speech at the 20th Party Congress
in 1956 and the subsequent cultural
'thaw' gave birth to the dissident
movement of the sixties
. As the country recovered from the excesses of Josef Stalin
, groups and individuals used the slight lax in authority to protest and resist the religious
suppression and human rights
was published. Underground
newspapers and journals were developed. As Khrushchev clamped down on religious groups, they created illegal churches and networks. Displaced nationalities such as the Crimean Tartars
, having lost so much from the Bolshevik revolution
started a popular protest. The republics started to resist the Russification of their national culture. While dissent in the Soviet Union only reached its peaks in the 1970s and 1980s with the near celebrity status in the West of dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
, Roy Medvedev
and Andrei Sakharov
, there was a strong dissident movement in the sixties.
Russian literary traditions helped shape a significant form of dissent in the Soviet period. In a country with such heritage, the first signs of dissent naturally came from the heirs of Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The leading Soviet literary journal Novy Mir published Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1963, ostensibly heralding a new era of artistic freedom. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich contains the first published reference to Josef Stalin's extensive Gulag system, a system that Solzhenitsyn himself had spent ten years in - he had been imprisoned for making derogatory comments about Stalin in a letter. One Day uses the simply told story of a normal man imprisoned in a forced labour camp to illustrate the cruelty of the Gulags. The focus of Solzhenitsyn's dissent during the sixties focused on his experiences in the so-called 'Gulag Archipelago' - the network of forced labour camps in Siberia. His definitive work in three volumes under this title - published in 1973 but written since 1958 - chronicles the horrors of this system. The Gulag Archipelago draws on his own experiences and the testimony of more than two hundred others to detail the entire system of Soviet subjugation with a great deal of moral indignation.
Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, while written in the 1930s, was only published in 1966-67 under Khrushchev's 'thaw'. With its intensely absurd and satirical portrayal of Stalinist society in Moscow, scarcely disguised references to interrogation and torture, its lampooning of the official Soviet anti-religious propaganda and satires, and the godless communist society. Its absurd and often confusing style completely ignores the official socialist realism, the only style permitted under Stalin.
The backbone of the Soviet dissidents and their movement was samizdat; an inefficient method of distribution but a necessary one, as Soviet publishing houses were state controlled and censored. The author types his work out on a typewriter, photocopy and distributes it. Those who receive it make more copies and distribute them. The first Russian samizdat material was anti-soviet poetry, but it very quickly became highly politicised - early issues contained essays on the reversal of Khrushchev's de-Stalinization policies and his removal from power. International works condemning the Soviet government and totalitarianism such as George Orwell's 1984 and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon were translated and retyped, giving rise to the corollary term tamizdat, meaning 'published over there.' Popular samizdat was only available to people for a short time, as there was usually a long line of people waiting to read it, and entire families would stay up all night reading the works aloud.
While samizdat works were usually disorganised, two notable journals appeared in samizdat form. From 1964-1970 the dissident Marxist historian published in samizdat what was to be known as A Political Diary - a collection of unpublished Communist Party documents, including the famous Khrushchev speech of the 20th Party Congress. But the most important samizdat publication however was the Chronicle of Current Events, a register of human rights violations in the USSR and a record of the human rights movement. Using the Crimean Tartar informational bulletins as its prototype, the Chronicle was born in 1968. The writing in the Chronicle starkly contrasts with the Soviet propaganda of the time; it refrains from giving commentary, just presenting facts and statistics. Editors changed once every two or three years due to arrests, but the changes were not indicated in the journal, as no editorial opinions were expressed. The Chronicle was a true underground newspaper; the editors were always anonymous, and no postal address was ever posted in any issue. The method of gathering information was cautious, as the fifth issue explains -
Anybody who is interesting in seeing that the Soviet public is informed about what goes on in the country, may easily pass on information to the editors of the Chronicle. Simply tell it to the person from whom you received the Chronicle, and he will tell the person from whom he received the Chronicle, and so on. But do not try to trace back the whole chain of communication yourself, or else you will be taken for a police informer.
was collected on the locations of political prisoners
, their health, punishments, food rations
and conditions, open letters written by the prisoners. Show-trial transcripts of dissidents were published. Despite the attempts to stop the flow of information and heavy punishments, a huge amount of information came from within the prison
camps themselves. The Chronicle
was produced not for internal audiences alone either; by 1983 sixty-four issues had reached the West
The most notable dissident during the 1960s, and indeed for the decades afterwards, was the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov. Having fathered the Soviet hydrogen bomb and thus being regarded as a national hero, Sakharov's public profile prevented him from being significantly oppressed by the Soviet government. His importance in the Soviet scientific community gave him a unique ability to protest at the higher levels - at a meeting between atomic scientists and the council of ministers, Khrushchev felt compelled to answer Sakharov's protestations on nuclear policy personally. Sakharov's dissent during the 1960s was mostly concerned this topic. He would prepare secret memos for the upper-party members arguing against the continuation of the nuclear arms race. The first chapter of his influential 1968 samizdat essay, Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Co-existence, and Intellectual Freedom decries the cold war nuclear standoff; 'thermonuclear war is a peril to the very existence of humanity.' His essay also strongly argues for intellectual freedom as 'essential to human society.' Sakharov was a steadfast human-rights activist as well, and it is for this that he was primarily known in the West. He was known to attend almost every political show-trial and attend every possible protest, in order to protect the protesters with his influence.
However they criticised the system and denounced the official policies, many of the dissidents remained dedicated socialists, even Marxist-Leninists. (Roy Medvedev identified himself as such, using his preferred term of 'scientific socialist' .) Khrushchev's views on Stalin's betrayal of Leninism were generally endorsed during the 1960's. His infamous speech of the 20th Congress in 1956 denounced Stalin's excesses, his 'cult of the personality' and his abuse of power. While demonstrating some appreciation of the relationship between Stalinism and Leninism, interviews with Medvedev during the 1960's show a certain naivety about Leninist policies, reflecting Khrushchev's official position.
Stalin took actions that Lenin meant to be only temporary, magnified them and transformed them into permanent procedures.
dissident Ivan Dzuyba
in his work Internationalism or Russification used Marxist criticism to blame Stalin's Russification
as a deviation of Leninist national policy. That most of the venom of the dissident movement in the 1960s was directed towards Stalin is not surprising, but that Lenin
was still revered illustrates the Marxist-Leninist orientation of the dissidents - at least in the sixties as the movement was developing. Even the fiercely anti-ideological arguments of Solzhenitsyn had not matured at that stage.
Most of the focus of the dissident movement has been on the intellectuals who resided in the RSFSR and criticized the broader failings of the Soviet system. But the perennial Russian question of nationality bred its own powerful resistance, and these groups were the first to form dissenting groups in the early sixties. The Crimean Tartars, while only a very small ethnic group in the USSR, organised the only universal national dissident movement in the entire Soviet period, well before movements had even started in most of the enormous Soviet republics such as Latvia and Lithuania. The Crimean Tartars were also the first to use the samizdat technique to distribute literature and petitions en masse.
During Stalin's reign ethnic groups had been deported from their homelands, resettled in special settlements and charged with treason. While most were permitted to return to their homelands after his death , some were refused. Having already born the brunt of Stalin's anti-Turkic obsession, the Crimean Tartars were denied such permission to return to the Crimea - their only concession being their release from the special settlements. The charge of treason was sustained. The Tartars used this limited freedom to organise the Crimean Tartar National Movement, the only movement in the USSR that can be truly viewed as an all-national movement; three million signatures are present on Tartar petitions out of a population of only 800,000. A permanent lobby in Moscow was established and eventually permission was granted in 1967 to return to the Crimea and the charges of treason dropped, but the Soviet government continued to recognise their nationality. The Meskhi, a group related ethnically to the Georgians, had a similar experience after they deported to the eastern regions of the Soviet Union.
The first republic within the Soviet Union to form a dissident movement, and the only one to gain any energy in the sixties, was the Ukrainian National Movement. Stalin's government adopted a uniform Russification policy in the republics and nations that were included in the borders of the USSR. (It should be noted however that Stalin by no means invented that method of cultural rule - Russification had been a Tsarist policy since the mid-nineteenth century) Known as the "generation of the sixties" as reference to the Russian revolutionaries of the 1860s, they opposed this forced suppression of Ukrainian culture, as well as advocated the causes of equal rights and democracy. Ukrainian dissent had a literary focus, and with a broad range of support, intellectuals, workers and even a number of the Ukrainian establishment. The most popular poet of the period Vasyl Simonenko, summed up the public mood when he addressed the Ukraine: "Let America and Russia be silent when I talk with you." Official Ukrainian culture emphasised the bond between Russia and the Ukraine, so to put Russia in the same category as the foreign America was extremely defiant. But for most dissidents, the object of the Ukrainian National Movement was not the secession from the USSR, but liberalisation, democratic socialism and preservation of their culture.
Amongst other republics in the USSR, little dissent grew during the sixties. Occasional arrests throughout the decade and passive protests such as raising the meetings and speeches occurred in Latvia. On the day of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Latvian fisherman wore black armbands as a symbol of commonality. But such rebellion was rare, and popular dissension only began in the next decade.
The state-sanctioned atheism of the Soviet government strongly affected all the Russian religious groups. Lenin fiercely adhered to Marx's disparaging views on religion, and after a brief period of coexistence during World War II, the Khrushchev regime intensified this anti-religious hostility. Religious activity was suppressed with the same vigour as treason. By 1964 the Russian Orthodox Church had lost over 10 thousand churches. Religious dissidents, due to the personal nature of religion, often tried different tactics than their secular counterparts - one community of sixty people attempted to completely isolate themselves from society and live a self-sufficient life. True Orthodox Christian Wanderers destroyed all official records of their existence and lived nomadic lifestyles to perform religious ceremonies for others. Illegal places of worship and schools were operated by all three major religions in the USSR - Christians, Muslims and Jews alike .
Dissent in the sixties was mostly concerned with the excesses of Stalinism and more pragmatic issues than the ideological arguments and theories of the 1970s. The Crimean Tartar National Movement lay the foundations for resistance on national issues in the various republics and ethic groups scattered around the USSR. Intellectuals resisted with satirical novels, underground publications and open letters to the west to garner public support. While the ability the dissidents had to shape public opinion is debatable (and it certainly should not be overestimated when debating the fall of the system), they played an important part in educating the West about the situation in USSR.
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