Dissidents

   In the tsarist period, intellectual dissent originated with Russian military officers who had served in the Napoleonic Wars, as well as with a small group of nobility exposed to radical French, English, and German philosophy. This culminated in the Decembrists’ Revolt of 1825. Despite Nicholas I’s repressive regime, some political dissent emerged in the 1840s, such as the publication of Aleksandr Hetzen’s Kolokol (The Bell), which questioned tsarist authority. In the 1860s a new generation of intellectuals—many the children of the clergy and the middle class—became more vocal and radical in opposing autocracy. From these radicals came two streams of political opinion: populism (narodnichestvo) with it belief in the peasant villages as the engine of change, and Marxism.
   The tsarist authorities never understood dissent. The Third Section and later the Okhrana only poorly comprehended their opponents. They never really understood that the threat to the regime was not ideas, but the living conditions of the peasantry and the new urban working class. All too often, moderate liberals were considered no less dangerous to the regime than anarchists. Vladimir Lenin and the other Bolsheviks were descendants of these dissidents. Lenin’s older brother, a radical populist, was hung for plotting the death of tsar Aleksandr III. Lenin was introduced to both populism and Marxism at Kazan University in the late 1880s and early 1890s. One of the major reasons for the survival and flourishing of dissent in Russia was its strong base in Europe. Both Marxists and populists lived abroad with the tolerance of Western governments and the support of liberal and socialist political parties.
   The greatest force for dissent in early 20th-century Russia was the Bolshevik Party. However, after seizing power, both Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were committed to the annihilation of political diversity. Before his death, Lenin demanded the arrest of all potential dissenters, including fellow socialists in the Menshevik Party and anarchists. Dissent in Soviet society was harshly punished, and the archives of the security services bear stark witness to the fate of those who challenged the regime. In the last two years of Stalin’s life, unsanctioned reading groups at universities were broken up; their leaders were arrested, and in a few cases executed.
   In the 1950s the Soviet intelligentsia began to demonstrate political courage. The publication of Not by Bread Alone and One Day of Aleksandr Denisovich marked a Soviet thaw and slightly greater literary freedoms. Beginning in the early 1960s, a small group of Soviet intellectuals moved to disagree intellectually with the system. Some were motivated by religious opinions, more by a demand that the Soviet system live up to its own laws. These were not revolutionaries; like the men and women of the 1860s, they sought to meet, talk, read, and publish their ideas. They were few in number and totally harmless politically, but they attracted the enmity of the KGB and its powerful chair, Yuri Andropov.
   In 1964 Joseph Brodsky was tried in Leningrad for being a parasite. Brodsky, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was condemned for acting as an independent (not state-employed) intellectual. In 1965 Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuri Daniel were convicted of anti-Soviet agitation for publishing their manuscripts abroad. The détente of Leonid Brezhnev and the thaw of Nikita Khrushchev were clearly over. Other themes galvanized the creative intelligentsia (and concerned the KGB): during the next two years, there was growing interest in immigration to Israel and America by Jews and Pentecostals. Moreover, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was preparing his first great novel for publication in the West, with its denunciation of Soviet history. Andropov, reacting to these trends, told the Communist Party Central Committee that the service had lost its control of events inside the country.
   Beginning in 1967 Andropov moved to crush intellectual dissent. He mandated the creation of the Fifth Directorate, for counterintelligence within the intelligentsia, and moved to break the movement. Andropov, who had witnessed the Hungarian revolution as the Soviet ambassador, believed that dissent could lead to counterrevolution in Moscow as it had in Budapest. Andropov also ensured that the Soviet penal code include new laws that harshly punished anti-Soviet agitation with seven years in prison plus a term of internal exile. Andropov insisted that the leadership take dissent seriously: from 1967 to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Politburo received scores of memos on dissident activities. These memoranda encompassed subjects as serious as the treason trial of a Jewish dissenter and as relatively minor as the meetings of clubs, and even an unauthorized funeral memorial service for John Lennon. For example, the 1985 report of the KGB chair to Mikhail Gorbachev revealed that in the previous 12 months, the KGB had broken up 25 illegal nationalist groups in the Ukraine and the Baltic republics, as well as 28 Zionist organizations; suppressed 170 underground religious schools; prosecuted 97 authors of illegal manuscripts; warned 15,274 individuals in prophylactic meetings; and arrested 661 Soviet citizens for political dissident activity. Similar details are found in every top secret annual summary. The KGB’s First Chief Directorate also made pursuing and discrediting dissidents a major objective. Reports of Solzhenitsyn’s speech at Harvard University in 1975 were circulated to the leadership. When Yuri Orlov, a leading dissident, did not receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, the KGB rezident in Oslo called Mikhail Suslov, the CCPC secretary for ideology, in the middle of the night to announce the “success.” The arrest, imprisonment, and exiling of dissidents, however, was counterproductive for Moscow. It did the reputation of the Soviet state tremendous harm and raised questions about its legitimacy in the West.
   See also Sakharov, Andrei.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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