Western experts and journalists have oscillated between two extremes in their estimates of the scope of dissent and of the human-rights movement in the USSR. When that movement first began to assert itself with a voice both loud and clear, there was a tendency to regard it as a powerful social force capable of influencing the development of Soviet policies. This evaluation was perhaps distorted by the bias of many Russian émigré experts. All political émigrés are prone to hasty judgments, intended to convince the world that their native country’s disagreeable regime is on the verge of collapse. For that matter, in the early 70’s I was among those who tried to convey to Western corresspondents the false impression that dissent, and the human-rights movement in particular, was already a tangible political force.
Now that the number of activists in the movement has ceased to grow, and, with arrests and expulsions, has actually decreased, Western experts have swung to the opposite extreme. Today they often assume that the dissent movement is simply not a social factor to be given any weight at all in political prognoses.
This judgment is mistaken on the basis of numbers alone. The activists in the movement whose names are known are not the only dissenters. To the contrary, they are a tiny minority of the dissenters—a minority daring enough to advertise their dissent. Many less daring Soviet officials and members of the intelligentsia are still sufficiently bold to manifest their dissent—perhaps only in small ways, but consistently—in their work. And there are many others, overtly obedient on their jobs, whose anti-regime sentiments rise to the surface when an opportunity comes along or exert a subconscious influence on their official activity. The authorities apparently realize how numerous such potential “oppositionists” are; ideological campaigns condemning Zionists or denouncing Andrei Sakharov are designed to identify these ideologically “unstable” elements.
It is impossible to gauge the number of ideologically motivated intellectuals or officials who oppose the regime; many persons believe that in the major cities of the USSR, it includes almost all of the intelligentsia. This, however, even if it is not an exaggeration, may be due to the vagueness of the notion of “opposition”—that is, to the fact that all intellectuals are skeptical of current party slogans in varying degrees. Clearly it is not productive to stretch the concept of ideological opposition to these lengths, but we do know—and I base this on the reports of more recent émigrés as well as on my own experience—that the well-known dissident writers are rarely expressing their own ideas and thoughts only. Their samizdat essays result from the reworking and assimilating of views current in the authors’ social milieu. Such influence is especially apparent in the work of two of the best-known such authors, Roy Medvedev and Andrei Sakharov (both of whom are still in the USSR).1
The works of Roy Medvedev are especially well worth studying because they reflect the opinions and doubts current among liberally-inclined party officials.2 (This observation in no way diminishes Medvedev’s importance as a writer.) They are valuable also because they are written in a specifically Soviet idiom more accessible to party officials than the idiom of the intelligentsia. Roy Medvedev appears to be closely associated with the old Bolsheviks and their families. Some old Bolsheviks still remember the party debates of the 20’s; for many, their confinement in Stalin’s labor camps was an introduction to dissent, and for almost all, the period of Khrushchev’s reforms stimulated a search for ways of improving party theory and practice. Although this group is not in power, it serves as a reservoir of party dissent and feeds certain doubts into the minds of the ruling party bureaucracy.
The views advanced by Andrei Sakharov in his book, My Country and the World,3 are, I believe, more compatible with the values of European civilization. This makes it all the more pleasant to realize that Sakharov’s ideas are not the views of an isolated individual. Again, this in no way diminishes Sakharov’s importance, and I am quite sure that he himself would confirm that his statements are a thoughtful, creative elaboration of ideas current in those social circles familiar to him: above all, in the milieu of scientists and engineers working at research institutes. (In recent years, Sakharov has also been influenced by his association with more open dissenters.) Scientists and research engineers are among the freest and boldest thinkers in Soviet society, and it is not surprising that many well-known activists of the dissident movement come from that milieu. We should remember, moreover, that we know the names only of those who have announced their dissent; the majority of scientists who are ideological “oppositionists” do not consider it necessary to advertise the fact publicly. Their reticence is understandable if one bears in mind the conditions obtaining in the Soviet Union and the psychology of scientists for whom their work represents a higher value than open discussion of social questions. Indeed, such covert dissenters often make it a point to proclaim publicly their loyalty to party ideology. It is known that some scientists who took part in the campaign denouncing Sakharov in fact sympathize with his activity.
In this article I am concerned chiefly with the “liberal-democratic” dissenters and those Communist dissenters who advocate “socialist democracy.” Contemporary Russian political dissent does include other schools of thought, including the religious-political and the national-religious. By these rather vague terms I have in mind theories advocating the political reconstruction of Russia using either Orthodox Christianity, or a synthesis of religious and nationalist ideas, as a state ideology4 These schools of thought are of some significance in analyzing social movements in present-day Russia, and they constitute an important factor in the country’s cultural and spiritual development. But the Orthodox and nationalist-religious trends have had almost no effect on those social strata in a position to influence political life, and they are not sufficiently widespread to become a political factor through sheer weight of numbers. I should, however, at least mention nationalist trends in the party apparatus, although little is known about this phenomenon. This brand of dissent is or could become a serious political factor.
Is it reasonable, in gauging the extent of ideological opposition, to take into account covert dissent? I think it is. Covert dissent, the widespread if unexpressed sympathy for the bold gestures of the few overt dissidents, is a real factor in the life of the society.
The present situation is rather paradoxical. According to many reports, the working day at Soviet scientific or cultural institutes often begins with some staff members discussing the latest items heard on the BBC or the Voice of America, including news about dissidents (although the BBC and the Voice of America rarely report on the dissidents). If, however, these same staff members are summoned to a meeting, they will vote to condemn the BBC, the Voice of America, and the dissidents. Such hypocrisy represents the minimum ideological loyalty required by the authorities, who realize it is a minimum and also realize that covert ideological dissent cannot help but affect the daily activity of employees and even officials.
The prospect for the growth of covert dissent in Soviet society is a matter subject to debate. I myself am not generally inclined to optimism, but I believe that skepticism or ideological “oppositionist” sentiment has already reached the point where the process of intellectual emancipation is probably irreversible.
How high up has covert dissent spread? It is no secret that persons sympathetic to the dissidents are to be found at the very summit of the Soviet scientific hierarchy. As for the party, naturally control is stricter there and we know little about higher party circles. But the authorities are better informed about the potential for dissent there too, and we can draw indirect conclusions from the detailed ideological scrutiny to which candidates for top posts are subjected. The fact that certain documents and other information available only to highly placed persons sometimes find their way into samizdat also enables us to draw certain conclusions as to the upward spread of active, if covert, dissent. I shall return to this subject later.
In the late 60’s some prominent figures in Soviet culture were bold enough to sign petitions in defense of human rights. Their names are a matter of record, but such actions are not a sure indication of a significant degree of dissent. Again, in certain cases the decent behavior of a highly placed person gives us (and the authorities!) reason to suspect him of moral, if not political, opposition to the regime. (An example would be a prominent personality refusing to take part in a campaign to denounce Sakharov.) Finally, there is reason to suppose that “oppositionist” sentiments are also harbored by people whose names we do not even suspect. In order to guard his position, a highly placed covert dissident must be extremely vigilant. Does such covert dissidence have any effect on a person’s work? Perhaps no immediate effect, but the existence of “oppositionist” sentiments in the upper reaches of the Soviet hierarchy nevertheless remains significant.
Apart from the issue of the extent of dissent, the Soviet dissident movement—and I specifically include the human-rights movement—has contributed over the past decade to transforming the Soviet Union into a somewhat more open society. That is to say, the dissident movement has helped to bring about the disclosure of important information that had been concealed by the authorities both from Soviet society and from the rest of the world, and Soviet citizens have been able to form a more accurate idea of life in the West than can be gained from Soviet newspapers. In a comparatively brief period, we have witnessed the destruction of a strong Soviet tradition: total silence concerning political trials, labor camps, and prisons. Many instances of anti-religious persecution, of ethnic discrimination, and a good deal else, have been publicized. All this the authorities had carefully concealed from Soviet society and especially from its international partners; and the regime’s policies were built on the assumption that what had been concealed would never be publicized.
I am convinced that these continuing disclosures, contrary to the wishes of the regime, constitute an important political factor which introduces an element of uncertainty into policy planning. This does not mean that the authorities will immediately desist from those shameful types of persecution which were formerly conducted in secret. Of course not. The authorities are attempting to continue such persecutions despite the risk of exposure. They are seeking new ways of covering them up. But they cannot remain entirely indifferent to the fact of public exposure. The systematic disclosure of numerous human-rights violations is already a fact of life.
The authorities are particularly sensitive to disclosure of Soviet violations of international humanitarian accords. It may well be that the activity of Soviet dissenters in monitoring the fulfillment of international agreements is causing difficulties not just for the Soviet authorities but also for those international organizations which have got used to accepting comforting assurances from official Soviet representatives as to how splendidly the Soviet Union has fulfilled its international obligations. Gradually, however, not just the Soviet authorities but such international organizations, as well, will have to take public sources of information into account. Although it is difficult to hope for initiative in this respect from international organizations whose members are sovereign states, Western public opinion may have some effect.
Members of the human-rights movement have given serious attention to publicizing information that had been unlawfully concealed. The editors of the Moscow Chronicle of Current Events5 have earned a reputation for accurate reporting. Recently, the Helsinki Watch Group in the USSR, headed by the physicist, Yuri Orlov, has gathered detailed information on Soviet compliance with and violations of the Helsinki accords. The group has sent seventeen reports to the participating states proposing further study of alleged violations. Since February, Orlov, Alexander Ginzburg, Mikola Rudenko, and other members of this group have been arrested by the Soviet authorities. Only the future will show what use the states signatory to the Helsinki accords will make of the information contained in the Watch Group’s detailed reports. The Soviet authorities’ reaction indicates that they are distinctly unhappy that this group exists.
Perhaps this is the place to emphasize the scrupulous honesty observed by members of the movement in publishing information on human-rights violations in the USSR. I realize that in the late 60’s certain activists issued statements which, al though based on actual violations of human rights by the authorities, contained emotional judgments and some exaggerations. Rather quickly, however, the movement developed a tradition of reporting violations accurately and objectively. To a great extent, the development of this style was fostered by the Chronicle of Current Events, which enjoys deserved prestige as an accurate and responsible source. (Forty-three issues of the Chronicle have reached the West since April 1968.) One must bear in mind the difficulties involved in gathering information in the USSR, and the possibility of error—especially when collecting information from distant provinces. Such errors have been corrected by the Chronicle whenever possible, and the editors indicate when information has not been verified. At times the Chronicle has delayed the publication of important information in order to check it. It may seem paradoxical, but the information supplied by the Chronicle’s anonymous editorial board, which has never been formally organized, and which is subject to change when editors are arrested or exiled, has proved to be much more reliable than the sworn testimony of some recent émigrés who never took part in the human-rights movement and hence never learned its traditions.
Over the years the members of the human-rights movement have devoted serious attention to the ethical aspect of their work. There are no grounds for doubting the truthfulness of the well-known activists in the movement, who by a sad twist of fate are often charged with slander, even when their statements are supported by documentary evidence. Anyone skeptical about reported violations of human rights in the USSR should understand that much information on this subject has been gathered and verified by persons of integrity—persons who are unwilling to distort the facts, even for the sake of good ends.
It is not just the famous dissidents who gather and process information. Many people help in this work; and sometimes we learn their names from new arrests. Such informants include not only convicts in prisons and camps and intellectuals occupying humble places in the hierarchy. As I noted before, certain interesting documents available only to trusted officials have shown up in samizdat. These include directives from the Administration for Safeguarding Government Secrets (the official organ of censorship) concerning the seizing or burning of books and reports on closed conferences and lectures for high officials.
By studying the information published in samizdat, one can form some idea of the geographic distribution of informants on human-rights violations. It is not difficult to see that most “information monitoring” takes place in the larger cities of European Russia and the Ukraine, in the Baltic republics, and to a lesser degree in Georgia. Apparently the Soviet authorities have abandoned their hopes of stopping the flow of information from Moscow to foreign countries (although they are still combating it), and are exerting greater efforts to cut off the flow of information from the provinces to Moscow (and the reverse flow of samizdat from Moscow to the provinces). There are frequent reports of personal searches at airports and railroad stations when the authorities suspect a provincial traveler of being in contact with dissidents.
One indication that the authorities are disturbed by this geographical expansion of “oppositionist” sentiment is the fact that in the provinces, dissidents still sometimes suffer harsh repressions on slight charges—charges which in Moscow today do not entail arrest.6 Throwing more light on the situation in the provinces is very important in working toward an open society in the Soviet Union. Foreign correspondents and ambassadors are accredited to Moscow; and for many years the Soviet authorities have worked to create showcase conditions in Moscow (and to a lesser extent in Leningrad). This has been done on the assumption that even regional centers are usually concealed from foreign eyes. But today, thanks to the growing public “information monitoring” of the human-rights movement, coupled with greater freedom of movement for foreign correspondents, the provinces of the USSR are being opened up for limited examination by outsiders.
The fact that Soviet society is being increasingly opened to scrutiny by outsiders is only half the story. The dissident movement is also making information about the outside world more available to interested Soviet citizens—helping to remove the taboo against the outside world that has been implanted in the psychology of Soviet citizens.
A key aspect of this entire process is the gradual acceptance by the Soviet public of the idea that one can, in principle, emigrate from the Soviet Union; that one can, often with impunity, declare one’s intention to emigrate. For those who remember the situation in the USSR fifteen years ago, this is almost unbelievable.
Naturally the Soviet authorities are anxious to discredit the idea of emigration; since most emigrants have been Jewish, the authorities have been able to exploit popular anti-Semitic sentiments in their campaign. And yet the Jewish emigration has been of great significance in overcoming the taboo on everything pertaining to the outside world. People can now see with their own eyes human beings who soon will live in a totally different world where they will be foreigners. I cannot exaggerate the psychological impact of this experience, so unusual for a Soviet citizen.
I believe the human-rights movement is largely responsible for compelling the Soviet authorities gradually to increase the number of exit visas granted to Jews and, even more fundamental, to admit the existence of the emigration problem publicly, to admit to the Soviet newspaper reader that a certain element of the population wants to leave such an ideal society and go elsewhere. I do not wish to exaggerate, but I am convinced that the public struggle for emigration launched by Soviet Jews in 1971 could not have taken place if the dissidents had not previously set an example with their public discussion of social problems. At the time, I was close to the Jewish movement, and I can testify to the importance of the dissident movement as a precedent for the Jewish activists. Since then, dissidents have provided similar support for the emigration movement of Soviet ethnic Germans.
As it has turned out, many active dissidents have themselves left the Soviet Union, either having been expelled or having agreed to emigrate as an alternative to arrest and imprisonment. One result of this new emigration has been a major expansion in the quantity of information exchanged between Soviet dissenters and their compatriots abroad. Whatever one’s opinion of the political culture of Russian émigrés, people in the Soviet Union now realize that an uncensored Russian culture exists in exile. In Russia itself, the attitude toward the Soviet political émigrés is changing. Today, in Russian-language newspapers printed abroad, you occasionally see a letter to the editor, usually anonymous, from a resident of the USSR. Such a thing was unheard of ten years ago.
Another step in opening up Soviet society which owes much to the boldness of the dissenters is the increasing frequency of non-official contact between Soviet citizens and foreigners. Despite the regime’s opposition, such contacts continue to expand.
It can be said without exaggeration that if an ordinary citizen has an acquaintance who has an acquaintance who knows a person who has befriended a foreigner, that fact in itself produces a psychological shift toward emancipation from an ancient taboo.
It is interesting that among the less intimidated strata of Soviet society, knowing a foreigner or an overt dissident, or possessing a book or information from the West, is a status symbol—something which others may secretly envy, and an occasion for boasting. This is one reason why well-known dissidents in Russia are often pestered simply for the sake of making their acquaintance.
The distribution of Russian-language books published in the West also contributed to opening up Soviet society. The availability of such literature is growing, although slowly. Like samizdat, imported books are gradually revealing to readers a whole world of ideas previously concealed by the Soviet censors. The great demand in the USSR for Russian-language books from the West is clear from the prices such books command on the black market. For the most popular works—books by Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn—the price may exceed 100 rubles per copy, one month’s pay for a young scientist. It is common to lend an acquaintance a book for one night. Thanks to such rapid turnover, a book gains many readers in a brief time. Evenings devoted to group readings have also become an established custom among the intelligentsia. This is especially convenient when a book has begun to fall apart. Readers also photocopy Russian books from the West, and (less often) retype them.
Finally, I should note that some progress in opening up Soviet society might have been made even without an active dissident movement, since the Soviet authorities are themselves moderately stepping up economic and cultural exchanges with the West. But I am convinced that in the absence of the dissident movement this process would have developed at a slower pace, and it would have remained under stricter ideological control.
The human-rights movement has been markedly important in developing a sense of law in the Soviet Union. One must have a good notion of the atmosphere in which Soviet people are brought up—an atmosphere which completely distorts the concepts of civil rights—before one can fully appreciate what members of the movement are doing: showing by their own example that one can read the laws as they are written and not necessarily as they are interpreted by one’s superiors, showing that the defense of an individual’s rights by the state is not a praiseworthy act of kindness but an obligation.
Members of the movement base their own demands, and their criticism of the authorities’ actions, primarily on Soviet laws and the international obligations of the USSR. I can remember the time when few Soviet citizens had any notion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And I can remember the time when the term “human rights” was simply not a part of the Soviet vocabulary. What the Soviet people were told was that the USSR had the best-secured workers’ rights in the world, with the concept of workers’ rights subsuming such rights as the right to work, to an education, and to medical care. Even those few civil rights which were guaranteed by the Constitution were rarely mentioned, since the authorities did not consider it desirable to emphasize them.
But today, thanks to the human-rights movement, it is the concept of human rights that has entered usage, at any rate among the intelligentsia. And even Soviet newspapers find it necessary to use this term, although they try to endow it with a meaning that serves their own purposes. But what matters is that this concept—which speaks for itself—is being used. Thanks to the human-rights movement, the public’s awareness of international human-rights conventions has increased greatly, as has the readiness to refer to them. When we were just beginning to publicize, in samizdat, the UN Covenants on Human Rights (before their ratification by the USSR), some dissenters regarded those documents as empty verbiage and useless propaganda. But now I sometimes receive appeals from remote provinces citing the Covenants. I consider this a major stride in the evolution of a sense of law.
The dissenters’ experiments in founding public associations not controlled by the party and the state are of similar importance; e.g., the Moscow Human Rights Committee, the Amnesty International group, and the Helsinki Watch Group. Such activity has received support from international non-governmental organizations.
The point has not been reached where people can effectively defend their rights with the assistance of the human-rights movement. But the point has been reached where people are beginning to realize which of their rights should be defended by the state, and which of their rights are being violated. This is important, and it undoubtedly restrains the Soviet authorities from many violations of rights.
The dissident movement has not elaborated any original political theories. The average level of samizdat writing on political topics is unsophisticated by modern standards. This is understandable, since samizdat authors are not in a position to know the state of political science in the outside world. (Few contemporary foreign books on the social sciences reach the USSR, and not very many Soviet citizens can read foreign languages.) Nonetheless, many samizdat writers attempt a serious analysis of the current political situation, and formulate their suggestions accordingly. Some suggestions deserve serious study, especially when advanced by authors who have studied a problem in depth—Andrei Sakharov’s proposals on disarmament are a case in point.
In samizdat political literature, criticism of the existing situation predominates. That criticism is often interesting—or at any rate, informative—because of the principles on which it is based. The program set forth by the liberal-democratic writers usually boils down to an affirmation of the desirability of gradual reforms along the lines of those introduced during the Khrushchev era. Authors like Roy Medvedev stress the possibility of democratic reforms within the framework of the present Communist system of government, while others (Andrei Sakharov, Valentin Turchin, Yuri Orlov) discuss to what extent hopes for such reforms are compatible with what in Russia is called socialism. Other schools of thought have not so far offered anything that can be described as substantial political-science research or a feasible political alternative. Certain authors, as noted earlier, have recommended that Russia be restructured using religion or nationalism as a state ideology. Their theories are interesting, but in reading such articles one gets the impression that the authors’ familiarity with political science is limited to works of the 19th or early 20th century.7
Suggestions by samizdat authors for the development of the legal system are more specific, since the topic itself is better defined. The main thrust of these suggestions is that Soviet authorities should observe existing Soviet laws and gradually bring those laws into conformity with international obligations and the generally accepted ideas of modern civilization. The insistence upon strict compliance with the procedural—in addition to the substantive—guarantees of the law is of crucial importance in developing a sense of law in Russia.
Some of these suggestions would be difficult for the Soviet authorities to carry out while still preserving the existing political system. But proponents of such suggestions often choose to ignore that obvious circumstance, stressing that their ideas have to do only with the legal system and not with politics. This approach may be somewhat unrealistic, but logically it is well founded. Some suggestions would be easy for the authorities to carry out (in individual cases); and if they do not adopt them, or do not adopt them promptly, it is (I suspect) for reasons of political prestige, and because they want to stress their capacity for arbitrary action.
Some changes in Soviet law appear to come as if in response to an appeal by or criticism from those dissenters whose main preoccupation is legal rights.8 For example, the new regulations on the internal passport system provide for the issuance of passports to collective farmers. This followed criticism in samizdat of discrimination against kolkhoz members because, unlike urban dwellers, they were not issued passports, which in practice made it more difficult for them to exercise their right to freedom of movement. In other cases, appeals from dissenters have coincided with legislative intentions, as has become evident after the fact—for instance, in the matter of the Soviet ratification of the Covenants on Human Rights, the Universal Copyright Convention, and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Such coincidences do not, however, prove that the legislators paid heed to advice from the dissenters—especially since the laws adopted frequently differ in substantive provisions from the proposals of the samizdat authors.
I should note, in conclusion, that the advocacy of reforms by dissenters usually has nothing revolutionary about it. To the contrary, most authors of such suggestions stress their leanings toward gradualism, and their understanding that even with the best of intentions, it is impossible to change everything at once.
1 Works by other noted samizdat authors (Peter Grigorenko, Yuri Orlov, Valentin Turchin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Amalrik, Vladimir Bukovsky, Igor Shafarevich) also reflect widespread attitudes; this, however, does not apply to the “legalists” (such as Alexander Volpin, Andrei Tverdokhlebov, and myself) who have restricted themselves to the analysis of Soviet and international law.
2 Let History Judge (Knopf, 1971); On Socialist Democracy (Knopf, 1976); Khrushchev: The Years in Power (with Zhores Medvedev, Columbia University Press, 1976).
3 Knopf, 1975. See also Sakharov Speaks (Knopf, 1974) .
4 See, for example, Alexander Solzhenitsyn et al., From Under the Rubble (Little, Brown, 1975) and Solzhenitsyn's Letter to the Soviet Leaders (Harper & Row, 1974).
5 A samizdat journal, founded by Natasha Gorbanevskaya, which has circulated in the Soviet Union since 1968. It is translated and published in the West by Amnesty International.
6 A separate question that I have not discussed here is the activity of nationalist groups in the republics: e.g., in the Ukraine, the Baltic republics, and Armenia. In some cases links exist between the moderate nationalist groups and the Moscow dissidents. Experience shows that nationalist movements which are not in political opposition to the regime, such as the Crimean Tatar and Jewish movements, can develop comparatively quickly and involve large numbers of people.
7 There is little likelihood that in the near future samizdat authors will be able to read more of the important political-science works by Western authors. Russian publishing houses in the West do not have the resources to undertake such a program of enlightenment. In Europe, several Russian-language publishers issue reasonable quantities of imaginative literature, together with books on religious education and on Russian religious philosophy. In the U.S., there are two active publishers of books in Russian: Ardis Press, which specializes in imaginative literature, and Khronika Press, which concentrates on publications on human rights in the USSR, and also prints political works of a liberal-democratic persuasion, chiefly from samizdat.
8 See Valery Chalidze, To Defend These Rights (Random House, 1974).