The remainder of Ludmila Alexeyeva’s discussion of the rights movement shows that 1977 was a kind of watershed for it. After the metro bombing the repression by the authorities became systematic and all-embracing: while the number of arrests and harsh sentences increased markedly, the exile of Andrei Sakharov to Gorky and the conditions of house arrest under which he was held there meant that the movement was deprived of one of its most cogent, moderate and internationally respected adherents. The demographics of the movement itself began to change: in place of the literary, philosophical, humanities-based background of many of the earlier pravozashchitniki, the context of the new generation was predominantly a scientific and technical one, and lacked the bohemian flair of the 60s intelligentsia. The author’s account ends in late 1982-early 1983. By then the post-Stalin Soviet state had entered what was probably its darkest period – the illusions of détente were giving way to a general deterioration of relations between the USSR and the United States, the U.S. plans to deploy Pershing missiles in Western Europe in response to the Soviet SS-20s met with aggressive hostility on the part of Moscow, and it was at this period that Ronald Reagan coined the phrase “the evil empire”.
In retrospect it is possible to see that the darkness was to some extent manufactured – a tactical maneuver by the Soviet government and its special services. After Andropov’s death in 1983 the blackout persisted for a year or so during the retrograde Brezhnev-like presidency of Chernenko, and then began to show the odd flicker of light as the cracks in the system became more apparent, even to a few observers in the West. But the dissident movement continued its underground action – for even in the first year of Gorbachev’s presidency a figure like the poet Irina Ratushinskaya was still being held in a Soviet labour camp, and was not released until 1986.
With the collapse of the USSR in 1989, the situation of the rights movement changed – but the precise nature of the change has yet to be defined. In a future post I will try to outline what I see as the differences between the protest movements of the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, and also the features that to some extent unite them.