Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Week 8, Day 2: The Revolutionary Idea of Human Rights

Dear Comrades, here is my first video for you! Please watch it and/or read the transcript below. You can turn on closed captioning with the video, but it is auto-generated and not entirely accurate. Remember to respond with your own posts by Friday at 5pm!

Transcript of the Video
Hello, Revolutionaries! Welcome to the online version of this course. Today’s teaching assistant is Dante. He will not be involved in grading, so don’t worry about how evil he looks.

Let’s start with a few announcements. Fist, remember that your posts are due by Friday at 5pm. This week, you should watch all of you colleagues’ Midterm Media Project videos and post a response to two of them. You should also post a response to this video OR make your own new post.

Second announcement: If you do not have your copy of David Saunders’ Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform, you can rent the eBook version for free! Go to about.redshelf.com/redshelfresponds . Scroll down and click on “Access Free eBooks.” Then use the search bar to find the book.

In this video, I’m going to give you some context and discussion questions for Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir Thaw Generation.

This memoir gives us insight into the Soviet dissident movement, which began in the late 1950s and ultimately became the Soviet human rights movement. The members of this movement, like Alexeyeva, were born at the very end of the Stalin era and became adults in the context of De-Stalinization and Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” which we read at the end of Unit I. I’d like you to think about how that context shaped their thinking about what they wanted Soviet society to be like.

Khrushchev was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1953-1964. There are some important aspects of the Khrushchev Era that will help us place this memoir in context.

The Soviet economy experienced a major postwar boom in this era. At the same time, economic planners gave more priority to the production of consumer goods and housing. For Soviet citizens, this was a time of plenty. They felt like the Soviet experiment was finally working for everybody.

As part of de-Stalinization, Soviet society also became much more open. The fear and mutual suspicion of the Stalin Era faded, and citizens felt a greater sense of freedom in their personal lives. The postwar generation that reached adulthood in this era turned out to be less interested in politics than their parents. They wanted to hang out, play sports, go dancing, and just generally have fun.

This generation was also very interested in the West. They had a lot more information about the West than the older generation had had at their age, which came from a variety of sources. After the invention of short wave radios, Soviet citizens could tune into Western broadcasts like Radio Free Europe and the BBC World Service. Now that the Soviet Union had regular relations with other counties, some became friends with the children of Western diplomats. Soviet soldiers stationed in East Germany regularly brought magazines, records, and clothing from the West, which they sold at informal markets. And of course, many Westerners attended the Sixth International Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow, which you will have learned about from Chase and Liam’s Midterm Project.

The dissident movement developed in this context. As you read in Alexeyeva’s memoir, it started simply with like-minded friends hanging out at each other’s apartments. They were politicized by a series of events that took place in Soviet literature, as writers began to push against the restrictions placed on them in the 1930s.

The first major event came in 1958, when Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but Khrushchev’s government pressured him into turning it down. As Alexeyeva explains, many Soviet writers had been circulating work that they knew the censors would not allow through a method called samizdat, or self-publishing. Pasternak did a version of this. He sent his manuscript to a contact in Italy, who published it there. The government made him turn down the prize because they did not approve this publication. The dissidents thought this was deeply unfair.

A series of trials in the 1960s had an even more radicalizing effect on this community. Between 1964 and 1968, several writers were tried and convicted of “anti-Soviet propaganda” for publishing their work in samizdat or abroad, as Pasternak did. Meanwhile, 1968 was also the year that Czechoslovakia attempted to reform its socialist system along lines different from the Soviet Union. Leonid Brezhnev, who had taken over from Khrushchev in 1964, sent in Warsaw Pact troops to forcibly return Czechoslovakia to the Soviet path. The dissident found this very shocking, as well.

In response to these trials, the dissidents held their first public protest, demanding the state respect its own constitution, which you read about. They were also inspired to begin publishing a samizdat journal, The Chronicle of Current Events, to publicize the government’s abuses of power. Finally, they founded the Initiative Group in Defense of Human right in the USSR to try to put pressure on the government to stop such abuses by bringing them to the attention of the wider world.

International human rights law was essential for the dissidents’ activities. They based their activities on the claim that the Soviet government had violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document created by the United Nations in 1948. In the 1970s, they got an important boost form the Helsinki Accords, an agreement signed by the Soviet Union, the United States, and other European countries that included a provision allowing citizens of all countries to monitor their government’s compliance with international human rights law. This was the basis of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, of which Alexeyeva was a founding member.

As you read, dissidents like Alexeyeva faced major consequences for their activities. They lost their jobs, some went to prison or were declared insane and put in psychiatric institutions, and eventually many were forced to leave the Soviet Union, as Alexeyeva was in 1977. But Alexeyeva returned to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and kept fighting for human rights until her death in 2018. In reading her memoir, I encourage you to think about how her experiences shaped her, and why she made the decisions that she did along the way.

Now, I’d like to give you some discussion questions as food for thought. Remember, you can respond to my questions or pose your own comments and questions on the blog.

Discussion Questions
1. The kompaniya: On pp.83-84, Alexeyeva’s describes the kompaniya as being not political. Do you agree with this assessment, or do you think they were political, in their own way? Was it possible in the context of the Soviet  Union, for any group of people to be apolitical? Do you think that people who “don’t fit in” will always find each other, in any society?

2. Samizdat: Looking at Alexeyeva’s description of samizdat on pp.97-100, how do you make sense of the types of things that were published this way? How can we categorize them? How does his literature relate to Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, which was also banned?

Samizdat also takes a lot of work to produce. Why do you think it was worth it to them to go to all this trouble? How would it change your relationship to a piece of literature if you type it out yourself, rather than just reading it?

3. The Constitution Day Protest: I’d like you to analyze the first Constitution Day Protest in 1966, which is held in response to the trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel. The protest only lasted five seconds. Do you consider it to be a success or a failure?

In the invitation, which Alexeyeva reproduces on p.120, Alek Esenin-Volpin demands that everyone chant only one slogan and maintain decorum. Why are these things so important for this particular protest? Is he right to try to control it so closely?

4. Petitions: On pp.167-169, Alexeyeva describes how the dissidents turn to petitioning as a way to protest the trial of Ginzburg and Galanskov in 1968. Why is she so nervous the first time she signs a petition? What makes this different from other forms of protest? Can you relate to her feelings, given that we are all asked to sign online petitions these days?

Ultimately, Alexeyeva signs, but many of her friends do not. Can you analyze their reasoning? Who do you support on this question, the signers or the non-signers?

5. The Chronicle of Current Events: The story of the Chronicle of Current Events really starts with Siniavsky and Daniel being sent to prison. Many people in Moscow offer help, and in the prison camps, they learn many prisoners’ stories they want to publicize. Why do you think they choose Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as their epigraph? What does it symbolize?

6. Publicity: The dissidents, who have now become human rights activists, make sure every issue of the Chronicle reaches the foreign press. And once they start the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, they use a similar tactic of publicizing their findings. Why is this so important? What does international publicity help them accomplish that they couldn’t do internally? How does this help them survive as a group?

7. The Moscow Helsinki Watch Group was forced out of existence by the Soviet government in 1982. Analyze their legacy and the legacy the Soviet dissident movement over the 25 or so years of their existence?

That’s all for now! I’m looking forward to your responses and new posts!

9 Replies to “Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Week 8, Day 2: The Revolutionary Idea of Human Rights”

  1. In my opinion, the kompaniya was political to an extent. I think that any time you have a large group of people together like that it becomes impossible for impressions on current government not to be left in the minds of the people that attend these gatherings. These gatherings seem to be more than parties, to me, they seem more like European Salons where a bunch of people were able to get together to talk and debate which disseminates information that may not have been known to a lay person. This is where I believe the political aspect ends however. These groups consisted of different groups of people that all felt differently about what was being discussed, the only similarity to me was that they all shared the want or need to be heard or to listen and learn. As far as I could tell they never amounted to anything more than kind of a social club but it was through this social club that the seeds were planted for revolutionary action in the future. They were able to talk about what they liked and did not like and about how they were different and through this were able to see that they were not necessarily alone on their views or at least alone as an individual in Soviet Russia.
    Today I feel that it is far easier for groups that feel as though they are outsiders to come together and find solace with each other. I can search on Facebook or Google right now and find a group for some of the most unusual things that you can think of. Social media allows for groups of people that might not be geographically close to unite and create a forum for conversation. I believe it is Facebook that is currently running a commercial advertising their Facebook groups and one such group that was referenced is a group for Kazoo’s. This just shows that people can come together even in a fragmented society for common interests.

  2. When reading Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir and watching the Vanguard Video, I was intrigued with the ideas of international publicity of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Alexeyeva, Orlov, and other dissidents of the Soviet Human Rights Group essentially operated as a secret intelligentsia in the Soviet Union. One of my favorite parts of the memoir is when Alexeyeva and Orlov meet up on a bench to discuss the Helsinki Agreement. They look around for any KGB members then break into laughter, because they “were respectable middle-aged people. [Alexeyeva] was forty-eight; [Orlov] was fifty-two. [They] did not receive stolen goods; [they] didn’t sell drugs. [They] were the kind of people you let into your house without bothering to count the silverware first” (Alexeyeva & Goldberg, 280). This moment of self-realization is ironic and abnormal to Alexeyeva and Orlov. They were not criminals; they were respectable people who wanted human rights protections within the Soviet Union. However, the government and the KGB viewed them as criminals. I believe that this anecdote is a good summary to why Alexeyeva and Soviet dissidents had to appeal to international press and governments to help in their human rights initiative. With an entire government looking to shut them down, they needed the international community to put pressure on the Brezhnev regime to take their demands seriously. As a result, the Moscow Helsinki Group published human rights abuses in the Chronicle and shared it internationally.

    This was a smart tactic by the Soviet dissidents because it gives them further leverage and protection in their fight for human rights. With the international community invested and watching the works of the Moscow Helsinki group, the KGB had to be careful on how they reacted towards the movement. In her memoir, Alexeyeva notes that the KGB followed the groups press conference with Millicent Fenwick, “The KGB knew precisely what was going on. [They] didn’t want to overreact, especially considering that the new group included some well-known dissidents. Their arrests would cause more of an international outcry than group documents ever could” (284). In being recognized by the international community, the Soviet government had to be cautious in cracking down on dissidents, or else it would face blowback from the international community and be forced to act accordingly. This also showed that the Soviet Union feared a response by the international community. If they intervened on the behalf of the Moscow Helsinki Group, they would have a high impact in forcing Brezhnev’s hand to reform human rights practices. This meant that the international community could have a bigger impact on the human rights movement than if the dissidents tried to reform Soviet democracy internally. Even though most Moscow Helsinki group members were suppressed in some manner by the Soviet government, they left an impact through the international community that would allow more members inside and outside of the Soviet Union to demand for human rights.

  3. To answer the second questions about the method of samizdat, I think it is important to discuss the idea of the new intelligentsia. In important ways this group of people seems to be going back to the root of the term. In that, the group is made up by the highly educated, intelligent people. Something that was lost during Stalin’s reign. However, unlike Russian’s in the 1840s these people are not the financially elite. The new intelligentsia seems to favor, for a lack of a better term DIY or homemade items, possibly because it allows them to make their intangible ideas come to life. This is apparent with their homemade clothing, and thus their do-it-yourself printing. Moreover, it seems that by publishing this way they are more easily able to share their ideas and what they find with each other. For a group of people that pride themselves on knowledge, it would make sense that they would want to expand that, and if the publishers are not giving them what they want then they take it into their own hands. Additionally, it seems that these people want to read honest accounts of topics like history, and therefore must seek it out and publish it themselves; as a lot of what interested them was more so taboo things done under Stalin’s reign.

    A way to categorize this literature would be almost beatnik. It is something that really only these people are interested in, it is taboo and more hidden due to its less than savory subjects. Just like in A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, the works being published challenge the system of government, its flaws are pointed out through different literary tools. Similarly, Hemingway was an author whose novels were banned due to his questioning of governmental structure and “the man”.

    Samizdat seems to be worth the trouble to them simply for the knowledge. Especially, because this group was young and smart uncovering and spreading knowledge about important stories that the government does not want you reading seems like it would be tempting. Moreover, for people that seem to enjoy the process of making and crafting things, being able to read from a book that you have crafted yourself must be a satisfying result, and thus bringing you closer to that piece of literature.

  4. Alexeyeva’s nervousness towards signing the petition stems from this amounting to “open defiance of the system” (168). Most of her work beforehand was her behind the scenes with editing works and observing demonstrations, but signing a petition that the authorities were going to see was literally putting her name out there. It clearly associates her directly with the dissidents and would confirm her involvement. To be there and protest is one thing, but Alexeyeva signed her name in agreement with protesting the trial of Ginzburg and Galanskov. When the protestors signed the petition, it essentially made a list for the KGB of those that disagree with the establishment. Her nervousness is best represented by her questions: “What would happen to me if I did sign? And what about my sons? And my job? What would I do if I lost it?”
    I cannot relate to her feelings. When I sign a petition online now, I do not have to worry about being expelled from school or losing my job. I do not have to weigh the outcome and consequences of simply typing my name and email address into an online forum. When Alexeyeva signed that petition, she had to consider the possibilities of losing her job versus not living truly by what she believes. Signing a petition is act of speech, and freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. For Alexeyeva, her principles outweighed the possibility of losing her job. I like that she reasoned losing her job by bringing up that a seamstress only made forty rubles less than her current position. She was willing to prospectively lose her job in exchange for forty rubles, the cost of showing what she stands by.
    For her friends Yura and Marina Gerchuk, signing the petition was not worth it because their jobs meant so much to them. They placed more value on the work that they were doing than to demonstrate their principles by signing a petition. Alexeyeva wrote that Marina used to say, “If we don’t work to preserve them, who will?” (169) The cultural value that the Gerchuks placed on their own work as specialists in Russian architecture would not allow them to risk their careers. I cannot support either the signers or the non-signers because they had to do what they needed to do for themselves. Everyone had circumstances that differed from each other, and I do not think it is fair to judge someone for choosing whether to sign it or not because I was not them and I will not truly know what it was like at that time. For Yura and Marina Gerchuk, it made sense. For Alexeyeva, I commend her on her ability to risk her position in society to prove her principles.

    1. After reading Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir and the following “Vanguard Video”, I found the discussion question surrounding this movement’s use of publicity to be thought provoking. In respects to the question itself of why publicity on a international level was so imperative to the members, the answer can be found in a multitude of reasonings. An international audience obviously produce a larger likelihood that the message will reach a larger group of people across cultures. Strategically however, it was used to hold the Russian government accountable for any in-humane objections or actions presented against the movement.
      By being able to spread information to nations other than Russia, the social discourses that used to only partake in Russia were now placed on a global stage. A global stage, with a global audience, that would in-turn make it more difficult for Russia as a government to take action against the movement in a nature that could be deemed immoral or violent. In a sense of the meaning, one asset of being on an international level could be described as having a political insurance policy. In other words by having an audience outside of Russia, this foreign audience could act as a tool to secure and perpetuate ideals. Logically this then explains how if an international message audience base can protect the message or information itself by bearing global witness, those individuals who originally conceived the movement would fall under the same protection.
      Aside from strategy and protection of the movement itself or its members, the way in which these members utilized publicity simultaneously became an agent of validity. To plainly put- by presenting their ideologies to a global and larger group, they gave more people the opportunity to either disagree or agree with what they had to say. It does pose a potential risk to discredit a movement if the world majority is opposed to what is being said, but also if agreed upon it can then serve as a way to logically validity their standpoint. Again to simplify, its as to say, “look at all the non-Russian people who believe we are in the right, and not the government”. Comprehensively leading to a force of momentum behind these ideas that was not strictly limited to a national level, but became global in its summation.

  5. Since banning Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, banning literature that criticizes the Russian government was inevitable, especially during the Soviet era. I believe the Samizdat was definitely worth the trouble to go through, especially when works such as prison memoirs that were sent to publishing houses but never actually got out. This can be heartbreaking not only for those who work on literature, but also to the people who never got a chance to read them, especially when they were shedding light into the brutal governing ways of the Soviet Union. This is also true to the works that depict the struggling reality of the Soviet society. It is understandable on how and why literature was published the way it did. If publishers were not willing to publish them, then it was up to the authors to find a way to publish and spread their works among the people. You can feel both the secrecy and the risk of doing such work. If I were to type a piece of literature myself instead of reading it, I think I would be able to retain the work better than just reading it. I would also feel a connection to the work, since it feels like I am writing it and Im no reading someone else work. I think this was an effective strategy used by the Soviets, since it can help retain the piece of literature in case it was ever compromised in any form. If someone got caught with it, all hope and the truth may not be lost, since maybe their friend or family member may potentially also had a chance to read and type the literature work out.

  6. I believe Alexeyeva’s statement about the kompaniya as being not political is true and false. I believe they were political in their own way of trying not to be political. Even though they were not putting themselves out in the public eye as being political, in the private dwellings of people’s apartments at the kompaniya gatherings, the people were being political. As on page 83 it is stated, “Kompanii evolved their own forms of literature, journalism, music, and humor.” Though it is not out right, with them publishing different forms of literature, such as journalism. In my mind, much journalism is biased on political stances. Other forms of literature, music and art, had been used previously in Soviet history to perceive and demand a biasness in politics to the people of the Soviet Union.
    I believe it would be extremely difficult for a group to be apolitical in the Soviet Union, especially during the time of Lenin, Stalin and post-Stalin eras. The reasoning behind this is that, from my understanding, everyone had to have some political view, whether it was “correct” or “incorrect” in the eyes of the communist party during Stalin’s life. (I use quotation marks because there is no correct or incorrect political view, except in the eyes of the Soviet government during the Great Purges.) As for after Stalin’s death, it might have been easier for people not to care about politics, especially with the post-WWII generation of teenagers/ young adults that were just being exposed to the West. However, I don’t know if a group of people during the post-WWII would be able to consider themselves apolitical or political.
    I don’t think that people who “don’t fit in” are always able to find each other in any society. Nowadays it is definitely easier with the access to the internet and social media groups to find like minded people across a county, state, nation or larger. For Alexeyeva in her younger years, the easiest way to find like minded people was through the kompaniya, but to get into that she had to have seen an old college classmate and start up a conversation. Otherwise finding the group of misfits would be quiet difficult if you didn’t know other like minded people who didn’t fit into society.

  7. To answer question number three, I think the protest was a success. The protest began an annual tradition and people would gather every year to protest for personal freedoms. I think that Alek was smart to inform the protestors that they are there for one purpose and one purpose only. I think he knew that if things got too out of control, he would be the first to blame and many people would suffer the consequences. That was not the intention of this protest. It was to bring attention to this trial where human freedoms were being stripped away. I think it was important to ensure that everyone who was participating follows certain rules that abide by soviet law. Alek knew what he was doing, and in doing so, he knew what the government could punish him for. He knew that if things went to plan, there could not be much he could be punished for. He was smart also to keep the protest short and simple. Having one slogan did just that. It brought the attention of a very important event taking place, and it got people talking. It served its purpose. I think that even though, it was small, it was not a failure. It was a success.

  8. It is human nature to do what is forbidden, especially if what is forbidden is one’s literary freedom. While control over a citizen’s physicality is a possibility, the same such control over a citizen’s mentality is an utter impossibility. The timeless reality of Russian authors and journalists struggling through choaking censorship to reach the eyes and ears of literate of the society is demonstrated by Catherine II’s censorship of Radishchev’s Journey to Moscow and Samizdat in USSR of the 1960s. Even though the work of Radishchev and samizdat are separated by nearly 200 years, both act as an intelligentsian outcry against the stifling grasp of Russian government censorship. Through the fingers of the Russian educated youth pounding away taboo works on typewriters, samizdat was able to circulate the news of protests, the books of Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, or even pornography. This circulation ought to be seen as the manifestation of Radishchev’s fictional persona Torzhok’s ideal literary climate, “Let anyone print anything that enters his head.” Samizdat offered itself as the outlet against restrictive censorship not only through the letters on its distributed typed carbon copies but, arguably more so, through its very existence. As long as samizdat circulated, the Kremlin’s censorship failed.

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