NEW YORK—In 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev launched de-Stalinization with his “secret speech” at the Soviet Union’s twentieth party congress. Never again would the USSR rely on mass terror to enforce domestic policy.
That shift into the second, post-Stalin half of the country’s history may have been more radical than its ultimate collapse, said Benjamin Nathans last Wednesday during a colloquium at NYU’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia. Nathans, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, fielded questions and comments about his upcoming book on the history of the Soviet dissident movement, which survived for some two decades in the space opened by Stalin’s death.
“I will even go so far—if only for provocative purposes—to say that the transition from Stalin to post-Stalin was more dramatic than the transition from Soviet to post-Soviet,” Nathans said. “The subtraction of terror from the equation opens up a new set of possibilities for social action from below. So all of these different groups—the national groups, the religious groups, the urban intelligentsia—they’re all feeling their way into this new, undefined and open zone of social life.”
Nathans’ book, tentatively titled To the Success of Our Hopeless Cause: A History of the Soviet Dissident Movement, will reexamine the lives of famous Soviet dissidents, many of whom the West celebrated and promoted, as well as those eclipsed by their fellow activists. His aim is to see past the heroic image that grew up around these figures, which at times obscured controversies in the movement, said Nathans.
“People’s lives and fates were at stake,” Nathans said. “Certain things couldn’t be revealed without placing people in harm’s way. But I have no intention of writing a cynical history of the dissident movement. I want to write one that is sober and that has its eyes wide open.”
With Stalin gone, dissent in the Soviet Union no longer meant an automatic death sentence or stint in the Gulag, but it remained risky. Soviet activism emerged in small, close-knit “circles of adult friendship,” Nathans said. In an effort to exclude KGB spies from meetings, attendees needed to know someone who knew the host—no more than two degrees of separation. Yet, over time these networks spread. When Alexander Esenin-Volpin, the “godfather” of the dissident movement, arrived at the famous Pushkin Square protest of 1965, he was delighted to see unfamiliar faces.
Until the KGB finally crushed it in the early 1980s, the Soviet dissident movement was legalistic, said Nathans. Rather than arguing against the USSR itself—that is, questioning the legitimacy of a command economy and single-party, socialist state—activists urged authorities to obey existing laws and to live up to the promises of the Soviet constitution. Despite this, the movement included very few lawyers. Instead, many activists had technical backgrounds in engineering or science.
Though lionized in the West, Soviet dissidents drew criticism from their fellow citizens, and today many Russians dismiss their legacy as irrelevant and ineffectual. According to Nathans, the movement did itself no favors by centering its activism around an abstract language of rights and law rather than the day-to-day troubles of the Union’s Russian majority. Many workaday Soviet citizens saw little to like when dissidents organized a protest against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia or advocated for national minorities. Nonetheless, Nathans argued that the movement matters in part because “Russia needs a usable past.”
As an example, Nathans recalled then president-elect Dmitry Medvedev bemoaning Russia’s culture of “legal nihilism” in 2008. Soviet dissidents already had an answer to that same problem in the 1960s, which was “to spread legal consciousness,” Nathans said.
“Their project … was to get people to think about Soviet law the way they thought about Soviet law,” Nathans said. “Not as a facade. Not as something just for show. But as something that had real potential traction, if only Soviet citizens would actually take it seriously. So in some ways it was a classic civilizing mission.”
Nathans added that the movement was successful at bringing together very different types of people in an otherwise segregated society. Since so much of life was organized around work, Soviets found themselves living and working with others just like them, even sending their children to school with the children of neighbors and coworkers. The result was a kind of archipelago—tight social clusters that rarely met. The dissident movement bridged these islands.
“When people talk about the movement having failed, one of the things that many dissidents express in their memoirs and and their conversations is that the existence of the movement itself was a kind of success in the sense that it desegregated a very segregated society,” he said.
Photo by Bert Verhoeff, licensed under CC BY 4.0. Protesters in Amsterdam call for the release of Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet dissident who spent over a decade in psychiatric prison-hospitals, labor camps and prisons.