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?