Soviet Union

Return to the Past

The re-criminalizing of “slander” in the draft law No. 3879 adopted by a show of hands in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada today is essentially a return to the law on anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, which was defined as:

propaganda or agitation with the purpose of undermining or weakening of the Soviet power or with the purpose of committing or incitement to commit particularly grave crimes against the Soviet state (as defined in the law);

the spreading with the same purposes of slanderous fabrications that target the Soviet political and social system;

production, dissemination or storage, for the same purposes, of literature with anti-Soviet content

The Soviet Trace

Writing in svoboda.org, Andrei Piontkovsky assesses the probability of a “Soviet trace” in the assassination of President Kennedy:

Официальная версия комиссии Уоррена – убийца, действовавший в одиночку, – не убеждает ни экспертов, ни, судя по опросам, большинство американцев. Слишком много фактов, начиная с убийства самого Освальда, косвенно указывают, что, скорее всего, он действовал не в одиночку, а был элементом разветвленного заговора. Между тем, полвека попыток независимого расследования убийства Кеннеди десятками конспирологов, ориентированных на версии правоконсервативного заговора, не привели к убедительным результатам. Версия советского следа с первых же дней после трагедии сознательно на уровне идеологического табу отвергалась в США как властью, не заинтересованной в новом острейшем кризисе в отношениях с Советским Союзом, так и леволиберальными media, жаждавшими дискредитировать своих традиционных оппонентов. Тем более что людей, ненавидевших Кеннеди, действительно было много и среди южных расистов, и среди ультраправых консерваторов.

Dead End

Having read the Kindle edition of Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper I’m left with a sense of  incompleteness – the book aims to show that Oswald was a far less mysterious personality than most accounts make him out to have been, yet in doing so it raises many more questions than it answers.

In particular, the author’s analysis of Oswald’s inner life seems to lead merely to a confirmation of just how blank and uninteresting that life was. While the study of Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union is well researched, it reveals a dead end: although it’s clear that while in Belorussia Oswald did come into contact with many representatives of the KGB, and was deeply involved with them, there appears to be no link between this fact and anything that might have led him to assassinate the U.S. President. Indeed, as Inessa Yakhliel, who knew Oswald, has recently pointed out, he “spoke about Kennedy very sympathetically. He said he was the only sensible president. Those were his words.”

Savodnik makes much of the ease with which conspiracy theorists have set out to present their own versions of what really happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and advances his own “simple” explanation – Oswald was angry about issues in his confused personal life and took it out on the president – as most likely to be near the truth. Yet this eagerness to promote the “lone gunman” theory also has its questionable aspect: for in the same way as the conspiracy theories can be used to promote particular political agendas, so can the supposed absence of a conspiracy.

The Kindle edition of the book contains a number of typographical glitches, most of which are unconnected with Oswald’s own idiosyncratic English spelling (in letter and diary passages quoted frequently in the text). In particular, Russian street names and words are sometimes presented wrongly, as in the often-repeated “Kalinina Ulitsa” for “Ulitsa Kalinina”, and there are some odd transliterations that lead, for example, to the Cyrillic letter “у” being rendered as uy. I haven’t seen the book’s print edition, but hopefully these typos have been ironed out there.

Soviet Dissent – 4

Authors_Andrei_Sinyavsky_and_Yuli_Daniel_during_their_trial_in_1956-66Underlining the literary nature of the rights defending movement, in 1965-66 the authors Andrei Sinyavsky (Abram Tertz) and Yuli Daniel (Nikolai Arzhak) were tried and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment  for works of fiction – short stories and novellas – they had written and then published in the West. The charges related to “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”, though the prosecution had difficulty in proving intent to do harm, and after the trial additional clauses had to be added to the penal code. Alexeyeva points out that while the rights defending movement had hitherto been largely the concern of the young, this trial drew the attention of a much wider cross-section of Soviet society, including the middle-aged, middle-class technological sector.

Another feature of the trial was the letter-writing campaign begun by Yuli Daniel’s wife, Larisa Bogoraz. Initially the letters  to representatives of the authorities, in particular the public prosecutor, were private and signed by her alone, like the letters that had earlier been written by others in support of Pasternak and Brodsky. As time went on, however, more signatories joined her, until the public “open letter” was born. After the harsh sentences passed on dissidents like Alexander Ginzburg, Yuri Galanskov, Vera Lashkova, Alexander Dobrovolsky, Vladimir Bukovsky, Viktor Khaustov and others, such letters were signed by as many as 700 people, most of whom fell victim to repression of various kinds: exclusion from the Communist Party and expulsion from university followed by loss of employment.

The rights defenders began to adopt other methods of exerting pressure on the authorities, including the circulation of petitions. Alexeyeva comments that the petitions against re-Stalinization and repressive judicial decisions were an indication that the USSR was beginning a transition from a totalitarian state to an authoritarian one – the petition had been an instrument used by the pre-1917 opposition in Russia, and its reintroduction suggested a return to earlier methods of democratic resistance.

The protests against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 developed the rights movement even further – Alexeyeva likens it to the growth of mushrooms. In Andrei Amalrik the movement acquired its first “specialist” in making contacts with supporters in the West: the institution of tamizdat was born, not only bringing in previously unavailable foreign texts but also books by Russian-language authors: Alexeyeva lists works by Sakharov and Amalrik, Anatoly Marchenko’s My Testimony, Vasily Grossman’s Forever Flowing, Lidiya Chukovskaya’s Moscow to the End of the Line, Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and The First Circle, and poetry by Iosif Brodsky, among others.

Soviet Dissent – 3

Soviet Dissent – 2

Soviet Dissent – 1 

Soviet Dissent – 3

In her discussion of the Soviet dissident movement Alexeyeva places an initial emphasis on two central points:

1) The movement is properly defined as a правозащитное движение – literally, “rights (or law) defending movement”. This name was entirely new and original: Alexeyeva notes that it came neither from the Russian traditions of constitutional democracy as practiced by the pre-1917 KD (Kadets), nor from the international human rights movement – instead, it described the experience and aspirations of people who had spent their lives in conditions of “lawless actions (беззаконий), cruelty and the trampling of the individual in the ‘interests of the collective’, or for the sake of ‘the bright future of all mankind’.” The situation and actions of the rights defenders were characterized by Andrei Amalrik as the expression of “something brilliantly simple: they began to behave as free people in a country that was not free and by doing so to change the moral atmosphere and the tradition that governed the country.” [my tr.] Thus, the rights defending movement was not a political movement, but a moral one. This enabled it to encompass national, ethnic, social, economic and religious borders and to reach out across them to the USSR as a whole and to the world beyond.

2) The movement had its roots in Russian and Soviet literature: the work of authors like Vladimir Dudintsev, Ilya Ehrenburg, Alexander Tvardovsky and Boris Pasternak created the moral and aesthetic context for much of the writing that appeared in the journal Novy Mir throughout 1960s, including the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Of primary importance, however, were the home-produced, clandestine publications of samizdat, which embraced not only civic texts but also many literary works, both Russian and foreign, that were banned from official circulation. The output of samizdat contained a strong component of poetry, which took its inspiration from an earlier twentieth century tradition of инакомыслие centering on poets who included Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva and Osip Mandelstam. While figures like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky dominated the official poetry scene, with occasional nods to the dissidents, the work of Iosif Brodsky was perhaps the best-known part of an enormous underground proliferation of poems by many different and often anonymous authors. Because of the relative conciseness of the medium of poetry, these texts could easily be committed to memory, thus bypassing the need for typing and printing. The poems were also frequently set to music and sung to the accompaniment of a guitar, which extended their availability and popularity. This literary work was able to express and convey the ideals of the rights defenders in a form that was far more attractive than the texts of civic documents.

Soviet Dissent – 1
Soviet Dissent – 2

Soviet Dissent – 2

Alexeyeva’s book is essentially divided into three equal parts, which deal with the Soviet national movements, the religious movements and the human rights movement, with the addition of chapters on the socialists, the social-economic protest and the Russian national movement. Of the three main parts, it is the section on the human rights movement which most closely corresponds to a history of what in the West has come to be known as the “Soviet dissident movement”.

It’s significant that the word  диссидентство (dissidence) doesn’t figure in the book’s title, which opts for the more general term инакомыслие (literally “heterodoxy”), rendered by the English translators as “dissent” (несогласие). This leaves the way open for discussion of movements which less related to human rights and more to freedom of thought and belief, such as the religious ones.

The methods of chronicling and historical analysis adopted in the book are for the most part strictly factual and statistical. The author’s personal view of the events and crises that are described and listed, though present, is not prominent, and the principal focus is on accuracy and detail, with the inclusion of as many movements, groups, societies and individuals as possible, giving rise to an extensive work that runs to nearly 400 pages in the Russian edition, and more than 500 in the English one.

The first third of the book is devoted to a history of the ethnic-national protest movements in the republics of the USSR, including Ukraine, the Baltics, Armenia, Georgia and Crimea, the Jewish refuseniks, the ethnic Meskhetians, and the Soviet Germans. The section that follows deals with religious movements – Baptists, Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists and Russian Orthodox – and it is not until page 205 that we arrive at a historical account of the dissidents most familiar to Western readers: figures such as Brodsky, Sinyavsky, Daniel, Gorbanevskaya, Amalrik, Bukovsky and so on.

Soviet Dissent -1

Soviet Dissent – 1

During a recent discussion of the Bolotnaya Square May 6 rally and the difficulty of determining the precise nature and composition of the various Russian opposition groups, I was reminded of similar debates about the Soviet dissident movement several decades ago. As many observers have pointed out, that movement, too, was not a coherent, united one, and could not be likened to a political party with a unifying ideology, program and strategy. The problems for historians trying to map out the structure and internal dynamics of the dissident movement are formidable, and it’s perhaps not surprising that Ludmila Alexeyeva’s История инакомыслия в СССP (published in English in 1985 as Soviet Dissent) still remains the only major study of the subject, though it stops at 1983, and the English edition is now out of print. The Russian text can be accessed online at several locations, including this one.

In future posts I’m going to discuss this book, and consider how its historical account of the dissident movement may be relevant to present-day conditions in the Russian Federation.