold War competition meant India wasn’t to be left untouched. Indian public space engaged with the events in the wider field of the Cold War around the globe. Indian liberals here were no exception. For instance, in 1975, A G Noorani published his critique of Soviet communism in the form of a book review in the liberal journal Freedom First. Noorani’s review article focused on edited volumes of the writings of Nobel prize winners Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, two of the most remarkable dissidents against Soviet Communism in the 1970s.

Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn used their writings effectively to criticize the human rights violation by the USSR. Historian Thomas Borstelmann has argued that the revelation of the horrors of Soviet governance in the 1970s contributed significantly to the weakening of the Soviet empire.  Noorani’s review of the writings of the two courageous dissidents praised the good fight and made the case for the Western powers to put pressure on the USSR to accept human rights norms as part of the ongoing detente negotiations. The negotiations finally culminated in the Helsinki Accords of 1975. According to Thomas Borstelmann, the Accord provided a very powerful weapon to the dissidents within the Soviet regime and advanced the cause of human rights.

Noorani’s book review, in this sense, was prescient in agreeing with the Western intellectuals who demanded the USSR’s acceptance of human rights as part of the ongoing negotiations during the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1973. The review further focused on the need for intellectual freedom to uncover the arbitrary uses of state power. Noorani portrayed the dissident duos as examples of lovers of liberty the world over would forget only at their peril.

Following the exhortation of Noorani, produced below is an excerpt from his book review.

In October 1973, more than twenty West European intellectuals signed and published a statement declaring that vital principles of intellectual freedom were in danger of being neglected at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe which Russians were trying to hustle through. They said “We hope for growing political detente, but so far attempts to achieve this have in fact been accompanied by a worsening in the cultural situation both within the countries of Eastern Europe and in their relations with the West . . . Intellectual co-operation and mutual understanding will remain empty slogans unless minimum conditions of cultural freedom are observed in all countries concerned.” (The Times, London October 12, 1973). Among the signatories were men like Raymond Aron, Denis de Rougement, Gunter Grass, and Leopold Labedz.

The hub of the matter is that while Russia accepted an agenda for the Geneva talks which includes references to human rights and “better conditions for increased cultural and educational exchanges, for broader dissemination of information, for contacts between people, and for the solution of humanitarian problems,” on the other hand it has insisted that co-operation should be “carried out on the basis of respect for the sovereignty, laws and customs of each country,” a euphemism for its totalitarian system.

Is the quest for detente, then, reconcilable with support for individual liberty in Russia? No more authoritative opinion on this subject can be expressed than the one Dr Andrei Sakharov, the distinguished nuclear physicist and spokesman for Russia’s Human Rights Movement did in an interview he gave to Western correspondents at his Moscow flat on August 2I, 1973, “Detente without democratization, a rapprochement when the West in fact accepts our rules of the game in this process of rapprochement, such a rapprochement would be very dangerous in that respect, and wouldn’t solve any of the world’s problems, and would mean simply a capitulation to our real or exaggerated strength. lt would mean an attempt to trade, to get from us gas and oil, neglecting all other aspects of the problems. I think it’s very dangerous.

“By liberating ourselves from problems we can’t solve ourselves, we could concentrate on accommodating strength, and as a result, the whole world would be disarmed and facing our uncontrollable bureaucratic apparatus. I think that detente without any qualifications, accepting our rules of the game, would be very bad.

The full text of the review can be accessed here. is an online library of all Indian liberal writings, lectures and other materials in English and other Indian regional languages. The material that has been collected so far contains liberal commentary dating from the early 19th century till the present. The portal helps preserve an often unknown but very rich Indian liberal tradition and explain the relevance of the writings in today’s context.

Read more: SO Musings: Liberalism and Freedom

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.