From Soviet dissent to Bolotnaya protest

1.

In order to understand the present situation in Russia with regard to social protest, human rights, the growing censorship of media and the steady increase in violent repression by the authorities, I believe it is necessary to look at the history of the Soviet dissident movement and its post-1991 evolution. In a series of recent posts I attempted to summarize Ludmila Alexeyeva’s history of the movement as it appears in a section of her important book История инакомыслия в СССР (1983). What emerges from her carefully documented account is an enormous panoply of groups and individuals, many with widely differing views, yet united in their opposition to the cynicism and amorality of the Soviet regime, and their determination to hold it to the legal standards it professed on paper yet ignored in practice. Above all, Alexeyeva’s history provides the basis of a proper explanation of why in the post-Soviet period so few figures in the dissident movement took positions of influence in the new governments that were established after the fall of Communism, and why in Russia no process of “lustration” – the government process regulating the participation of former security police agents in successor positions – took place, as it did the ex-satellite countries of Eastern Europe.

In their published correspondence entitled What Became of the Soviet Dissidents? (2002) Keith and Masha Gessen have discussed some of the attributes and circumstances of the dissident movement in a way that exposes one of its central features: its location in two separate geographical and ideological/cultural regions, commonly called “East” and “West”. While the Soviet dissidents were cultural and social non-conformists, in political terms they had little in common with their counterparts in the West, the radicals of the 1960s and 70s. While Western radicals conceived their protest as a political act, for the Soviet dissidents resistance to the prevailing order took an essentially moral form. In this there was a fundamental clash, for while among the youth of the West political action was greatly valued, enjoying a high degree of respect, in the East it was viewed by most people with mistrust, as the language and practice of repression. In the West, on the other hand, the concept of morality had come to be equated with “bourgeois morality”, which was rejected in favor of new cultural and social norms. So there was little room for mutual understanding in these two important areas. While the political protesters of the West were eagerly exploited for propaganda purposes by the Soviet authorities, in the West the dissidents were championed mainly by right-wing politicians. In his remarkable essay Exiles on Main Street, which forms the starting-point for the correspondence, Keith Gessen explains some of the tensions and the sense of incongruity:

…to have a man dressed in an aging checkered sweater, over whose chair hangs a beige corduroy jacket with brown leather patches at the elbows, who is constantly smoking (Benson & Hedges), whose face radiates intelligence and skepticism and tolerance in the greatest tradition of the Left – to have such a man tell you he supported Reagan is remarkable! And then again, not so remarkable. Reagan was just entering office when we came over, and for the entire generation that arrived in the late seventies and eighties he will forever symbolize the welcoming arms that met us, the astounding difference of this new world. While the liberals shucked, shawed, and prattled on about universal health care in the USSR, Reagan believed us! Not only that, he was willing to act on this belief: he so hated the evil empire (how evil, we well knew) that he would plunge the country into debt, ship arms behind the back of Congress, bring us to brink of armed conflict to beat them!

This strange yet logical disparity, this almost surrealistic juxtaposition of two entirely different assessments of reality, is probably at the root of much of the bewilderment that is still felt both by radicals in the West and by oppositionists in Russia today when seeking to understand the protests of the past and present day on either side. For the Soviet dissidents were not, as is commonly believed in the West, a few courageous voices in the wilderness crying out in isolation – they were only the most audible voices, the tip of a very large iceberg, a social and cultural stratum that underlay almost the whole of Soviet society, from bottom to top, and was instrumental in the Soviet system’s downfall. The leaders, like Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Yesenin-Volpin, Brodsky and others, were not political figures in any accepted sense – indeed, their work went far beyond political activism and involved social, historical, literary, intellectual, biographical and cultural factors that are often hard to pin down. Yet in spite of all the internal divisions, the apolitical arena and the frequent displays of personal rancour, the strength of the movement’s resistance remained.

(to be continued)

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