Important Announcements for Going Online!

  • Every week, you must respond to two lessons. Check the Plague Syllabus for details! Remember that your posts are due each week by Friday at 5pm.
  • You do not need to respond to all of the questions I ask! You can focus on the one that interests you most.
  • I will post my videos on this blog with the title, category, and tag “Comrade Chat.”
  • As you start working on your final papers, remember to read carefully through the HIS 240 Writing Handout and other resources, which you can find here.
  • If you don’t have your copy of Russia’s Long Twentieth Century, you can access an eBook version here.

Comrade Chat, Final Edition! Leah’s Video for Putin’s Russia (Week 13, Day 2)

Hello, comrades! This is our video for Week 13, Day 2. Our subject is Putin’s Russia, and our teaching assistant is Dante.

I have a couple of announcements for you. First, please remember that next Tuesday, May 5 at 12:50pm Eastern we will meet in real time on Teams for our last day of class. We are going to do two things: first, we’ll discuss the SRB Podcast episode “Political Diary from Russia.” And second, we’ll have a broader discussion about what we’ve learned together this semester. Please note: You are in charge of this discussion! Please come to class with one question or comment about the podcast that you would like us to discuss. We’ll start with those and see where the day takes us. If anyone is not able to access the class by video, please let me know.

Today, we’re looking at Russia in the last 20 years, during the many presidencies of Vladimir Putin. As I explained last time, Putin became president on December 31, 1999, when Boris Yeltsin resigned, which helped ensure that he won the presidential election in March 2000. He was also helped by the Second Chechen War, which started in the fall of 1999. Putin had just become Prime Minister, and his harsh speeches about the war set his tone as a strong leader and convinced many Russians that he would take care of Chechen separatism for good. In fact, while Russia declared “victory” fairly quickly and installed a former warlord as head of Chechnya, guerilla fighting continued into the 2010s, and Russia still experiences terrorist attacks.

Publicly, Putin framed himself as everything Yeltsin was not: strong, stable, sober—the guy who was going to return Russia to its rightful position as a world power. And, indeed, during his first two terms, the economy stabilized and grew significantly, the standard of living went up (though wealth stratification remained), crime went down (though corruption was still tolerated), and government proceeded more smoothly, thanks to new laws that pushed out minority parties. Foreign policy remained a challenge. First NATO, then the EU moved aggressively to expand into the former Eastern Bloc and install missile sites there, which Russia viewed as a threat to its traditional sphere of influence and its safety. Things got particularly intense during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian War, both of which Russia saw as having been encouraged by the West. By speaking aggressively and acting decisively, Putin maintained his image as a strong leader who stands up to threats from abroad.

While Putin was genuinely popular, he also hedged his bets. Between 2000-2008, he moved to significantly limit freedom of speech and other civil rights. He helped Kremlin-friendly oligarchs gain control of major media outlets and went after independent journalists, particularly those who reported on corruption. As you read last time, in 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote a series of exposés about atrocities committed by the Russian army in Chechnya, was murdered, and her killers were never caught. The same year, the human rights NGO Memorial, which was started by former Soviet dissidents, was forced to register as a “foreign agent” because it accepts funding from international sources. Official harassment has continued since then, but Memorial has found new ways to continue its operations. Protest leaders also remained vocal, including Boris Nemtsov, a Yeltsin-era politician who became an oppositionist under Putin, and Alexei Navalny, a blogger who has made it his mission to uncover corruption in Putin’s government.

The Russian constitution limits presidents to two terms. Interestingly, Putin has so far respected the letter of this law. In 2008, he stepped down and his Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, ran for president. When Medvedev won, he appointed Putin Prime Minister and they operated as a “tandem.” During this time, the Duma voted to extend presidential terms to six years. When Putin announced he was running again in 2008, the prospect of 12 more years with him in charge was enough to get protesters out in the streets for the first time since 1991. Putin still won that election, and a second term in 2018. But despite new restrictions on free speech and the murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the protest movement has not gone away.

This brings us to a point that I think is really important, though often hard for American students to understand. Russians know that what they have is not democracy. And a lot of them are really bothered by this. But at the same time, after Russia’s experiences of the 1990s—both domestically and internationally—many Russians have come to feel that “real” democracy either isn’t worth it or isn’t a luxury they can afford. The only stability and national pride they have experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union has come during Putin’s presidency. The persistence of protests seems to indicate that may be starting to change, but it hasn’t done so yet.

Since Putin returned to the presidency, foreign policy issues have heated up significantly. In 2013, Ukraine’s pro-Western president negotiated an Association Agreement with the EU, but that November, he lost an election to a pro-Russian candidate. When the new president announced Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Agreement, protesters took over Maidan Square in Kiev. The protests continued from November 2013 to February 2014, when the parliament deposed the president. He fled to Russia, and Ukraine turned back to the EU. Russia responded by annexing Crimea, which is home to a large population of ethnic Russians, and more importantly, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. This sparked a civil war in Eastern Ukraine, which is ongoing. Ukraine expected help from the West, but while there has been some saber-rattling and economic sanctions, it’s become clear the West is not willing to intervene militarily.

Bolstered by this success, in September 2015 also Russia intervened in the ongoing Syrian civil war, where American troops were already engaged. Putin’s aim seems to have been to demonstrate that Russia has returned to great power status and no longer has to accept terms set by the West, as it did in the 1990s. Both the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Syria have significantly boosted his domestic approval ratings. Many Russians feel he has served them well by returned to Russia the dignity it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The other foreign policy event we surely cannot avoid is Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential election and 2017 French presidential election. Analysts agree that in both cases, Russian maneuvers had little effect on the outcome. The larger impact has been the damage done to international relationships. Particularly in the US, politicians have been quick to blame everything on Russia, rather than deeper systemic issues, and consequently, bilateral relations have descended into mutual enmity. Clearly, both sides played a role in this breakdown. The real question is not who is at fault, but rather, what it will mean for geopolitics going forward.

Over the past 20 years, Russian pop culture has responded to Putin’s presidency, with some artists praising him and others protesting. As you no doubt gathered from their video, the group Singing Together are big fans of Putin. It’s worth noting that the Kremlin did not commission “A Man Like Putin,” though it surely helped the group’s career. On the other side, Pussy Riot has been a thorn in Putin’s side since 2011. Pussy Riot is both an art collective and a punk band, and our textbook gives you a good overview of their most famous creation, “Punk Prayer,” which they staged in 2012. While many Russians disapproved of Pussy Riot’s actions, they also felt that the two-year prison sentence was too harsh. Additionally, the trial brought unwelcome international attention to the fragile state of free speech in Russia. The two who had been imprisoned were freed a couple months early, in honor of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. As you can see from the second video, they returned immediately to making protest art. The third video, “Chaika” (2016), criticizes Russia’s Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and demonstrates both Pussy Riot’s continuity and its evolution.

There is one last development I should mention. Putin’s two-term limit is coming up again in 2024. In January, he announced a referendum on a constitutional amendment to consolidates the authority of the State Council, which was previously an advisory body. Russia watchers suspect that Putin may have himself installed as head of this council so he can continue to run the country indefinitely without being subject to further elections.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. In The Invention of Russia, Arkady Ostrovsky argues that the Russian media, which is dominated by the state and by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs, has played a major role in shaping how contemporary Russians think about Putin, their country, and themselves as Russians. He goes so far as to say the media acts like a drug and manipulates people’s sense of reality. This may remind you of Stalin Era propaganda (Ostrovsky invites us to make that comparison). But do you think that it’s possible to control people’s worldview so thoroughly in the 21st century? Russia’s media landscape is thoroughly constrained, but at the same time, this is the age of the internet. How might the Russian media’s tactics convince Russians not to believe alternate narratives? Or could it have the opposite effect and drive some people to seek alternate narratives? How does this situation compare to our own situation, where the media is free, but we worry about “alternate facts” and “fake news”?

2. Ostrovsky explains that while Putin initially won over educated Russians by ensuring their financial stability in the 2000s, once they got comfortable enough, they started to want political rights, too. The middle class wanted a role in politics, but they didn’t trust political parties. Make a close reading of Ostrovsky’s take on this situation, and particularly his description of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny on pp. 308-311. Can you unpack the nature of this protest movement? Do you think it has the potential to unseat Putin in the long term? Or is it too diffuse in its aims? How does this movement compare to the protests that Anna Litveiko took part in in 1917 or the protests staged by Soviet dissidents in the 1960s?

3. In Ostrovsky’s view, the real purpose of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and provocation of a civil war in Eastern Ukraine has been to bolster Putin’s approval ratings. And it worked. But it has also encouraged a rising tide of nationalism. Ostrovsky warns, “Russia is running the risk of overdosing on hatred and aggression.” (Ostrovsky, 322) Can you unpack this claim? What are the actual dangers of encouraging such virulent nationalism? How might it affect Putin and Russia as a whole in the future?

4. Russia’s intervention in Syria is a slightly different story. Here, Putin has taken aim specifically at the West, demanding that the US and Western Europe recognize Russia as a world power and an equal. In part, this attitude has come about because the West has not treated Russia with much respect since the end of the Cold War. NATO and the EU have expanded into Eastern Europe and even taken in former Soviet republics like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. On global issues from the “war on terror” to the Arab Spring, the West has not taken Russia very seriously as a strategic partner. In your analysis, how could the West have done a better job in its approach to geopolitics and avoid the adversarial relationship it has with Russia today? Would it have been possible in the long term to make Russia into an ally rather than an enemy? Why or why not?

5. Putin’s “Speech at the Munch Conference on Security Policy,” which dates from 2007, gives us insight into how he views Russia’s relationship to the West. He denounces the idea of a unipolar world order, and the United States in particular for presuming to act as the world’s policeman. On this point, he says, “Russia—we—are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.” (Putin, web) It’s obvious that Putin’s goal is to make the US look bad. But, even so, does he have a point? Is it bad for global peace when one country has a disproportionate amount of power? Should the US, and all countries, use force only when supported by a UN resolution? Considering Russia’s actions since 2014, do you think Putin himself believes this in all cases?

6. Further on, Putin addresses the issue of NATO expansion. Find the paragraph that begins “The Adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe was signed in 1999.” Make a close reading of that paragraph and the next five. Can you unpack Putin’s thoughts here? What exactly is his grievance against NATO? Is this just about missiles, or is there something more? What does he mean when he says that Russia chose “a sincere partnership with all the members of the big European family”? Is this just politicking, or do you detect an element of sincerity?

7. Putin gets very defensive in the Q&A, particularly on the issue of Russia’s arms deals with Iran. Find the paragraph that begins “Well, first of all, I do not have data that in the 1990s…” Review his full statement on this issue. Can you unpack what’s going on here? How does Putin defend Russia’s actions? Does he convince you that Russia has done nothing wrong? Part of his argument is that Russia has behaved no differently than the US. What do you make of this line of argumentation? What does it reveal about how Putin views US-Russia relations?

8. Later in the Q&A, Putin responds to the question of developing new weapons technology. Find he paragraph that begins, “Fine question, excellent!” Make a close reading of that paragraph and the next three. Concentrate on not just what Putin is saying, but how he says it. What does this answer reveal about Putin as a politician? How does it fit with Ostrovsky’s analysis of how Putin maintains his popularity and power?

9. Analyze the music video “A Man Like Putin.” In this pop culture construction, what kind of a man is Putin? What personal and political qualities do the singers praise him for? How do they use actual clips of Putin to help create this image? What are the pros and cons of this “macho man” persona for Putin, when the song first came out in the 2000s and today?  

10. In the “Punk Prayer,” Pussy Riot uses two very different types of music: punk rock and traditional Orthodox church singing. How do these two styles interact in the video? How does the juxtaposition of them work to enhance Pussy Riot’s message? Why do you think they chose the form of a “prayer” in the first place? How does this fit with the range of subjects they are protesting in this song? (It may be helpful to go through the video slowly and make a list of all the issues they raise. There are many!)

11. Pussy Riot relies on new media to stage their actions. The “Punk Prayer” is not a straight recording, but a series of cuts edited together and overlaid with a separate audio track. How have new technology and the internet changed the landscape of protest in Russia, a country that lacks a strong commitment to free speech? How has the Internet changed these cultural protesters’ relationship to their audience? Who and where is there audience, and what are the repercussions of that?

12. Pussy Riot likes to stage their actions at significant locations. Consider their use of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and of the 2014 Olympic site in Sochi, venues where they knew they would be attacked by police. What are the pros and cons of this strategy? Do you think it is wise? Why or why not?

13. “Chaika” is a very different production, in terms of the music and the video. Comparing this video to the others, how did Pussy Riot evolve from its origins to 2016? What has changed and what has remained the same in their activism and artistry? How do those changes relate to the consequences of their earlier actions? Do you find the more playful, coherent style of “Chaika” more or less effective than the raw, chaotic, “Punk Prayer” and “Putin Will Teach You To Love”? What are your predictions for Pussy Riot’s future?

Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for Yeltsin and the 1990s (Week 13, Day 1)

Hello, comrades! This is our video for Week 13, Day 1. Our subject is Yeltsin’s “wild ride” in the 1990s, and our teaching assistant is Dante.

It was great to meet with all of you last week and talk about your final papers. I hope your work continues to go well. This is a friendly reminder that your final drafts are due on Friday, May 8 at 10pm, and you should submit them on Sakai. If you have any questions between now and then, or if you want to meet with me again, or if you want to send me a rough draft for comments, I’m happy to help with those things. Just let me know by email.

Looking ahead from here, we are almost done with this semester! I have two announcements. First, I have changed the reading assignments. The plan I laid out for us after Spring Break seems a little too ambitious. Here is what you need to read for our last two days.

For Week 13, Day 2: 1) Arkady Ostrovsky, The Invention of Russia, chapter TEN ONLY. 2) Putin’s “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy” 3) Music Video Playlist (this will include “A Man Like Putin” and the three Pussy Riot songs)

For Week 14, Day 1: Listen to SRB Podcast episode “Political Diary from Russia”

Second, our last day of class is next week. To mark the occasion, I would like us to get together one last time as a group on Teams. We’ll meet at our regular class time (12:50pm EST) on Tuesday, May 5. You should get an email about that from Teams, so please look out for that. If anyone unable to join a class video meeting, please email to let me know about that. I’ll make sure you have an alternative option. We will discuss the podcast and your thoughts about what we’ve learned this semester. I’m looking forward to seeing you then!

Today, we’re looking at Russia during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, which ran from 1991 to December 1999. Yeltsin formally became president of the independent Russian Federation (the successor to the RSFSR) on December 25, 1991, when Gorbachev resigned and thereby completed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As it turned out, this was the peak of Yeltsin’s career. As you read, untangling the wreckage of the Soviet Union was a difficult business, and Yeltsin was more a man for grand gestures than nuanced policy decisions. Over the next eight years, Russians experienced extreme hardship, and powerful actors inside and outside the government made moves that had a profound impact on how Russia has developed since then.

In politics, Yeltsin policies laid the groundwork for the “managed democracy” that we see in Russia today. To be sure, he started out talking a big game about democracy. That was one of the ways he played the perestroika game better than Gorbachev. But it turned out Yeltsin still had some Soviet-style expectations. In 1993, facing political opposition from the Duma, Yeltsin illegally disbanded them. When the members refused to leave the building, Yeltsin brought in tanks and forced them to adopt a new constitution with stronger executive power. This was useful for Yeltsin, but it has been even more useful for his successor, Vladimir Putin.

Economically, Yeltsin embraced the model of “shock therapy” imposed on Russia by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as a condition of granting the new government stabilization loans. This triggered a major economic crisis, through its combination of strict austerity measures that threw millions out of work and destroyed the welfare state and rapid, haphazard privatization of the state’s substantial assets. Corrupt entrepreneurs with inside connections bought those assets up for cheap, milked them for cash, and became incredibly rich. These guys—the vultures who preyed on what was left of the Soviet economy—became known as the “oligarchs” or “New Russians.” They exported their newfound wealth abroad and invested little to nothing in the infrastructure they now owned. They rose in tandem with organized criminals, who demanded enormous kickbacks in exchange for protection. In My Perestroika, Olga recounts that her boyfriend was murdered by these Mafiosi.

Yeltsin’s economic policies had a serious detrimental effect on Russian society. While a few people got extremely rich, everyone else became very poor. Inflation wiped out personal savings and left businesses unable to pay wages. Many Russians recall being paid in kind for their labor and effectively switching to a barter system, while others, like doctors and teachers, continued working for no pay at all, from a sense of civic duty. This new poverty, combined with major cuts to social services, resulted in a major health crisis. Underfunded public clinics found themselves unable to cope with rising rates of tuberculosis and the onset of an AIDS crisis fueled by drug addiction. Anyone who could leave the county did so. Those with an education often fared well. Others were not so lucky and found themselves subject to human trafficking. This is the dark side of the song “American Boy,” whose narrator seeks escape as a mail order bride.

Meanwhile, several former Soviet republics and regions spent the 1990s battling over borders and assets. The most significant struggle was the Chechen Wars. In the First Chechen War (1994-1996), the autonomous region of Chechnya fought for independence. It was very bloody, and both sides committed significant atrocities, which were reported on by the fearless journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The cessation of fighting in 1996 was more of a pause than a victory. The war resumed in 1999, and we’ll talk about it more next time, when we discuss the Putin Era.

Amidst these crises, Yeltsin kept taking loans, trying to throw money at these problems. Inflation soared until August 1998, when the government defaulted on its debts and the ruble collapsed. Eleven years after Gorbachev’s hopeful speech about glasnost, Russia looked like a failed state. This is the situation Tatyana Tolstaya writes about in her essay “The Price of Eggs.”

Yeltsin was re-elected in 1996, with significant help from American political advisors who relied on the inexperience of the Russian electorate. But after the ruble’s collapse, as it became clear that Yeltsin was spinning out. More and more often, he appeared drunk in public and made embarrassing statements. He cycled through several prime ministers, seeking a presumptive successor who would allow him to make a safe exit. Finally, in August 1999, he settled on Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent who had already proved his loyalty while serving as deputy to the powerful mayor of St. Petersburg. On December 31, 1999, just four months after appointing Putin and three months before the March 2000 presidential election, Yeltsin made a surprise speech in which he resigned, ostensibly for health reasons. Putin stepped into the top job and immediately pardoned his former boss for all of his corrupt dealings. He’s still with us of course, and we’ll talk about him more next time.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. Russia’s domestic crises in the 1990s were driven by Yeltsin’s embrace of the “shock therapy” model. But as our textbook points out, even under the best of circumstances, the transition from socialism to capitalism would have involved some very difficult questions. One big one is the question of ownership: who owns the infrastructure, factories, housing, and mineral wealth? If these are to be privatized, how can that be achieved, and what values will be prioritized in the process? Another biggie is the question of whether the state ought to continue to distribute subsidies in order to control prices for essential goods and services. Obviously, Yeltsin did a bad job. But could it have been done better? In your view, how could the transition have been handled more smoothly, humanely, and equitably? Or was a period of hardship necessary in order to move forward?

2. Chapter 12 in the textbook takes us into the Putin Era and explains that for all his shady dealings, Putin is genuinely popular with a majority of Russians. This popularity rests largely on the fact that he stabilized the economy, got crime under control, and presided over a period of strong growth that saw the rebirth of Russia’s middle class. Consider the pros and cons of the Putin Era as your textbook outlines them. Can you understand why many Russians like and respect Putin? In your analysis, have they made the right deal in choosing to support him and looking the other way on some of his actions? Are the benefits of Putin’s Russia worth the detriments?

3. In the section on foreign policy, our textbook explains that Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and even Putin in the early days of his presidency hoped that the end of the Cold War would open up new possibilities for alliance between Russia and the West. However, Russia has viewed the expansion of NATO and then the EU into Eastern Europe as offensive moves, and consequently, in the past 15 years Putin’s government has become much more hostile to the West. Do you think the West bears some responsibility for the souring of relations with Russia? Should NATO and the EU have respected Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe? Does their decision to violate this sphere demonstrate the persistence of a Cold War mentality, or was it simply good strategy?

4. Let’s consider the stories of two of the women in the final section of this chapter. (We’ll talk about Pussy Riot next time!) What do you make of Viktoria, the geologist-turned-boutique owner? Why do you think she supports Putin? Was she right to embrace capitalism and get while the getting was good? Or is her family right that she wasted her talents in the pursuit of money? What about the journalist Anna Politkovskaya: why was the Putin’s government so afraid of her? What does this signal about the evolution of the relationship between the state and the press since glasnost?

5. Read the primary sources at the end of the chapter and analyze them using the discussion questions provided.

6. Let’s explore Tolstaya’s essay “The Price of Eggs,” which gives us a ground-level view of the 1998 financial crash. When she first hears on the news that the market has crashed, what does she think? What does this tell you about average Russians’ relationship to economic changes? What options do people have at this point? What do you think it would feel like to live through something like this? How would it affect your perspective on both the past and the future?

7. Tolstaya finds herself in an angry crowd outside a store that has shut its doors. On pp. 209-210, she quotes people shouting about Clinton, Zionism, and George Soros. What does this reveal about Russians’ concerns about how their country’s place on the world stage has changed? After the break at the bottom of p.210, Tolstaya describes her shock at realizing that Russia still produces relatively little of the goods it consumes. What is the psychological impact of this revelation? What does it tell us about how Russia has developed under Yeltsin and under the guidance of the World Bank and IMF?

8. This is a problem that has come up again for Russians since the US imposed sanctions after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Can you analyze the fact that Russia still has this problem of low domestic production nearly 20 years later? What does that tell you about economic development, even though things improved so much in the 2000s? As a Russian, how do you think you would respond to a second Western-related economic crisis so soon after the first one?

9. Tolstaya turns on the TV and sees Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was Prime Minister from 1992-1998. Yeltsin fired him a few months before the market crash, then tried to reappoint him after. But Tolstaya doesn’t blame Chernomyrdin so much as she blames the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Make a close reading of the paragraph that begins on the bottom of p.211 and continues onto p.212. What’s her take here on the true workings of post-Soviet politics? Is this democracy as we know it?

10. During the televised call-in show, a woman screams at Chernomyrdin about the price of eggs. How does this woman’s outcry and Chernomyrdin’s response galvanize Tolstaya’s thinking about the whole situation? What conclusions does she draw? How are her worldview and her reactions shaped by the experience of living through the eras of Brezhnev and Gorbachev?

11. Analyze the song “American Boy” was released in the early 1990s, in the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union. How does the narrator portray herself? How does she characterize the “American boy,” and what does she expect from their relationship? How do these expectations relate to the situation in Russia at the time? What do you imagine their relationship will actually be like, if she puts him on a pedestal and he’s the type to be flattered by that? How does this silly song help us think through the specific problems women face in times of economic crisis?

teenage rebellion

5. Borya and Ruslan identify themselves as non-conformists. Consider the scenes where they talk about this issue (especially 18:00-24:00 and 32:00-34:00). What does “rebellion” mean to them? What does Borya mean when he calls it “romantic opposition” rather than genuine opposition? How do you understand the two friends dismissing their children’s generation as obsessed with money and not reading enough books? Do you think they posed a political threat to the Soviet system under Brezhnev? Why or why not?

Rebellion is relative to the situation one is going through and what is personally at stake. To Borya and Ruslan rebellion was more of a fun thing for them. They enjoyed the adrenaline rush and excitement that came from it. That’s what Borya means by “romantic opposition.” As students fighting the system was fun. I think that kind of rebellion is similar to what we consider in the US teenage rebellion. You do wild things that piss people off and break rules because it’s a fun adrenaline rush. At the time you might think you’re protesting conformity, but retrospectively you can see you were more in love with the thrill.

The two friends laugh at the way their kids are not book lovers. For them, reading books was an essential part of their childhood. They felt that books were a form of rebellion. All the news had to offer was updates about the communist party. These books captured real themes and ideas and probably inspired them. The two friends blame the fixation on money on American influence. They talk about how all Americans care about is making money and that money influences your worth as a human being in society. Which is kinda true. Kids everywhere are more interested in anything that is not a book though. 

I think as adolescents and as adults Borya and Ruslan would have presented a threat to the age of stagnation. Both of them pursued knowledge through books and books make people think and people who think can present issues to an otherwise stagnated society. Also as rabble rousing teens they could stir the pot and cause a ruckus. As the wizened adults that they are in this film, they would absolutely be a threat. They are both educated and have learned from their youth. They are both capable of seeing the inherent flaws of the system.

Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for My Perestroika (Week 12, Day 1)

Hello, comrades! This is our video for Week 12. Our subject is the documentary film My Perestroika, and our teaching assistant is Dante.

As a reminder, this is our ONLY video for Week 12. I canceled one “day” of class this week to give you more time to work on your final papers. That means we are not going to discuss the texts by Alexeivich, Holland, and Kurchatov together. They are still up on the course website, if you’d like to take a look at them on your own. Speaking of your final papers, thank you to everyone who has submitted an Introduction and Outline. I’m looking forward to discussing those with you on Thursday and Friday!

Our primary source today, the film My Perestroika, focuses on the experiences of a group of friends who were born in the 1960s, grew up under Brezhnev, and reached adulthood at the moment when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and implemented his signature policies of perestroika and glasnost. As you saw, despite their common beginnings, the couple Borya and Lyuba, Olga, Andrei, and Ruslan end up in very different situations. This is an example of the kind of primary source we use in social history. As I hope you’ve gathered from this class and others you’ve taken, there are different ways to approach historical analysis. Last week, the essays written by Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave us a taste of intellectual history, while Gorbachev’s speech “Gorbachev Challenges the Party (Glasnost)” directed us toward political history. And next week, we’ll analyze a couple of music videos through the lens of cultural history. In fact, you might find it interesting to look back through your syllabus and identify the type of history that each source serves best. Anyway, social history is the study of everyday people and how they live, and I think this documentary gives us some good insights into how average people experienced perestroika.

The historical context I gave you in my last video serves us well for this source, so I won’t say very much else now. I’ll just note that after Gorbachev resigned, Boris Yeltsin became the first president of the new Russian Federation, which we’ll discuss in more depth next week. Yeltsin was elected to two four-year terms, the maximum allowed under the new constitution, in 1992 and 1996. His successor was (and still is!) Vladimir Putin, who was elected in 2000 and 2004. This film was made in 2010, and the final event it covers is the 2008 presidential election. In this election, Putin stepped aside, while his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, ran for president. As you can see from the political posters, they promoted themselves as a team or “tandem,” and when Medvedev won the election, he appointed Putin as his prime minister. If you are wondering how Putin ended up being president again—stay tuned! We will cover that next week.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. The film begins with Borya and Lyuba, who are history teachers at the same school they attended as children. They live in the apartment where Borya grew up, which was part of the wave of new housing construction instituted by Khrushchev. They’re certainly not wealthy, but they’re doing okay. They seem to feel that they have lived well and made good choices. Consider their experience, as you learn about it throughout the film. Do you think they are right to feel satisfied with their lives? Would you consider them a “success story” of the post-Soviet transition? Why or why not?

2. Andrei and Ruslan present sharply contrasting cases. Each one feels that he has captured the high ground and looks down on the other. How has each of their paths been shaped by the political events they have lived through? In what way is each of them a “winner”? In what way is each of them a “loser”? Who do you think has the stronger claim to the high ground and why?

3. As you watch these characters interact and tell their stories, consider the roles played by women and by men and the outcomes for each gender. What does Olga’s story reveal about the particular difficulties women faced in the collapse of the Soviet Union? Lyuba has an easier life than Olga, but does she have it as good as the men? What similarities and differences do you find between their lives and that of Olya in “A Week Like Any Other”? What does this tell us about how gender has or has not changed through these political events?

4. The theme of nostalgia comes up quite often. Though none of these friends wants to go back to the Soviet Union, they all catch themselves missing it in different ways. Analyze one or more scenes in which characters talk about nostalgia. You may find it helpful to consider Soviet footage here, as well. What exactly is it that they miss? Were they in some ways better off under Brezhnev? If so, how? If not, then why do they feel a fondness for this time? If our country experienced a major political upheaval, do you think you would feel nostalgic for your childhood and teenage years?

5. Borya and Ruslan identify themselves as non-conformists. Consider the scenes where they talk about this issue (especially 18:00-24:00 and 32:00-34:00). What does “rebellion” mean to them? What does Borya mean when he calls it “romantic opposition” rather than genuine opposition? How do you understand the two friends dismissing their children’s generation as obsessed with money and not reading enough books? Do you think they posed a political threat to the Soviet system under Brezhnev? Why or why not?

6. Lyuba was not a non-conformist growing up. But when she talks about her time as a Komsomol activist and a believer in the “struggle for peace,” she bursts out laughing and mocks herself. What do you make of this laughter? How does it fit together with their common feeling of nostalgia? Why does she feel compelled to mock her former beliefs?

7. Perestroika was implemented as these friends reached adulthood. For Andrei, Borya, and Ruslan, this meant that it occurred while they were doing their two years of compulsory military service, as all male citizens did after high school. Lyuba and Olga were at home, going to college. How do their reactions shape your understanding of the effects of perestroika and glasnost on Soviet society? How do they reveal the excitement and the problems created by these policies? Is there a gendered component to their reactions? What do you make of Lyuba’s argument with her mother about Lenin?

8. Beginning at 49:00, the friends each describe their experience of the August 1991 coup, which played a big part in the rise of Yeltsin and the collapse of the Soviet Union. What do their stories reveal about the lived experience of this moment? How did their different choices in that moment shape the way they remember it nearly 20 years later? Why does Andrei feel the need to make excuses? Why does Ruslan think it could have all been fake? How might that experience have shaped their expectations and perspectives going forward into the Yeltsin presidency?

9. None of the friends is a fan of Yeltsin. In fact, they seem to be very disappointed by his presidency. We’ll talk about that more next week. But from what you can gather from context, what were some of the problems Russia faced in the 1990s? Why did Ruslan, Borya, and Lyuba end up so disappointed? How does Andrei explain his success to himself? Why does Olga focus on personal issues and stay away from larger statements? How have their experiences since the 1990s shaped the way they remember it?

10. The film ends with the 2008 presidential election. Clearly, none of the friends believes that Russia operates as a genuine democracy, and they’re all angry about it. Interestingly, the only one who votes is Olga, and she makes a protest vote for a fringe candidate. How would you characterize this generation’s views of the Putin Era? What are the consequences for a country when people like them don’t vote? Or will the country be fine without their votes?

Social media but old Soviet Union version

Comrade chat 11-1

Sakharov identifies three major threats to “freedom of thought,” which he considers essential to human progress. Find the paragraph that begins “But freedom of thought is under a triple threat…” Read that paragraph and the next two. Do these threats still exist in 2020? If so, how do they show up in your own experience? Sakharov says that combatting them is the work of all people, but he reserves a special role for the intelligentsia. What would Lenin have thought of this idea? Does Sakharov convince you that the intelligentsia should play a special role?

Sakharov considers the three threats: censorship from the upper class, deliberate mass culture, and cowardly/egotistic/philistine ideologies.

In this lovely year of 2020 these threats still exist, just in a different form. Censorship comes from social media. Certain ideas are hidden by carefully crafted algorithms. A girl posting a photo in a sports bra is likely to get taken down. I’ve been censored and blocked by tik tok frequently. Mass thought and sheep people are all over the place on social media. People repost and share content without even verifying that that content is actually true. It’s a whole mass of idiots following a bunch of other idiots. Social media also gives a platform for crazy reckless stupid unfounded and dangerous ideals to be promoted. Anyone can post whatever they want to say. Things can get taken down, but they don’t always catch everything. Algorithms are more directed to sensory nudity and to censor violence and to sensor vulgar language. Radical ideas and misinformed issues are not very centered though. The principles that he talks about in his speech are still prevalent in our society just in a different way.

The intelligentsia are supposed to be educated people who assume positions of leadership. Sakharov believes that they should cater to the interests of the working class. It’s a sort of way to stop the intelligentsia from acting with caste biases. It’s ironic that Sakharov wants intelligentsia to play a special rule but also wants them to not be more special than other people. I was personally a little confused about that. I don’t think Lenin would have been on board. Sakharov wanted to favor one group of people in a certain class as crucial for his purposes. That isn’t in line with what Lenin would have advocated for. Sakharov questions if any group of people will look out for the working class instead of personal interest. And that’s exactly why I’m not convinced by his argument. That seems like some self doubt. Why is any group of people more suited to fix societal problems? Wouldn’t it take cooperation sad effort across the board?

Big Time Dreamer

Comrade chat 11-2

10. Gorbachev concludes this speech on a hopeful note. Read the last paragraph carefully. How does this shape our understanding of Gorbachev as a political reformer? Do you think it was possible, after 14 years of Brezhnev and stagnation to achieve the goal he sets out here? Do you think Gorbachev believes it, or is he trying to convince himself, too?

The first thing I noticed about his passage is his use of grandiose phrases and sweeping generalizations. Even the beginning, “we want to transform our country…”  is a pretty lofty goal (Gorbachev, 13). As a political reformer, we could just look at this one line to get a sense of what kind of leader Gorbachev is. He’s an idealist to the max. One thing Gorbachev does well in this conclusion is use the word we. This shows that he is at least smart enough to make his ideas seem like the Soviet Union’s ideas. 

In my opinion I think he set his goals a little too high. If he had maybe focused on one aspect of Soviet society at a time he might have been able to slowly change the stagnation. Trying to do too much too fast just overwhelmed the Soviet Union. 

To have such extreme ideals one would have to wholeheartedly believe in them. He says, “yes socialism is a system that serves man, his social and economical interests and his spiritual needs” and you have to have faith in your ideals if you are going to give a broad sweeping statement like this (Gorbachev,13). Gorbachev is trying to convince whoever is listening that his crazy laundry list of reforms is attainable. 

Stockpiling Problems and Inevitability

While reading our primary source “Gorbachev Challenges the Party,” I found it interesting that Gorbachev implies that his reconstruction was ignited from a stockpile of problems that the Party failed to realize throughout the years. Gorbachev explains that there are a multitude of problems from the past that are coming to light, similar to how Krushchev acknowledged wrongdoings by Stalin in the “Secret Speech.” Gorbachev makes two important points in the progression of a need for reform: (1) The hard-work and strong mentality of the Soviet people restrained the progression problems and served as a mask to the inevitable and (2) Failure of Party leadership to acknowledge what was actually going on. When talking about Party leaders, Gorbachev explains that they had the “desire to brush aside everything that didn’t fit into habitual patterns and an unwillingness to tackle urgent social and economic questions” (Gorbachev). Knowing that there were issues going on internally on both the local and large scale, do you agree that this need for change was inevitable? Was the stockpiling of problems just eventually bound to cause political change? If action was taken sooner, or if action by Gorbachev was ignored, what would the outcome of this era be?

Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for Gorbachev and Perestroika (Week 11, Day 2)

Hello, Comrades! This is our video for Week 11, Day 2. Our subject is the Gorbachev Era, and our teaching assistant is Dante.

As you know, we have a deadline coming up for your final papers. Please remember to submit your one-paragraph Introduction and detailed Outline on Sakai by Sunday, April 19 at 5pm. It looks like about 2/3 of you have signed up for a virtual office hours meeting to discuss those materials on Thursday, April 23 and Friday April 24. If you have not yet signed up, please do so. Those meetings will take place on Teams. I’m looking forward to discussing your ideas with you! One more announcement: next week, we only have one day of new material. We are NOT going to discuss the Week 12, Day 2 materials. I’m sorry to miss out on these primary sources, but I think it’s more important for you to have time to work on your final papers. The materials are up on the course website, if you want to read them on your own. I WILL make you a video on the film My Perestroika, and I look forward to your comments on that.

Today, we’re exploring the tumultuous decade from Brezhnev’s death in 1982 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As our textbook authors point out, when Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985, no one had any idea that within a few years the Soviet Union would be done. Like so many other significant historical moments, this was an entirely contingent event—not the inevitable result of the laws of history (there are none!), but something that took place because particular people made particular decisions.

To be sure, the Soviet Union had a lot of problems under Brezhnev. But Western Europe wasn’t looking so hot at that point, either. In the West, the 1970s and 1980s were a time of economic stagnation, unemployment, and general malaise. Communism and capitalism both seemed to be foundering, but there was no serious reason to believe that either system was going to actually fall apart. And the Soviet Union didn’t collapse because it just couldn’t continue as it had been any longer. If Brezhnev had been replaced by someone with a similar mindset to his, who knows how long it would have continued. But he was replaced by Gorbachev, a young, energetic, innovative thinker who wanted to revitalize the Soviet system by instituting radical reforms. Gorbachev was trying to fix the Soviet Union, but instead, he broke it. Today we’re going to think through how that happened.

By the time Brezhnev died, the Soviet Union was being run by a gerontocracy. You may remember that Brezhnev got his start with the vydvizhentsy, the workers promoted into higher education during Stalin’s First Five Year Plan. Well, so did most of the Politburo, which meant the average age was around 70. Gorbachev was considered “young” because he was only 54! He was actually the third choice for the job. The two men who held the post of General Secretary between 1982 and 1985 each died so quickly that it became a running joke among Soviet citizens. Clearly, it was time for new blood.

The textbook gives you a good idea of Gorbachev’s biography and his mindset. In many ways, Gorbachev’s real tragedy is that was able to think outside box, but not far enough. Most of his reforms were good ideas, even necessary ideas. But his failure to think through the consequences, and to deal with them constructively when they arose, is a big part of why they resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev’s two signature policies were perestroika (restructuring, which gave its name to the era) and glasnost (openness). Perestroika proceeded on two fronts. Economically, it involved massive new investment in modernizing Soviet industry, the creation of limited private cooperative enterprises for the first time since NEP, and an effort to increase efficiency though cash incentives. Gorbachev seemed to believe that Soviet citizens would immediately embrace these innovations and work zealously for their implementation. As you read, that didn’t happen, and the massive foreign loans Gorbachev took out to finance his new investments only left the economy in a worse situation than ever. Politically, perestroika involved opening up Soviet elections to multiple candidates, also for the first time since the 1920s. But here again, Gorbachev was shocked when the Party’s chosen candidates mostly didn’t win.

Glasnost, as you read, meant embracing a new level of transparency about the past and the present. Dissidents like Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Andrei Sakharov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were ahead of the curve on this, but they were a small portion of society. For the majority of citizens, new revelations about the horrors of the Stalin Era and open discussion of contemporary social problems were deeply shocking and unsettling. Gorbachev wanted these conversations to happen; he thought they would be a necessary act of collective reckoning. But he also expected people to move on quickly and retain their faith in the Party, which many could not do.

As if all this weren’t enough, Gorbachev faced many other challenges. He inherited the Afghan War from Brezhnev, and his effort to withdraw while saving face caused the war to drag on until 1989. (This may sound familiar from our own war in Afghanistan, which began in 1999, before most of you were born, and is still ongoing.) The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in April 1986, in which a nuclear power station melted down, had a major environmental and public health consequences, while the state’s bungling of the relief effort further eroded faith in the state. Many citizens learned about the meltdown from Western radio stations like the Voice of America before their own, and the limited, disorganized evacuation left many people vulnerable. Chernobyl did convince Gorbachev of the need to pursue nuclear disarmament more seriously, but unfortunately his American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, was not interested. Finally, in 1989, the countries of the Eastern Bloc experienced a wave of peaceful revolutions that overthrew their communist governments. To his credit, Gorbachev set aside the Brezhnev Doctrine and did not invade, which saved Eastern Europe from potential violence.

By 1990, just five years after he took office, Gorbachev was universally hated in the Soviet Union. The extent of his reforms angered hardliners, while their limits alienated potential allies among the progressive parts of society. Meanwhile, a new politician, Boris Yeltsin, came to the fore. Gorbachev actually brought Yeltsin into his government, in the new post of president of the RSFSR. This post was largely titular, but Yeltsin decided to make it real. Between 1988 and 1990, the Baltic SSRs, which had the most developed nationalist movements, declared their independence, which Gorbachev didn’t contest. Seeing that Gorbachev was spinning out, Yeltsin took a cue from the Baltics and declared the sovereignty (not independence) of the RSFSR. This was enough to really freak out hardliners in the government, and when Gorbachev went on vacation in August 1991, they put him under house arrest and tried to stage a coup. It didn’t work, because they had no real support. But it fundamentally altered the relationship between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, because Yeltsin was in Moscow making speeches about democracy while standing on a disabled tank, while Gorbachev was out of sight.

After the coup, Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but it was basically all over for him. Yeltsin went behind his back and signed the Minsk Agreement, forming the Commonwealth of Independent States, which most of the Soviet Republics join, and then tells Gorbachev that it’s a done deal. That brings us to the moment with which the textbook chapter starts and ends: Gorbachev’s resignation and the formal, surprisingly peaceful, end of the Soviet Union.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. In explaining the collapse of the Soviet Union, our textbook makes the claim that Gorbachev simply tried to do too much at once. In your analysis, if Gorbachev had moved at a slower pace, or implemented his reforms one by one, would he have succeeded in revitalizing the Soviet system? Were some or all of the reforms good ideas individually? Which one would you have started with and why?

2. Gorbachev’s biography gives us a sense of where he was coming from as General Secretary. On one hand, he was a classic Soviet success story, a guy from a rural village who benefitted from educational opportunities and rose through the ranks of the Party to elite status. On the other hand, as a member of the “sixties generation,” he was deeply affected by the ferment of the Khrushchev Thaw and drew on a broad range of experiences and ideas in formulating his approach to governance. One of Gorbachev’s difficulties was that he wanted to make significant changes, but he also wanted to control them. In your analysis, was Gorbachev more a radical reformer or a classic Soviet politician? Ultimately, was he more like Khrushchev or like Brezhnev? Or did he combine those influences in equal measure?

3. As our textbook explains, there are many reasons why Gorbachev’s economic reforms during perestroika didn’t work. Look over the section on the economy on pp. 220-223. Which of the reasons our authors propose do you think was most significant? Was Gorbachev naïve to think he could harness the best of capitalism and socialism at once? Was the economy too far gone down the path of stagnation and corruption? Was the Soviet economy, created for wartime, unworkable in peacetime? Are there other factors you can identify?

4. On the subject of glasnost, our authors assert that while Gorbachev and many in the intelligentsia believed a full accounting of Stalinism was necessary for national renewal, this created problems of its own. They write, “History shows us that the success of any political system is based to a large degree on a widely shared subscription to a version of the past that valorizes certain foundational events and suppresses inconvenient facts about slavery, colonialism, caste systems, genocide, land appropriation, environmental degradation, ethnic conflict, and war.” (Chatterjee et al, 225) In other words, glasnost destroyed the “usable past” the Soviet Union needed. Can you unpack this argument? What does it mean to have a “usable past”? Are you convinced by it? Do we have our own “usable past” in the United States?

5. Read through the primary sources on pp. 229-232 and evaluate them using the questions provided by our authors.

6. Let’s tun to our primary source, “Gorbachev Challenges the Party (Glasnost).” This speech has some similarities with Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” in that Gorbachev has to admit that things are going wrong, and blame somebody for it, in order to argue for his program of reform. In the “Secret Speech,” Khrushchev blamed everything on Stalin, and exonerates the Central Committee. Gorbachev handles this differently. Find the paragraph that begins: “The principal cause—and the Politbiuro considers it necessary to say this…” Read that paragraph and the next one carefully. How does Gorbachev handle the issue of blame? Why do you think he chooses not to name anyone specifically, not even Brezhnev? Do you think Gorbachev’s framing of this issue is wise? Why or why not?

7. Speaking of the “Secret Speech,” once again we find ourselves talking about Lenin. Does Lenin play the same role for Gorbachev as he did for Khrushchev? What are the similarities and differences? Why do we always come back to Lenin? What are the pros and cons of doing so?

8. Gorbachev gives a pretty thorough accounting of the economic problems facing the Soviet Union. But he also talks a lot about social ills and moral ills. What do these terms mean to him? What connections does he draw between these factors and the failures of the Soviet economy? Would you classify his analysis as perceptive, naïve, ideologically driven, something else? If you were a Soviet citizen and you read this speech in the newspaper, how would it make you feel?

9. About halfway through the speech, Gorbachev also addresses the issue of political perestroika. Find the paragraph that begins: “There is also a need to give some thought to changing the procedure for the election…” Read that paragraph and the next one closely. Would you call this democracy? What role does Gorbachev maintain for the Communist Party? If this is not democracy, is it a good intermediate step? How is Gorbachev trying to balance between the old guard and the reformers here? Do you think such a balance is necessary, or should he go all-in from the start? Or, do you think we’re seeing Gorbachev’s own limits at work here?

10. Gorbachev concludes this speech on a hopeful note. Read the last paragraph carefully. How does this shape our understanding of Gorbachev as a political reformer? Do you think it was possible, after 14 years of Brezhnev and stagnation to achieve the goal he sets out here? Do you think Gorbachev believes it, or is he trying to convince himself, too?

Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for The Soviet Dissident Movement (Week 11, Day 1)

Hello, Comrades! This is our video for Week 11, Day 1. Our topic is Soviet dissidents, and our teaching assistant is Maggie.

Let’s start with announcements. By now I hope you have given some thought to your Final Papers and chosen a topic. If you’d like to review the assignment and the list of prompts, you can find that on the course website under Assignments. If you want to create your own topic, you need to get my approval, and you should do that by Wednesday of this week at the absolute latest. We’ve got two aspects of this assignment on the horizon. First, your Introduction and Outline will be due on Sunday, April 19 at 5pm. You should submit that on Sakai. Your Intro should be one paragraph long and include your thesis statement, which is the answer you will give to the question I asked you in the paper prompt. And your outline should be detailed. Second, I will be meeting with each of you individually on MS Teams on Thursday, April 23 and Friday, April 24 to talk through your materials. I’ll send around the sign up sheet by email, so please remember to sign up for a meeting time, and please let me know if you have access issues and need to do the meeting by telephone.

Our study of the Soviet dissident movement today is going to give us some insight into one of the less visible developments in the Soviet Union from the 1950s through the 1980s. The dissident movement was very much a product of the Khrushchev Thaw. It started out with like-minded friends hanging out at each other’s apartments talking openly about literature, philosophy, and social life, something which never would have happened in the fear-driven Stalin Era. Khrushchev made it possible for these friends to find each other, while Brezhnev’s harsh treatment of them politicized them. By the late 1960s, they had become an opposition movement, and in the 1970s, they founded the Soviet human rights movement.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that while the dissidents actively opposed Brezhnev’s regime and its policies, they did not oppose communism or the Soviet system. This is reflected in the way they referred to themselves. In English, we call them “dissidents,” but the word they used for themselves literally translates as “other-thinkers.” In other words, they didn’t want to tear down the whole system; rather, they wanted to reform it from within so it would serve its citizens better. It’s worth considering how that goal aligns with the spirit of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech.”

As Alexeyeva recounts, from the start the dissidents were eager readers of Novyi Mir, the cutting-edge literary journal we learned about last week. And in fact, their movement tracked closely with developments in Soviet literature—both official literature, which was published, and “unofficial” literature, which was passed from hand to hand in the kompaniya. There are a few terms that are useful to know in this context. The first is samizdat, which literally means, “self-published.” Samizdat literature was typed up on a typewriter and passed to friends, who read it, typed up more copies, and passed those on to others. The second term is tamizdat, which literally means “published over there.” Tamizdat literature was smuggled across the Soviet border in manuscript form, published there, and then smuggled back in to be passed around among friends. Finally, there is magnitizdat, which literally means “published on tape.” Magnitizdat recordings were made with tape recorders when people sang songs for each other at house parties and passed around among friends. The people who sang those songs called themselves “bards” or “guitar poets.”

From the late 1950s to late 1960s, a series of events took place in Soviet literature which helped to politicize the dissidents. First, in 1958, Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for his novel Dr. Zhivago, which had been published in Italy the year before. Because it was published abroad without government permission, Khrushchev forced Pasternak to turn down the prize. This was deeply shocking to people like Alexeyeva, who were proud of the achievements of Soviet literature and saw this situation as deeply unfair. In 1964, after Brezhnev had taken power from Khrushchev, the poet Joseph Brodsky was put on trial for being a “parasite,” or someone who didn’t work. This was a real crime in the Soviet Union, but it was a fake charge. Brodsky was writing plenty of poetry, but it was all samizdat. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. In 1966, two more writers, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel’, were tried and convicted of “anti-Soviet propaganda” for publishing novels in tamizdat. And In 1968, two more writers were tried and convicted for publishing a samizdat transcript of the Sinyavsky-Daniel’ Trial (which they secretly recorded, because the trial was not public). This all sounds unbelievable! But it’s an indication of how seriously Brezhnev’s government took these writers’ activities. And it gives us a sense of how the growing antagonism between the two camps caused the dissidents to become increasingly politicized and oppositional.

As the dissidents got more political, they also got more organized. Though the writers’ trials, they became friendly with Western foreign correspondents, and soon they began inviting them to improvised press conferences. They also held their first public protest, demanding the state respect its own constitution. When writers were sent to the Gulag, they made connections with other opposition movements, which had two important results. First, in 1968, the dissidents began publishing a samizdat journal called The Chronicle of Current Events to publicize human rights abuses around the Soviet Union. And then in 1969, they formed the Initiative Group in Defense of Human Rights in the USSR to put pressure on the government to stop those abuses by bringing them to the attention of the wider world.

International human rights law was essential for the dissidents’ activities. They based their work on the claim that the Soviet government had violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document created by the United Nations in 1948. In the 1970s, they got an important boost form the Helsinki Accords, an agreement signed by the Soviet Union, the United States, and other European countries that included a provision allowing citizens to monitor their governments’ compliance with international human rights law. This was the basis of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, of which Alexeyeva was a founding member.

Among the dissidents, two different schools of thought developed. In today’s reading, the liberal side is represented by Andrei Sakharov and the conservative side by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Sakharov was an elite scientist who had helped to develop the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb. By the 1960s, he came to believe that the nuclear weapons were immoral. He publicly campaigned against them and advocated for the Soviet Union and United States to put aside their differences and come together in peaceful world government. Internationally, this won him the Nobel Peace Prize, but at home, it meant he lost his job and elite privileges and was eventually placed under house arrest. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, began his career as a math teacher in the rural Russia. He served in WWII, but in 1945 was arrested for making a joke about Stalin and sentenced to the Gulag. By the time he was granted amnesty along with other prisoners in the mid-1950s, he had become a bitter opponent of communism, which he believed had corrupted Russia from its true path of paternalistic Christian monarchy. Although Khrushchev had allowed the publication of his Gulag novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962,  Solzhenitsyn was repressed by Brezhnev and eventually forced to emigrate in 1974.

As these short biographies attest, Soviet dissidents faced serious consequences for their activities. They lost their jobs, some went to prison or were declared insane and put in psychiatric institutions, and eventually many were forced to leave the Soviet Union, like Solzhenitsyn and Alexeyeva. Such repression wiped out the movement by the early 1980s. But Alexeyeva, Sakharov, and Solzhenitsyn hung on and became important political and intellectual figures in Russia in the late 1980s and after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. On pp.83-84, Alexeyeva’s describes the kompaniya as being not political. Do you agree with this assessment, or do you think they were political, in their own way? Was it possible in the context of the Soviet  Union, for any group of people to be apolitical? Do you think that people who “don’t fit in” will always find each other, in any society?

2. Let’s talk about samizdat. Read over Alexeyeva’s description on pp. 97-100. How would you categorize the types of literature that were published this way? Based on this, what would you say the dissidents were looking for in pushing beyond the sphere of official literature? Samizdat also takes a lot of work to produce. Why do you think it was worth it to them to go to all this trouble? How would it change your relationship to a piece of literature if you type it out yourself, rather than just reading it?

3. On pp. 101-103, Alexeyeva writes about the “bard” Bulat Okudzhava. He is typical of the “bards.” They thought of themselves as poets first and musicians second, and they even called themselves “guitar poets.” If the thing you’re really interested in is the words, why set it to music at all? Why become a guitar poet? I’ve put a link to Okudzhava’s “Song of the Arbat” on the course website. Listen to it while reading the words in Alexeyeva’s translation. In your analysis, what, if anything, makes this song anti-Soviet?

4. Analyze the first Constitution Day Protest in 1966, which is held in response to the trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel. The protest only lasted five seconds, and then everyone got arrested. But they also were released without charges, and a lot of people witnessed their action. Do you consider this protest a success or a failure? In the invitation, which Alexeyeva reproduces on p.120, Alek Esenin-Volpin demands that everyone chant only one slogan and maintain decorum. Why are these things so important for this particular protest? Is he right to try to control it so closely?

5. The trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel is a sham, and they are convicted, as everyone knew they would be. But Alexeyeva still finds triumph in this moment. Look at her explanation on p.138. Why does she feel like this is a win for the dissidents? Does she convince you of her perspective? How does this situation set the tone for the developing human rights movement?

6. The story of the Chronicle of Current Events really starts with Siniavsky and Daniel being sent to prison. Many people in Moscow offer help, and in the prison camps, they learn many more prisoners’ stories they want to publicize. Consider the origins of the Soviet human rights movement in the kompaniya of the late 1950s; how did that beginning give them the values and traditions that enable them to make the Chronicle work? Why do you think they choose Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as their epigraph? What does it symbolize?

7. Let’s turn to Sakharov’s essay “Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.” In this essay, he asserts that the dangers facing human civilization are so enormous that we must put aside our political differences and work together through a scientific approach to solve them. In essence, he is putting a lot of faith in science and a lot of faith in humanity. Do you think his faith is justified? Will science and rationality lead us to the solutions to the threats we face, many of which are the same ones Sakharov identifies here? Do you think either side in the Cold War would have been willing to compromise in the way Sakharov expects, or is he too idealistic?

8. Sakharov identifies three major threats to “freedom of thought,” which he considers essential to human progress. Find the paragraph that begins “But freedom of thought is under a triple threat…” Read that paragraph and the next two. Do these threats still exist in 2020? If so, how do they show up in your own experience? Sakharov says that combatting them is the work of all people, but he reserves a special role for the intelligentsia. What would Lenin have thought of this idea? Does Sakharov convince you that the intelligentsia should play a special role?

9. One of Sakharov’s major claims in this essay is that de-Stalinization has not gone far enough. He provides specific new information, which was not in Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech.” Considering what you’ve learned about the dissident movement, how do you think he got this information? What does his deployment of it tell us about the further consequences of the “Secret Speech” for Soviet society?

10. Solzhenitsyn’s “Letter to the Soviet Leaders” takes a very different position. He begins by attacking the “Progressive Ideology” which, he claims, Russia adopted from Europe and which has now led them both into a dead end. While Sakharov calls for more science and rationality, Solzhenitsyn calls for less science and a return to folk wisdom and traditional ways. Can you unpack Solzhenitsyn’s argument here? Whose argument do you find more convincing and why?

11. With fiery rhetoric, Solzhenitsyn denounces Marxism for being wrong in all its predictions and promises. But he doesn’t seem to be much of a fan of democracy, either. Rather, he argues that authoritarian rule is the best and most natural form of government for Russia. Find the paragraph that begins with “However, in those days an important condition was fulfilled…” Read that paragraph and the next two closely. How does Solzhenitsyn use history to argue for his position? How might a Marxist (or even a fan of democracy!) tell this story differently? Does Solzhenitsyn have a point about Russia having a unique path? Or should we see his position as an extreme reaction to his hatred of socialism?

12. Both Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn wrote these pieces in the early 1970s, at a time when Alexeyeva was actively working with the Initiative Group in Defense of Human Rights and publishing the Chronicle of Current Events. At this point, the dissident scene was vibrant and diverse, but also a small fraction of the population. To return to a question posed by our textbook authors: Does the existence of this movement contradict the notion that they were living during an “era of stagnation”? Or does the fact that they were a tiny, isolated, and ultimately repressed minority render them irrelevant?

Underground Music

Comrade chat 10-1

7. An important issue raised in this chapter is the issue of freedom. The underground rock and roll and art scenes existed because Soviet citizens didn’t have free speech. If they wanted to listen to music or express a message with which the government did not agree, they had to do it out of sight. On the other hand, part of what made these scenes so vibrant is that their members didn’t have to worry about commercial success. They all had day jobs, housing, and health care guaranteed by the state. Looking back after the Soviet Union’s collapse, many artist and fans felt nostalgic for the safeguards of the Soviet Era. Which form of freedom do you think is more important? Would you trade freedom of speech for freedom from want? Why or why not?

Starving artist. When people want to start out as musicians or painters or writers we refer to them as starving artists. The idea is that the pursuit of a career in the arts is often difficult and often ultimately a failure. When the state guarantees your housing and health care etc. that takes a lot of the burden of being a human being off of your chest. The combination of the oppression of free speech and the basic security that the Soviet citizens were provided made for a vibrant music scene. You need motive and means. They had the means provided for them. Food would be on the table. And the motive is due to the lack of free expression. 

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the means were taken away. Instead of enjoying music, people were more concerned about being able to put food on the table. Ultimately this would affect the music scene and as the question proffers, pit the freedom of speech against the freedom of want.

Personally, I would choose freedom from want. Especially as someone who is family oriented, I would prioritize taking care of my family members over everything else. Additionally, although this may be a loophole, it seems like even when freedom of speech was restricted people still found a way to express themselves. I wouldn’t be able to radio broadcast a controversial song or publish radical art. But in the privacy of my own home, even on a slight and miniscule level, I would still have freedom of speech. And freedom of speech can always exist in your mind and inner thoughts. Until they invent mind control chips but that’s a ways away in the future.