The Dissident Movement

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Dissidence arose among Soviet intellectuals in the 1960s and expanded in the early 1970s. Challenging official policies became possible as Khrushchev loosened state controls, but the practice continued to grown when the boundaries of permissible expression contracted under the Brezhnev administration. It reflected the contradiction between an increasingly articulate and mobile society on the one hand and an increasingly sclerotic political order on the other. While never including more than a few thousand individuals, dissidents exercised a moral and even political weight far exceeding their numbers, and paralleled the self-proclaimed role of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia as the “conscience of society.”

Dissidence took a variety of forms: public protests and demonstrations, open letters to Soviet leaders, and the production and circulation of manuscript copies (samizdat) of banned works of literature, social and political commentary. In addition, from 1968 until the early 1980s, the samizdat journal, The Chronicle of Current Events, served as a clearing house of information about human-rights violations in the Soviet Union. By the early 1970s, the dissident movement evinced three main currents. Democratic socialism, couched in terms of “scrupulous regard for democratic principles” and “the possibility of an alliance between the best of the intelligentsia supported by the people and the most forward-looking individuals in the governing apparat,” was exemplified by the historian Roy Medvedev in his book, On Socialist Democracy (originally published in Amsterdam in 1972). Political liberalism and a strong defense of freedom of expression and other human rights was most famously articulated by the physicist, Andrei Sakharov in his essay, “Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom,” which dates from 1968. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the novelist and author of GULAG Archipelago, embodied the third current which condemned western ideologies including Marxism in the name of Russian Orthodox values. In addition, human rights activities took up the cause of religious dissenters, Soviet Jews who had been denied permission to emigrate (“refuseniks”), and nationalities such as the Crimean Tatars.

Soviet authorities attempted to repress these currents and activities by propaganda that discredited dissidents and their claims, confiscation of dissident literature, removal of dissidents from their jobs, prosecution and incarceration in mental institutions and prison, banishment to a provincial city or outlying region, or enforced exile with removal of Soviet citizenship. In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was deported from the Soviet Union. The network of underground groups set up after the Helsinki Accords of 1975 to monitor Soviet compliance with that agreement’s human-rights provisions was hounded and decimated by arrests. Sakharov was stripped of his privileges as a member of the Academy of Sciences and, in 1980, consigned to internal exile. But Roy Medvedev’s observation that “There is now a very widespread feeling that the way we live and work has become untenable,” eventually would be repeated by Mikhail Gorbachev as justification for his policies of glasnost and perestroika.

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