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?

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

  1. I would like to expand upon question #1. I found Alexeyeva’s work to be very inspiring to me personally and found it profoundly useful in understanding the Thaw era generation and the kompanii. I was not aware of just how empowering this was for people, but after reading this account, I have a more clear picture on the intentions of this generation and how these groups came to be. The introduction particularly resonated with me. Alexeyeva explains that the only life they knew was one defined by huge landmarks of the socialist movement and they had little resources for discovering individualism. People of this generation doubted their teachings, but did not have a way of elaborating on these doubts of what was going on around them. Hence, the birth of kompaniyas. For this generation, the thaw era was a time of their awakening, and the time to “search for an alternative system of beliefs. Our new beliefs would be truly ours; Having gone through Stalinism once, we could not stand for another ‘progressive’ doctrine being imposed on us from above” (Alexeyeva 4). Keeping this in mind, and from the readings on page 83-84 describing the kompaniya, I do believe that the intent of these groups was not political at all. Like-minded people found themselves in a safe space to discuss things that were not readily available. While these discussions lead to ideas that went against the current protocol and hinted at humans rights and literary freedom, I do not believe the intent was to change the political dynamic. Members of these groups were going to formulate their own thoughts on topics anyways, and going to a kompanii to discuss ideas and literary pieces further only strengthened their curiosity, aspirations, and individualism. Although I can see how from a Soviet politic context this would be deemed as a politic group, looking at the local level, it is easy to relate to these members and see that this was not their original intent. I equate this to my friends and I discussing topics we find controversial, without having the strong intent of acting upon it. We strive to feel educated, individual, and unique when we discuss things with like-minded people and do not expect grand changes out of it, just like members of the Thaw generation did. I personally think that people who “do not fit in” will always find a way to each other. There is strength in numbers and those that are deemed outside of the social norm clearly expressed their ideas to be labeled as such, making it known to others like them that they are not alone.

  2. I would like to focus on question 5. It seemed like Alexeyeva found triumph in the moment because it got their message out to the press. “We didn’t talk along the way, but the gesture was made and accepted. The alliance that was forged on that day enabled Western reporters to obtain information from the public rather than just from the government. And by virtue of its closeness with the press, the public movement in the USSR became one of the world’s best covered ongoing political stories.” This quote shows that the press was now focused on their movement, which was a win for the dissidents. She has convinced me of her perspective — especially in finding triumph in pretty bad situations.

  3. I would like to answer question 7:

    Sakharov has a point. In an ideal world, what he was asking for would seem completely rational, but while the Cold War was raging I’m afraid his pleas fell on deaf ears within the USSR and were likely met with dismissal in the West. In light of how heavy handed the Soviet state was on the press at the time and in the decades leading up to when Sakharov’s appeal was written, I would have to say that his faith is not justified. However, in light of Khrushchev’s reforms in the 1950s and early 60s, I can see how he would think that the Soviet Union might be ready for more extensive cooperation on the world stage, but sadly he seems to be forgetting that this is the same nation that, as we saw previously, invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 over possible liberalization, and for the USSR to cooperate would require political liberalization to cooperate. Also, said cooperation would not be out of visible necessity such as what Stalin needed to do in the Lend Lease agreement during WWII, but for a less obvious cause. As for science, it will lead us to the solutions we face, but it hinges on weather people in charge and in positions of influence are willing to listen, which in the case of the USSR it appears they were not. The lack of social justice Sakharov rails against in paragraph 4, as well as global poverty and issues which transcend national borders, are clear things to unite against, but with so much work needed to achieve the progressive change he speaks of I can see how the method of thinking of various bureaucracies would lead to a sense of unspoken but united dismissal. For these reasons, he was undoubtedly too idealistic. The idea that the West would come to the table when the Soviets had invaded a country moving toward democracy just 6 years prior is somewhat removed from the idea of diplomatic relations in regards to cooperation. The fact that Brezhnev was still in charge at the time likely wouldn’t have helped things along either given how his policies turned in a more conservative direction that Khrushchev’s administration (with regard to individual freedoms and ideals that the West supported).

  4. Question 2:

    Since samizdat means self-published works of literature this created a new way for people to write and read under the Soviet Union. Literature that was published this way tended to be writings that people wanted to read and were more interested in reading. People wanted to read and write about “the story of Gelya Markizova, the story of the Sybarites, the story of the boycott of the Moscow University cafeteria were simply unpublishable,” but if they “wanted literature, history, philosophy, or journalism, [they] had to publish it ourselves,” (98). People were motivated to publish by themselves because of their desire to be able to read stories and learn more. It was actually interesting to the people and that is why it was done even though it was difficult. I think it is very important for writers to go to the trouble to get things published by samizdat because it creates a new voice and something enjoyable for yourself. Typing out a piece of literature yourself rather than just reading it creates a sense of happiness and love because you were able to put yourself into that writing whether fictional or non-fictional. That is the main reason why people write in the first place, because if they write down stories then they will be able to live forever and that is something about literature that people always tend to crave.

  5. 8.
    The threats listed still exist in society today. Freedom of thought is the one that easily comes to mind especially in today. Society has created a list of norms that “should” be followed, and people that don’t conform are belittled. In the US, the thought-norm that people follow is the idea that Christianity is the religion of the US. However, the first Amendment in the US Constitution promotes “freedom of religion.” People that don’t conform to a Christian religion, have a strong possibility of being objectified, along with people that don’t believe in religion.
    I think Lenin would mostly agree with Sakharov on this. This is because Lenin’s NEP favored the educated to help better and industrialize the Union. For the most part I am convinced that the intelligentsia should play a special role. They are important to the growth education for the Soviet Union, and would help benefit the working class and other intelligentsia. The intelligentsia would be able to fight the Party and be knowledgeable about it to get better conditions for everyone.

  6. Question 1.
    While the kompaniya were not described by Alexeyeva as political, their ideology is not aligned with traditional, Soviet values. On page 83, Alexeyeva lists myriad topics that group members discuss. The discussions range in topic from philosophy to genetics and serve many functions for group members. Many of the topics listed are also non-political, but this can be seen as more dangerous to Soviet society because each facet of life is carefully dissected by group members in a way that is not always conducive to collective living. In addition to forming an outside, group opinion on Soviet government, the group also discussed social issues and science in a way that was not fully supported by the government.
    The many discussions held by kompaniya also prove that members were searching for others to validate their opinions. The need for validation is understandable as kompanii were outsiders who did not change to fit into the mold of Soviet collectivization. This ‘outsider’ status encouraged dissidents to find and create a new social circle that was governed by innovative ideas. By combining members’ need for self-expression and exploration, the kompaniya served a vital function for many.

  7. In response to question 1, I agree with Alexeyeva that the kompaniya’s are not political. By reading the introduction and looking at pages 83 and 84, I view this group as being just a group of people wanting to talk together that posed no threat to the Soviet government. They were not looking to make a change in anything that was going on during this time, they were just looking to talk to others about what is currently going on during this time. A quote that really stuck with me that I think truly showed that the kompaniya’s were just a group of people talking about their different opinions is “We didn’t drink much in those days. A couple half-liter bottles were sufficient to fuel a gathering from dusk to dawn. “I don’t ever think we’ll drink ourselves to death…We’ll talk ourselves to death.” (84) In my opinion, I think this quote showed that everyone in this group really just wanted to spend their time talking about what is happening in the Soviet Union, and did not have any intention of making it political. I think people who “don’t fit in” will always find each other in any society. I feel that anyone could find someone who is like them and have the same views.

  8. Question 1:

    I think they were political in their own way as in the Soviet Union and in a communist society it is impossible to be apolitical. This is due to the fact that the party dictates every part of life. On page 84, Alexeyeva describes the group as “people who did not fit into the ‘healthy collective.'” They are bonding over the fact that they do not cooperate with the status quo of the Soviet Union. Even though they were not activists putting on displays of political disobedience or actively try to persuade others to join their cause, they were acting in an anti-Soviet manner.

    I do agree that people “who don’t fit in” will find each other in societies as it common suffering or adverse opinions is a regular source of bonding.

  9. Gonna jump in late to the party and look at Question 2:

    I think this type of literature is the most reflective that we have seen to this point. Not only do the writers seem to have a good understanding of their place in history, but a good understanding of the darker realities of their country’s past. I think what these writers are pushing for is to see how far they can take this type of writing. Alexeyeva sites multiple occasions of writers who broke prior censor guidelines, who were tried and sent to jail for their “crimes”. These writers are clearly not ignorant to the situation so I think they are looking for where their new limits lie.
    I also think the having to type out these writings yourself over and over again go hand and hand with why these writers went to so much trouble to produce these pieces. It’s similar to the concept that, if you learn something enough, it will eventually true. For these writers, my feeling is that the more they repetitively wrote their works, the more they actually bought into what they were writing about. The meaning of these works becomes more a collection and the individual works start to become a movement based on the growing sentiment of the writers. As Alexeyeva said, “…we represented the Soviet human rights movement in its gestation stage…” So, these pieces developed past individual works but into a collective social movement.

  10. #7

    I think that Sakharov’s reasoning is justified though his faith is not. Addressing the world’s problems, he brings up poverty, which we now see as a humanitarian and science-driven issue with bodies like the Peace Corps instituting sustainable and effective farming practices as well as putting forth medical and sexual education programs.

    Where his faith is misguided, is in the national identities of the world’s strongest nations. The United States which has (temporarily) cut funding to the WHO is far too concerned about national sovereignty and the reporting of poor public policy in the news cycle than addressing global issues.

    While different leaders were present during the Cold War, similar sentiments about sovereignty, globalization, and power were held. Nationalist ideas that one’s citizens should come first–in spite of the mutual benefits that a globalized society might bring seem to have a hold on American and Russian politics. The Russian intervention in the 2016 election and hostility towards the United States and the United States’ global military presence further that point.

  11. I would like to respond to question #4. I consider the first Constitution Day Protest to be a success because it can be seen as the beginning of the civil rights movement in the Soviet Union. It was a strictly organized protest that had one goal in mind; this allowed for it to be a peaceful demonstration that was straight to the point. It gained attention from the United States and was successful in that it opened the trial for Sinyavsky and Daniel. It can be said to be the first event that sparked the Dissident Movement, because after this more people joined the cause and it became more popular throughout the Soviet Union. In the reproduction of an invitation in Alexeyeva’s “Thaw Generation”, it is seen that Alek Esenin-Volpin wanted this to be uniform and peaceful protest. I agree with his method of keeping it strictly controlled, for an event like this could easily get out of hand and have too much going on. So for Alek Esenin-Volpin to demand only one chant to be echoed was a wise decision so the primary goal of this protest was clear to all who saw it.

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