Soviet dissidents were people who disagreed with certain features in the embodiment of Soviet ideology and who were willing to speak out against them. The term dissident was used in the Soviet Union in the period following Joseph Stalin's death until the fall of communism. It was used to refer to small groups of marginalized intellectuals whose modest challenges to the Soviet regime met protection and encouragement from correspondents. Following the etymology of the term, a dissident is considered to "sit apart" from the regime. As dissenters began self-identifying as dissidents, the term came to refer to an individual whose non-conformism was perceived to be for the good of a society.
Political opposition in the USSR was barely visible and, with rare exceptions, of little consequence. Instead, an important element of dissident activity in the Soviet Union was informing society (both inside the Soviet Union and in foreign countries) about violation of laws and human rights. Over time, the dissident movement created vivid awareness of Soviet Communist abuses.
Soviet dissidents who criticized the state faced possible legal sanctions under the Soviet Criminal Code and faced the choice of exile, the mental hospital, or the labor camp.Anti-Soviet political behavior, in particular, being outspoken in opposition to the authorities, demonstrating for reform, writing books were defined in some persons as being simultaneously a criminal act (e.g., violation of Articles 70 or 190-1), a symptom (e.g., "delusion of reformism"), and a diagnosis (e.g., "sluggish schizophrenia").
In the 1950s, Soviet dissidents started leaking criticism to the West by sending documents and statements to foreign diplomatic missions in Moscow. In the 1960s, Soviet dissidents frequently declared that the rights the government of the Soviet Union denied them were universal rights, possessed by everyone regardless of race, religion and nationality. In August 1969, for instance, the Initiating Group for Defense of Civil Rights in the USSR appealed to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights to defend the human rights being trampled on by Soviet authorities in a number of trials.
Our history shows that most of the people can be fooled for a very long time. But now all this idiocy is coming into clear contradiction with the fact that we have some level of openness. (Vladimir Voinovich)
The heyday of the dissenters as a presence in the Western public life was the 1970s. The Helsinki Accords inspired dissidents in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland to openly protest human rights failures by their own governments. The Soviet dissidents demanded that the Soviet authorities implement their own commitments proceeding from the Helsinki Agreement with the same zeal and in the same way as formerly the outspoken legalists expected the Soviet authorities to adhere strictly to the letter of their constitution. Dissident Russian and East European intellectuals who urged compliance with the Helsinki accords have been subjected to official repression. According to Soviet dissident Leonid Plyushch, Moscow has taken advantage of the Helsinki security pact to improve its economy while increasing the suppression of political dissenters. 50 members of Soviet Helsinki Groups were imprisoned. Cases of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union were divulged by Amnesty International in 1975 and by The Committee for the Defense of Soviet Political Prisoners in 1975 and 1976.
According to Soviet dissidents and Western critics, the KGB had routinely sent dissenters to psychiatrists for diagnosing to avoid embarrassing publiс trials and to discredit dissidence as the product of ill minds. On the grounds that political dissenters in the Soviet Union were psychotic and deluded, they were locked away in psychiatric hospitals and treated with neuroleptics. Confinement of political dissenters in psychiatric institutions had become a common practice. That technique could be called the "medicalization" of dissidence or psychiatric terror, the now familiar form of repression applied in the Soviet Union to Leonid Plyushch, Pyotr Grigorenko, and many others. Finally, many persons at that time tended to believe that dissidents were abnormal people whose commitment to mental hospitals was quite justified.:96 In the opinion of the Moscow Helsinki Group chairwoman Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the attribution of a mental illness to a prominent figure who came out with a political declaration or action is the most significant factor in the assessment of psychiatry during the 1960–1980s. At that time Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky wrote A New Mental Illness in the USSR: The Opposition published in French, German, Italian, Spanish and (coathored with Semyon Gluzman) A Manual on Psychiatry for Dissidents published in Russian, English, French, Italian, German, Danish.
In 1977-1979 and again in 1980-1982, the KGB reacted to the Helsinki Watch Groups in Moscow, Kiev, Vilnius, Tbilisi, and Erevan by launching large-scale arrests and sentencing its members to in prison, labor camp, internal exile and psychiatric imprisonment.
The Lithuanian Helsinki Group saw its members subjected to two waves of imprisonment for anti-Soviet activities and "organization of religious processions": Viktoras Petkus was sentenced in 1978; others followed in 1980-1981: Algirdas Statkevičius, Vytautas Skuodys, Mečislovas Jurevičius, and Vytautas Vaičiūnas.:251–252
Throughout the 1960s-1980s, those active in the civil and human rights movement engaged in a variety of activities: The documentation of political repression and rights violations in samizdat (unsanctioned press); individual and collective protest letters and petitions; unsanctioned demonstrations; mutual aid for prisoners of conscience; and, most prominently, civic watch groups appealing to the international community. Repercussions for these activities ranged from dismissal from work and studies to many years of imprisonment in labor camps and being subjected to punitive psychiatry.
Dissidents active in the movement in the 1960s introduced a "legalist" approach of avoiding moral and political commentary in favor of close attention to legal and procedural issues. Following several landmark political trials, coverage of arrests and trials in samizdat became more common. This activity eventually led to the founding of the Chronicle of Current Events in April 1968. The unofficial newsletter reported violations of civil rights and judicial procedure by the Soviet government and responses to those violations by citizens across the USSR.
The civil and human rights initiatives played a significant role in providing a common language for Soviet dissidents with varying concerns, and became a common cause for social groups in the dissident milieu ranging from activists in the youth subculture to academics such as Andrei Sakharov. Due to the contacts with Western journalists as well as the political focus during détente (Helsinki Accords), those active in the human rights movement were among those most visible in the West (next to refuseniks).
In 1944 THE WHOLE OF OUR PEOPLE was slanderously accused of betraying the Soviet Мotherland and was forcibly deported from the Crimea. [...] [O]n 5 September 1967, there appeared a Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet which cleared us of the charge of treason but described us not as Crimean Tatars but as "citizens of Tatar nationality formerly resident in the Crimea", thus legitimizing our banishment from our home country and liquidating us as a nation.
We did not grasp the significance of the decree immediately. After it was published, several thousand people traveled to the Crimea but were once again forcibly expelled. The protest which our people sent to the party Central Committee was left unanswered, as were also the protests of representatives of the Soviet public who supported us.
The authorities replied to us only with persecution and court cases.
Since 1959 more than two hundred of the most active and courageous representatives have been sentenced to terms of up to seven years although they had always acted within the limits of the Soviet Constitution.
– Appeal by Crimean Tatars to World Public Opinion, Chronicle of Current Events Issue No 2 (30 June 1968)
The Crimean Tatar movement takes a prominent place among the movement of deported nations. The Tatars had been refused the right to return to the Crimea, even though the laws justifying their deportation had been overturned. Their first collective letter calling for the restoration dates to 1957. In the early 1960s, the Crimean Tatars had begun to establish initiative groups in the places where they had been forcibly resettled. Led by Mustafa Dzhemilev, they founded their own democratic and decentralized organization, considered unique in the history of independent movements in the Soviet Union.:131:7
Citizens of German origin who lived in the Baltic states prior to their annexation in 1940 and descendants of the
eighteenth-century Volga German settlers also formed a movement to leave the Soviet Union.:132:67 In 1972, the West German government entered an agreement with the Soviet authorities which permitted between 6000 and 8000 people to emigrate to West Germany every year for the rest of the decade. As a result, almost 70000 ethnic Germans had left the Soviet Union by the mid-1980s.:67
Similarly, Armenians achieved a small emigration. By the mid-1980s, over 15000 Armenians had emigrated.:68
The religious movements in the USSR included Russian Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant movements. They focused on the freedom to practice their faith and resistance to interference by the state in their internal affairs.:8
The Russian Orthodox movement remained relatively small. The Catholic movement in Lithuania was part of the larger Lithuanian national movement. Protestant groups which opposed the anti-religious state directives included the Baptists, the Seventh-day Adventists, and the Pentecostals. Similar to the Jewish and German dissident movements, many in the independent Pentecostal movement pursued emigration.
The national movements included the Russian national dissidents as well as dissident movements from Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, and Armenia.
Among the nations that lived in their own territories with the status of republics within the Soviet Union, the first movement to emerge in the 1960s was the Ukrainian movement. Its aspiration was to resist the Russification of Ukraine and to insist on equal rights and democratization for the republic.:7
In Lithuania, the national movement of the 1970s was closely linked to the Catholic movement.:7
TASS press release on the expulsion of Alexandr Solzhenitzyn: By Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., A. Solzhenitsyn has been deprived of his citizenship for systematic actions incompatible with being a citizen of the U.S.S.R. and for damaging the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Solzhenitzyn's family may join him when they consider it necessary. Izvestia, 15 February 1974.
Other intersections of cultural and literary nonconformism with dissidents include the wide field of Soviet Nonconformist Art, such as the painters of the underground Lianozovo group, and artists active in the "Second Culture".
The eight member countries of the Warsaw Pact signed the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975. The "third basket" of the Act included extensive human rights clauses.:99–100
When Jimmy Carter entered office in 1976, he broadened his advisory circle to include critics of US–Soviet détente. He voiced support for the Czech dissident movement known as Charter 77, and publicly expressed concern about the Soviet treatment of dissidents Aleksandr Ginzburg and Andrei Sakharov. In 1977, Carter received prominent dissident Vladimir Bukovsky in the White House, asserting that he did not intend "to be timid" in his support of human rights.:73
In 1979, the US Helsinki Watch Committee was established, funded by the Ford Foundation. Founded after the example of the Moscow Helsinki Group and similar watch groups in the Soviet bloc, it also aimed to monitor compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords and to provide moral support for those struggling for that objective inside the Soviet bloc. It acted as a conduit for information on repression in the Soviet Union, and lobbied policy-makers in the United States to continue to press the issue with Soviet leaders.:460
US President Ronald Reagan attributed to the view that the "brutal treatment of Soviet dissidents was due to bureaucratic inertia." On 14 November 1988, he held a meeting with Andrei Sakharov at the White House and said that Soviet human rights abuses are impeding progress and would continue to do so until the problem is "completely eliminated." Whether talking to about one hundred dissidents in a broadcast to the Soviet people or at the U.S. Embassy, Reagan's agenda was one of freedom to travel, freedom of speech, freedom of religion.
Andrei Sakharov said, "Everyone wants to have a job, be married, have children, be happy, but dissidents must be prepared to see their lives destroyed and those dear to them hurt. When I look at my situation and my family's situation and that of my country, I realize that things are getting steadily worse."
Fellow dissident and one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki GroupLyudmila Alexeyeva wrote:
What would happen if citizens acted on the assumption that they have rights? If one person did it, he would become a martyr; if two people did it, they would be labeled an enemy organization; if thousands of people did it, the state would have to become less oppressive.:275
According to Soviet dissident Victor Davydoff, totalitarian system has no mechanisms that could change the behavior of the ruling group from within. Any attempts to change this are immediately suppressed through repression. Dissidents appealed to international human rights organizations, foreign governments, and there was a result.
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Bukowski, Wladimir. UdSSR. Opposition. Eine neue Geisteskrankheit in der Sowjetunion? Eine Dokumentation von W. Bukowskij [The USSR. Opposition. A new mental illness in the Soviet Union? Documentation by V. Bukovsky]. München: Carl Hanser Verlag; 1971. German. ISBN3446115714.
Bukovskij, Vladimir. Una nuova malattia mentale in Urss: l'opposizione [A new mental illness in the USSR: opposition]. Milan: Etas Kompass; 1972. Italian.
Bukovsky, Vladimir. Una nueva enfermedad mental en la U.R.S.S.: la oposición [A new mental illness in the USSR: opposition]. México: Lasser Press; 1972. Spanish.
Daniel, Aleksander; Gluza, Zbigniew, eds. (2007). Słownik dysydentów. Czołowe postacie ruchów opozycyjnych w krajach komunistycznych w latach 1956–1989. Tom 1 [Dictionary of dissidents. The leading figures of the opposition movements in communist countries in 1956–1989. Volume 1] (in Polish). Warszaw: Karta. ISBN978-8388288890.
Daniel, Aleksander; Gluza, Zbigniew, eds. (2007). Słownik dysydentów. Czołowe postacie ruchów opozycyjnych w krajach komunistycznych w latach 1956–1989. Tom 2 [Dictionary of dissidents. The leading figures of the opposition movements in communist countries in 1956–1989. Volume 2] (in Polish). Warszaw: Karta. ISBN978-8388288845.
Etkind, Efim (1982) . Unblutige Hinrichtung. Warum ich die Sowjetunion verlassen musste [Bloodless execution. Why I had to leave the Soviet Union] (in German) (2 ed.). München: Piper Verlag GmbH. ISBN978-3492023399.
Etkind, Efim (1988). Процесс Иосифа Бродского [The trial of Joseph Brodsky] (in Russian). London: Overseas Publications Interchange Ltd. ISBN978-1870128704.
Gluzman, Semyon (2012). Рисунки по памяти, или воспоминания отсидента [Pictures drawn from memory, or the released dissident's memories] (in Russian). Kiev: Издательский дом Дмитрия Бураго. ISBN978-9664891216.
Trotsky, Leon; Rakovsky, Christian; Pyatakov, Georgy; Zinoviev, Grigory; et al. (1973) . The platform of the joint opposition (the document submitted to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party in September 1927) (2 ed.). London: New Park Publications Ltd. ISBN978-0902030411.
Trotskij, Lev; Zinov'ev, Grigorij (1969). La piattaforma dell'opposizione nell'URSS [The platform of opposition in the USSR] (in Italian). Rome: Samonà e Savelli Editore. A000091776.