Soviet Dissent in Historical Perspective
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev made his famous “secret speech” to the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he condemned many of Joseph Stalin’s practices. It was an action of seminal importance. The resulting political “thaw” allowed for expressions of dissent for the first time in several decades. Such a surprising and unfamiliar phenomenon might understandably be seen as a singular, isolated historical occurrence. This excellent and concise study establishes, however, that the dissident movement in the Soviet Union is not exclusive to the 1960’s. Marshall S. Shatz, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, traces the roots of Soviet dissent deep into the Russian past and draws fascinating parallels between dissent in czarist times and today.
Shatz provides a historical dimension highly conducive to a better understanding of Soviet political life. He begins by reviewing the historical and geographical conditions that led to the establishment of autocracy in Russia. The effects of the long Mongol rule, as well as the openness of the vast territory—with its human and material resources thinly spread—seemed to make autocracy inescapable. Survival was seen as being contingent on strong central rule, capable of imposing sweeping measures to advance the state’s interests. Serfdom, the quasi-enslavement of the peasants, was specifically established to serve the state’s military and financial needs. It is an early example of enormous state initiatives; other comparable ones are Peter the Great’s Westernizing schemes, the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture and massive industrialization program. Thus, expectation of state initiative is a deeply ingrained Russian political tradition. If change and progress were to be effected, the all-powerful state would have to take the lead, for no other agent could possibly provide any impetus. To do this, an up-to-date, educated elite performing in the service of the state would be required.
The nurturing and promotion of such an elite, however, has been creating a dilemma for Russian governments past and present. Because dissidents have invariably come from the ranks of the state-sponsored educated elite, the state has been concerned with preventing the achievement of too much intellectual autonomy. Thus, an examination of the relationship between the autocratic state and its educated elite is a key to understanding dissent in Russia.
The segment of Russia’s educated class which has criticized, questioned, and on occasion outrightly challenged the given political and social order is commonly referred to as the “intelligentsia.” Shatz notes the term’s special connotation; it is not the same as “intellectuals”; rather, it refers to those intellectuals who stand in opposition to the system. The emergence of this Russian intelligentsia was the legacy of Peter the Great (1696-1725), who initiated a vigorous program of Westernization. The nobility, whose status was directly linked to state service, was ordered by the Czar to acquire Western manner and schooling. Gradually, this led to the adoption of a new set of standards and the reevaluation of the familiar Russian environment. The impact of Western culture became especially formidable during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), a monarch quite actively involved in promoting the ideas of the Enlightenment. To encourage creativity and modernization, major reforms were implemented. From the perspective of the autocracy, it was like opening a Pandora’s box. The paternalistic and arbitrary system was bound to be a source of growing frustration and humiliation for many who had begun to see themselves as truly free individuals.
Alexander Radishchev (1749-1802) is the first notable dissident whose background, education, and life experience Shatz explores, in order to explain the emergence of the Russian intelligentsia. Radishchev may be considered the “father of the Russian intelligentsia.” He typifies how the government contributed to the rise of the intelligentsia by advancing the education of its own officials; in Radishchev’s case it was five years of state-financed law study in Leipzig. Radishchev came to loathe the paternalistic arbitrariness of the system. A series of personal indignations and humiliations led him to a heightened empathy for other victims and a rejection of serfdom as an inherently evil institution. The growing individualism of the educated elite was accompanied by a strong sense of social mission and a keener national consciousness. Following Radishchev were the Decembrists, so named for their abortive revolt in December, 1825. They tried to seize the state and turn it into a more effective instrument for progressive change. Although the Decembrists failed miserably, they inspired a new generation of dissidents, “the men of the forties.” Shatz focuses on Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), a gifted writer and the most prominent member of the...
(The entire section is 2053 words.)