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Resistance to Unfreedom in the USSR



Camp uprisings of 1953-1954
Camp uprisings of 1953-1954

Special camps (osoblag) were organized within the GULAG system after World War II for Soviet citizens who had been prisoners of war or participants in Ukrainian and Baltic national liberation movements. As soon as they arrived at the GULAG, osoblag prisoners began organizing active resistance: group escapes, uprisings, hunger-strikes and refusals to work. The peak of these rebellions, which swept throughout the GULAG, was reached in 1953-1954. The largest uprisings took place in Gorlag (Norilsk), Rechlag (Vorkuta), and Steplag (which included the Kengir camp near the settlement of that name). The rebels often appealed to Soviet laws: "We demand respect for human rights!" "Long live the Soviet Constitution!" "We are for Soviet laws, but against those who pervert them!" The inmates did not try to escape, but remained in the camps and demanded that the authorities - usually members of the Central Committee -- come to their camp and review their cases. The prisoners' requests included: an end to the camp authorities' abuse of power; investigation of the camp authorities' use of firearms against prisoners; reduction of sentences; rescinding of sentences handed down by labor camp courts for treason (Article 58 of the Criminal Code); and payment for work equivalent to payment of free workers. The GULAG authorities were unsparing in their promises, but the uprisings were cruelly suppressed, and activists were sentenced to death. Nevertheless, the protests led to changes not only within the camp system. The mass strikes destroyed Stalin's GULAG as an important tool of the "socialist economy." The authorities had to admit that the old methods could no longer serve to keep the country obedient.

Underground organizations
Underground organizations

After the war, groups of young people began appearing independently of one another in various cities, and they talked about the discrepancy between revolutionary ideals and the actual conditions in the USSR. They considered it very romantic to participate in unofficial, secret organizations. Those who had been too young to volunteer for the army during the war, who had been raised in a tradition of sacrifice for the sake of the future, seized the opportunity to display their heroism by challenging the regime. Generally their activity took the form of self-education-- reading and discussing the works of Lenin and Marx, and the possibility of returning to the early precepts of Marxism-Leninism. There were dozens, or possibly hundreds, of such groups. In Voronezh, in 1947-49 the Communist Youth Party (KPM) was formed. Among its members were I. Starodubtsev, I. Strukov, B. Batuyev, V. Rudnitsky, V. Radkevich, and A. Zhigulin, who became a famous writer. In Moscow, the Union of Struggle for the Revolution (SDR) was organized. Its members were high-school and university students. Three of them, E. Gurevich, B. Slutsky, and V. Furman, were executed after being tried in 1951. As a rule, these groups and clubs were discovered quickly - the agent network of the NKVD-MGB-KGB worked efficiently. But there were exceptions. The neo-Slavophile All-Russia Social-Christian Union for the Liberation of the People (VSKhSON), founded in February 1964 by Leningrad university graduates, survived for three years. It enrolled 28 members and 30 candidate-members. Its program declared that the "liberation of people from Communist regimes can be achieved only through armed struggle…," allowing the KGB to portray the organization as a terrorist group. The leader of the Union, Igor Ogurtsov, was sentenced to seven years in prison, eight years in labor camp, and five years of exile. His fellow group members were also sentenced to long terms of incarceration.

Religious believers
Religious believers

Russian Orthodox believers were forced underground as well. The most determined and irreconcilable went into the underground communities of the "catacomb church." The followers of non-Orthodox confessions and beliefs were under severe pressure. Evangelical Baptist children were taken from their parents if the children received religious instruction and the denomination's places of worship were destroyed. The authorities openly persecuted Pentecostals. They were searched and arrested and their religious services were raided.

Religious and secular literature banned in the Soviet Union was published by Posev and other publishing houses, and smuggled from abroad. In particular, books and magazines were sent to the Soviet Union by members of Popular Labor Alliance of Russian Solidarists (NTS). The NTS was a political organization established by young Russian ?migr?s in Belgrade in 1930. Its aim was to prepare a national revolution, liberating Russia from Bolshevism not by weapons, but by ideas. From 1938 on, the NTS was continually present in Russia. From 1950, it broadcast clandestinely from inside the Soviet Union using a portable radio transmitter. In 1951, the NTS began to use balloons in an attempt to scatter its leaflets in the USSR.

The Dissident Movement
The Dissident Movement

The death of Stalin, the end of mass repressions, the condemnation of the "cult of personality" at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, and the liberation and partial rehabilitation of the victims of Stalin's terror gave society hope for reform. The period of Nikita Khrushchev's rule, from 1954 to 1964, went down in Soviet history as "the Thaw." But from the mid-1960s, the authorities returned to punitive methods to suppress dissent. The first show-trial of the new era took place in 1966 when writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were tried on charges of anti-Soviet propaganda for their writings which had been published abroad under pen-names.

Soon after the arrest of Sinyavsky and Daniel, mathematician Alexander Yesenin-Volpin, who believed that the authorities should be pressed to observe their own laws, wrote "A Civic Appeal" that invited Soviet citizens to attend a "glasnost rally." It was held on Soviet Constitution Day, December 5th, 1965, in Moscow's Pushkin Square. The main slogan displayed on homemade posters was: "Respect the Constitution, the Fundamental Law of the Soviet Union." From1965, the silent protest demonstration in Pushkin Square became a tradition. A new type of social behavior was established, which primarily consisted of ignoring the tacit prohibitions of the authorities that had no basis in law. People who publicly acted in defiance of these prohibitions were called "dissidents.".

СССР. Диссидентское движениеIn February 1966, Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years of labor camp, and Daniel to five years of labor camp. In the fall of 1966, Alexander Ginzburg compiled The White Book, a selection of documents about the case of Sinyavsky and Daniel, and poet Yuri Galanskov edited a samizdat anthology titled Phoenix-66, which included Sinyavsky's article "What is Socialist Realism?" Ginzburg, Galanskov, and two of their friends, Vera Lashkova and Alexei Dobrovolsky, were arrested. In January 1968, they were put on trial in a case that became known as "The Trial of the Four." Ginzburg was sentenced to five years of imprisonment, and Galanskov to seven years.

Hope for liberalization of the Soviet regime died in 1968 when the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia in order to reverse the democratic and economic reforms of the Prague Spring. On August 25th, 1968, eight Soviet citizens - Konstantin Babitsky, Larisa Bogoraz, Vadim Delone, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Pavel Litvinov, Victor Fainberg, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, and Tatiana Baeva - staged a silent sit-in on Moscow's Red Square raising banners with the slogans: "For your freedom and ours," "Hands off Czechoslovakia," etc. The demonstrators were beaten on the spot and arrested. Dremlyuga and Delone were sentence to labor camp; Babitsky, Bogoraz, and Litvinov were sentenced to exile; and Victor Fainberg was confined in a prison psychiatric hospital.

The Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, organized in May 1969 by fifteen Soviet citizens, was the first independent public group of the post-Stalin era. It was followed by the Human Rights Committee (1970) and the Moscow Helsinki Group (1976), among others. Almost all the members of these groups suffered repression, ranging from loss of their jobs to long term imprisonment.

Dissident Kitchens
Dissident Kitchens

Common events in the lives of the Soviet intelligentsia in the 1950s and 1960s were the "Moscow Kitchens" where assorted individuals gathered "to drink, to party, and to talk" late into the night as celebrated in dissident bard Yuli Kim's song:

Well, we happened to drink and party,
But not for the sake of a glass of wine,
Dropped in, sat up late, smoked
To last the evening to the dawn.
Poems, Vysotsky and Galich songs,
Tea and sugar and hearty company,
But what matters most is
Russian late-night talk…

In the late 1950s, the Soviet government began large-scale construction of standardized apartment buildings (which were colloquially called "khrushchevkas") with separate apartments to replace the earlier unpopular communal living quarters. The khrushchevkas' small, 50-square-foot kitchens turned out to be the only appropriate place for entertaining guests in the evening — children were sleeping in the other rooms. Those Soviet citizens who believed in the possibility of "socialism with a human face" — they were later called the "thaw generation" or shestidesyatniki (the generation of the 60s) — needed a place where they could talk without constraint and exchange information so they often crowded into their friends' kitchens for late night parties. The mixed companies they formed consisted of poets, artists, scientists, academics, and other intellectuals.

For many people "dissident kitchens" took the place of uncensored lecture halls, galleries for unofficial art, clubs, bars, dating services, personals, etc. — a whole range of facilities and institutions that were available in the West for social interchange but forbidden in the Soviet Union. Furious discussions, literary and musical parties, seminars on all subjects, and the exchange of uncensored news and samizdat literature were hallmarks of that era.

Repression of Dissidents
Repression of Dissidents

In their attempt to contain dissent, the authorities used their tested methods of repression: firing people from their jobs; expelling them from universities, professional organizations and trade unions; threats; internal exile; and confinement in prisons and labor camps.
On October 30th, 1974, political prisoners Kronid Lubarsky and Alexei Murzhenko conducted hunger-strikes to mark the first Political Prisoner Day, which became an annual event.
One of the cruelest and most inhumane methods of the struggle against freethinkers was the forced incarceration of sane persons in Special Psychiatric Hospitals, which were administered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and were used as prisons. In January 1977, the Moscow Helsinki Group organized the Working Commission for Investigation of the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes. Its founding members were Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Irina Kaplun, Alexander Podrabinek and Felix Serebrov. Publication of the results of their investigations led to the expulsion of the Soviet delegation from the World Psychiatric Association at its Vienna Congress in 1983.
The situation of political prisoners was a main topic of the samizdat journal A Chronicle of Current Events, which also reported on arrests, trials, sentences, and national and religious movements in the Soviet Union. At various times, Peter Yakir, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, Anatoly Yakobson, Sergei Kovalev, Tatiana Velikanova, Gabriel Superfin, Yuri Shikhanovich, Alexander Lavut, and others were imprisoned or otherwise punished for complicity in publishing and distributing the Chronicle.

Samizdat (Self-publishing)
Samizdat (Self-publishing)

The first issue of A Chronicle of Current Events was issued on April 30, 1968. Only three dozen or so type-written copies of each issue were produced by the editors, but readers later made additional copies by whatever means they had available and passed them on to reliable friends. The names of the editors and authors of the news items were not mentioned, but it was not very difficult for the authorities to ferret them out. Only a few of the Chronicle's editors and authors went unscathed. Nevertheless, the journal was published for fifteen years and 64 issues came out, the last one dated June 30, 1982. The sixty-fifth issue was prepared in the fall of 1983, but never circulated.
In addition to A Chronicle of Current Events, collections of essays, stories and poetry, the journals Veche (Popular Assembly), Poiski (Search), Varianty (Variations), Poedinok (Duel) and other uncensored journals and materials circulated in samizdat, which became an integral element of the dissident movement. The term "samizdat" was first used by the Moscow poet Nikolai Glazkov in the 1940s. Samizdat, which became a mass phenomenon in the 1950s, at first focused on unavailable poems by Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and other censored poets. Later on, people began to publish translations, fiction, and camp memoirs in samizdat, and in 1958, Boris Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago after it was turned down for publication in the USSR. The works of more than 300 authors became known to the public in this way.
Samizdat texts were typed, usually several copies at a time, and exchanged with friends. Samizdat literature, especially with political content, was carefully hidden in homes, sometimes in detergent boxes. Manuscripts and films were occasionally concealed in children's toys, were sent abroad, and were published in the West. That is how tamizdat, books printed in the West and then returned to the USSR and circulated "unofficially," was born.

Unofficial Art
Unofficial Art

Expectations for reform, nurtured in the 1950s, resulted in an unprecedented outburst of culture. The late 1950s to the early 1960s was a period that saw the appearance of many new literary journals, anthologies and creative groups. From 1958, poetry recitals on Moscow's Mayakovsky Square became a tradition. They lasted until 1961 when three regular participants Vladimir Osipov, Edward Kuznetsov and Ilya Bokshtein were arrested by the KGB and accused of "anti-Soviet propaganda." At the end of 1950s, in the Soviet Union, an unofficial group of painters known as the "Lianozovo Commune" was founded. The authorities, however, soon let writers, poets and artists know in no uncertain terms that participation in the world of nonconformist art could have serious consequences. After Khrushchev's denunciation of the 1962 Manezh exhibition of avant-garde art, a campaign against "formalism" and liberal trends in culture was unleashed. In September 1974, several artists, Oscar Rabin, Vladimir Nemukhin, Vitali Komar, Alexander Melamid and others, agreed to an open-air show of their works on an empty lot in Moscow. Bulldozers rolled in as the exhibition was being set up, and the artists and viewers were forced to retreat. Some paintings were destroyed, some were seized. Non-conformist, avant-garde art returned to the "underground," accessible to only a limited number of viewers.

Unofficial ArtStrict Soviet censorship was pervasive. Many writers, theater directors, and artists, including Vladimir Voinovich, Alexander Galich, Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Oscar Rabin were forced to leave the country. In 1972, the Leningrad poet Joseph Brodsky, winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature and 1991 Poet Laureate of the United States, was forced to emigrate. In March 1964, he had been convicted of "parasitism" and sentenced to five years of exile. After Frida Vigdorova, Anna Akhmatova, Kornei Chukovsky, Alexander Tvardovsky and other eminent Soviet and foreign intellectuals appealed on Brodsky's behalf, he was permitted to return to Leningrad in November 1965, but not allowed to publish.
A strong antidote to pompous official culture in the1960s and 1970s were the songs of dissident poet-balladeers. When reel-to-reel tape-recorders appeared in the Soviet Union, and then cassette recorders, songs of the bards were transcribed and played all over the country. The most popular were the songs of Vladimir Vysotsky, Bulat Okudzhava, Alexander Galich, and Yuli Kim, who were rarely allowed to perform publicly. Under the influence of foreign pop music, which was sometimes recorded on phonograph records homemade from X-ray film, young people organized rock groups that became more and more popular.
The gap between official ideology and the reality of Soviet life and the long suppressed opposition of society to the authorities' hypocrisy ensured that perestroika in the late 1980s escaped official control. In 1991, the Soviet Union and the socialist regime collapsed.














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