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« Why Did Surkov Quit? Some Russian Experts Speculate | Main | State Wimps Out on that Weird American Spy Case in Moscow »

May 10, 2013


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David McDuff

I think it's probably true to say that there were similar divisions in the former Soviet dissident community - for example, between figures like Bukovsky, Brodsky, Venclova on the one hand and Etkind, Sinyavsky/Tertz, Medvedev, etc. on the other, though many other such splits existed. Some of the differences were probably personal, while others originated in issues of background, philosophy and outlook. Despite the superficial Western public perception of a unified Soviet dissident movement, the internal divisions were reflected in differences of approach among Western reporters, journalists and commentators, just as they are today where the Russian opposition is concerned. As you point out in the post, however, now as then the divisions don't really matter: what matters is to "not break faith with people being sent to the GULAG".

Catherine Fitzpatrick

Thanks for your comment.

The Soviet-era dissidents were definitely split into camps. Did you know them? I would say there were at least three camps:

Nationalists like Solzhenitsyn

Conservatives or right-wingers like Bukovsky, Yury-Agaev, Kuznetsov

Liberals like Elena Bonner, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Pavel Litvinov, Boris Shragin -- and I'd put Tomas Venclova with liberals, not with Bukovsky at all.

Leftists like Medvedev, Sinyavsky, Kagarlitsky

I would have designated Limonov merely as a party boy, having seen him on the NYC emigre lofty party circuit constantly in the 1980s, during his "Eto Ya, Edichka" period. I would never have guessed he would turn into a National Bolshevik.

I would say nearly all of these people in all these camps would have a basic set of values, however, that you should not have political prisoners, that there should be independent oversight of the government, fair elections, independent judiciary, etc. They might have different ways of getting there. Solzhenitsyn had romantic notions of local democracy and national autocracy.

I don't know if there was a superficial perception of unity, because I think Western correspondents knew the difference between Sharansky, Orlov and Sakharov, on the one hand, in the liberal and secular and universalists camp appealing to universal/Western values, and Solzhenitsyn and his supporters. But it's true the public may not have made distinctions.

I think Steve Cohen has always accentuated the Medvedevs or those on the left or liberal dissidents and exaggerated the conservatives, and others have gravitated toward Bukovsky as an interpeter of events.

I think that while those 10,000 or so people on the square might have a variety of allegiances -- some are hard-core communist supporters of Udaltsov, some are liberals who admire Parfyonov, others are still loyal to Nemtsov and supportive of Navalny -- well they would unite enough to come out at one demonstration with one set of demands. I don't think it was hard to get consensus on those demands that Nemtsov read.

David McDuff

I think that with some notable exceptions it's still very hard to determine exactly what the defining characteristics and tendencies of the various camps really were. So many of the differences between the members of the disparate groups were of a personal nature, and often not really related to political or human rights issues at all. One day someone will have to write the complete history of the Soviet dissident movement, but I don't believe it will be an easy task.

Yes, in NYC and London in the 1970s I knew some Soviet dissidents, including Joseph Brodsky and (briefly and a bit later) Tomas Venclova, some of whose work I translated (from the Lithuanian, with Russian interlinears) for Encounter magazine in England in the early 1980s. I also worked with Brodsky on translations of Marina Tsvetaeva's poetry, some of which are published in the U.K. My general impression was that neither Brodsky nor Venclova cared much for the "dissident" label at all. I only knew Venclova at a very early period of his exile, and I think his views underwent several radical changes - something not unusual then.

Re the personal nature of some of the divisions - Ludmila Shtern describes one example of them in her memoir of Brodsky:

"I didn't have the slightest idea that there had been any conflict between him [Brodsky] and Yefim Etkind, who was one of the three defenders at his trial, and someone who lost his job as a result and was forced to leave the country. So, I burst out with a "speech for the defense": 'What's wrong with you? He defended you! He risked himself! He wrote about your trial in his books! He! He! He!'

"'Well, can you call or not?'

"'I'll call since you ask, but what did Etkind ever do to you?'

"'One shouldn't skim cream off shit.'"

Though they relate to a much earlier period of 20th century history, in her two volumes of memoirs Nadezhda Mandelstam describes similar instances of hostility, dislike and lack of trust between people whom one might have expected to be loyal friends and colleagues. I think it could be said that in Brodsky's case, as in Mandelstam's, much of the hostility was linked with an uneasy, sinister and often life-threatening interaction between literature and politics, and with the ambiguous and dangerous position of the writer in society - a long-existing problem of Russian culture.

But of course that's only part of the story, and I'm only citing it in order to underline the complexity of the dissident movement, whose post-Soviet counterpart is doubtless every bit as complex. My view is that these movements can't really be judged and analyzed by Western standards and methods. They go far beyond political activism and involve social, historical, intellectual, biographical and cultural factors that are often hard to pin down. Yet in spite of all the internal divisions and the personal rancor the strength of the movements' resistance remains.

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