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!