Dangerous Thoughts

Orlov follows Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov, and other recent dissidents of the 1970’s and 1980’s into print with a memoir of his struggle against Soviet rule. Russian intellectuals, silenced at home for liberal ideals, traditionally court world opinion by writing autobiographies. As Orlov ends his account in 1991, the dissidents’ dream has come true: Communist bureaucracy collapses and totalitarian rule ends. No longer a plea, DANGEROUS THOUGHTS now reads as the anatomy of a soul-less ideology that exploited, alienated, and devoured its citizenry. Orlov’s life perfectly illustrates the process.

Reared in the countryside until collectivization forced his family to Moscow, young Orlov discovers a fascination with mathematics and physics. A factory worker by day and a student by night after the Great Patriotic War, he earns a degree and a job at a research institute. Had politics not interfered, Orlov would gladly have spent his life solving formulas. He sees, however, that some people live better than others in a supposedly classless society, that Cold War strategy dictates scientific research, and that political correctness determines rewards. Dismissed from the Party and his job for mild anti-Stalinist comments, Orlov finds himself under constant KGB surveillance. Annoyance turns to disillusionment over the widespread persecution of scientists. When harassment of Sakharov begins in 1973, Orlov publicly protests and works openly with other dissidents to organize the Helsinki Watch Committee in Moscow. Relentlessly publicizing human rights violations in the USSR, the Committee is targeted for repression. Orlov is tried under the infamous Article 70 of the criminal Code and in 1978 sentenced to a labor camp and then exile. He survives a cruel five-year regimen. Banished to Siberia at sixty but able to last to concentrate on mathematics, Orlov is unexpectedly expelled to the United States just before the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit.

Witnessing the death throes of the Soviet Union and the emergence of democratic leaders like Boris Yeltsin, Orlov sees the legacy of the dissident movement. It exposed the lie of Soviet progress and justice until not even the self-deluded could believe any longer.

The plight of former Soviet republics—food shortages, lack of hard currency, disputed control of nuclear weapons—now eclipses the injustices against which Orlov fought. Thus some of the book seems dated. Yet many parts will hold the reader, especially vignettes of Orlov’s peasant grandmother, domestic life in overcrowded apartments, prison camp’s psychological warfare, and rough-and-tumble Siberian exile.