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Left-wing dissidents were the link between the pre-soviet and socialist tradition and the post-soviet one

Ilyia Budraitskis on the turning points in the development of the left dissident movement and the various streams and faces of the left in post-Soviet Russia.

Ilyia Budraitskis23 February 2022

Left-wing dissidents were the link between the pre-soviet and socialist tradition and the post-soviet one

Interview with Ilya Budraitskis by Taras Bilous, Roman Huba, and Michael Hauser.

A few years ago, your collection of essays Dissidenty sredi dissidentov (Dissidents among dissidents) was published.[1] The central issue in it was the history of left-wing dissidents in the USSR. The book will be published by Verso in 2022. How did you become interested in this topic?

I found this topic  interesting  back  at  the  beginning  of  the  2000s,  during  my  student  years at the faculty of history. Certainly, for me, it was related to my participation in the Russian left-wing movement. Quite early I arrived at the idea that there was a problem of historical continuity in that movement. This is what differentiates post-Soviet left-wing movements from left-wing movements in Western Europe, the US, and Latin America, where the continuity of the previous ideological tradition is of a seamless nature. In post-Soviet Russia, we are caught in a situation that Hannah Arendt used to describe as “inheritance by no testament.” After the conflicts and debates in the Bolshevik party during  the  1920s,  the  fatal  rupture  between  theory  and  practice  occurred  and  official Soviet Marxism could no longer be a point of reference. Nostalgic Stalinists were not able to explain the failure of the Soviet project from the standpoint of materialism without calling up conspiracy theories. At the same time, a critical review of this recent history is essential both to the past and the present of the left-wing movement. Left-wing dissidents were the missing link who would recreate the continuity of the Russian socialist tradition. Apart from that, by analyzing the dissident-socialists of the period  of  the  1950s,  60s,  and  70s,  we  could  answer  many  of  the  questions  connected  with the failure of the Soviet project, with its inner conflicts and ruptures.

Would you outline your concept of left dissent from a historical perspective? How would you describe the key stages and issues in this tradition? You begin with the period of the Khrushchev Thaw in your book. Would you consider the Trotskyist “left opposition” of the 1930s to be left dissent?

My short historical survey of the Soviet left-wing dissidents starts from the end of the 1940s when, after the war and without any mutual relations, a few anti-Stalinist socialist youth groups appear (the most famous one, probably, would be the “Youth Communist Party” in Voronezh.)  At the heart of  their  political  views,  in  one  way  or  another,  lay  a  disagreement  with  the  official  definition  of  the  Soviet  society  as  “socialist;”  it  even  included an evaluation of the Soviet regime as “state capitalistic.” The left groups that appeared in the second half of the 1950s, in an intensification of the Thaw, broadly took over from this tradition of left USSR criticism by bringing forth the true social “nature” of the USSR. All of this is partly consonant with the “nature of the USSR” debate in the Trotskyist Fourth International, which unfolded on the cusp of the 1940s–1950s (where one part characterized it as “state capitalism” and the other, according to Trotsky’s own analysis, as a “degenerated workers’ state”). Nevertheless, this proximity between Trotskyism and the underground Soviet socialists was more of an intuitive one, it sprang from challenges of social reality rather than from having some common origins in terms of theory or political conventions. The works of Trotsky, as well as the inner-party disputes of the 1920s, were almost inaccessible in the USSR, and the anti-Stalinist  analysis  of  the  left-wing  dissidents,  first  of  all,  rested  upon  an  alternative  interpretation  of  Marx  and  Lenin’s  works  (The  State  and  Revolution,  and  Lenin’s  late  articles  in  particular).  Certainly, left-wing dissidents had  always  been  interested  in  the  history  of  the  Party.  There were some authors, who, after all, found access to the Left Opposition materials, and included them in their analyses (especially in the 1960s–1970s). At the same time, it  is  worth  giving  attention  to  the  longstanding  work  of  discrediting  Trotskyism  that  was  administered  over  a  period  of  decades  by  official  propaganda,  and  a  prejudice  towards Trotsky and his ideas remained almost subconsciously in many left-wing dissidents.

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Why is it necessary to establish any tradition at all? Citing Marx: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Perhaps it is worth rejecting all the endeavors of establishing some tradition and just start constructing everything from scratch?

Marx initially attributed this phrase from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte to  the  endeavors  of  new  generations  to  copy  the  examples  of  the  past.  Obviously,  my  interest  in  the  left-wing  dissidents  is  not  of  a  reconstructive  nature.  Their  experience  is  neither  possible  nor  necessary  to  reproduce,  just  like  there  is  no  need  to  consider  Bolshevism from the beginning of the 20th century as a role model. The very absence of historical continuity allows this grotesque reconstruction, I mean all these absolutely destructive  present-day  games  and  clashes  of  discourse  of  the  historical  Trotskyists  and anarchists. I have turned to left-wing dissidents so as to avoid this fatal influence of the unreflected past on today’s world.

How do you estimate the influence of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on the development of criticism from the left in the USSR?

Certainly, the critique of the personality cult asserted great influence over the establishment of the left-wing dissident tradition, as well as arousing public debate concerning the extent of socialist distortion that Soviet society faced during Stalin dictatorship. During these  debates,  many  young  people  came  to  think  that  the  official  party  response,  proposed at the 20th Congress, was absolutely unsatisfactory and was actually trying to evade querying true inquiry and so conceal the real scale of the purges. They assumed that the reasons  for  the  rise  of  Stalinism  were  rooted  deeper  than  exclusively  in  the  peculiarities  of  Stalin’s  personality.  This attitude persisted throughout the entirety  of  the  Khrushchev  period  –  demands  for  a  sounder  analysis  of  Stalinism  and  a  distrust  of the official denunciation of the personality cult.It is worth mentioning that the speech itself was of a secret nature and that during the  first  years  it  was  distributed  off  the  record,  in  a  samizdat  fashion  [self-published,  underground texts – translator’s note]. Besides, Khrushchev and his associates did not have the public image of being critics of Stalinism who systematically broke with Stalin’s legacy. As a rule then, the members of left-wing underground groups of this period were not well disposed towards Khrushchev. Generally, these groups were anti-Khrushchev in nature and were exposed to reprisals because of it. Moreover, we can  recall  a  few  remarkable  examples  from  the  early  history  of  the  dissident  movement  when  polemics  against  Khrushchev  were  almost  sympathetic  towards his Stalinist opponents from the “Anti-Party group” of Molotov-Malenkov. For instance, such a subtext was noticeable in the famous speech of Petro Hryhorenko at the regional party conference in 1961. During the Thaw, there were many different manifestations of public disagreement, yet it was  too  early  to  talk  about  a  centralized  dissident  movement.  As  a  rule,  under-ground  youth  groups  were  not  related  to  each  other.  Their  views  were  quite  eclectic,  included diverse elements and opinions, and were often contradictory. They arose in a context of the absence of a developed alternative political culture; also, they had very little time to construct a systematic political programme. That is why it is often hard to tell which spectrum this or that group belonged to. For instance, the group of socialists from the Moscow University in the charge of Lev Krasnopevcev: some considered it to be  almost  pro-Stalinist,  some  –  the  other  way  round,  as  a  left-wing  democratic  one.  Both  opinions  can  be  proved  by  quotations  or  the  particular  stories  of  their  members.

Why did many left-wing Sixtiers then turn in a right-oriented direction?

In the second half of the 1960s, many left-wing socialistic dissident groups experienced a  change  of  heart.  Firstly,  most  of  these  people  ended  up  arrested  or  imprisoned  in  special  “political”  labor  camps.  There,  many  of  them  got  to  know  one  another.  They  sometimes took part in debates during which most of them evolved ideologically and took their previous socialist and Marxist beliefs as naïve. From such reconsiderations. some very unexpected pathways were born: some of them become nationalists, orthodox Christians, or liberal rights activists; others preserved their Marxists beliefs.The second point is related to the end of the Thaw. I think this is even more important since the hopes of many left-wing dissidents of this period were connected with the hope for reforms. By the end of 1960s, the “self-reform” anticipation suffered a defeat, firstly related  to  the  notable  criminal  cases  of  a  political  nature,  as  in  the  Sinyavsky-Daniel  trial,  and  then  to  the  Warsaw  Pact  invasion  of  Czechoslovakia  (this  moment  is  often  defined  as  the  boundary  of  change  between  the  two  epochs.)  Finally, there was the  sacking of the Novy Mir editorial office, the main ideological leader of the Thaw, at the beginning of the 1970s. All  these  events  led  to  the  reality  that,  by  the  beginning  of  the  1970s,  people  who  believed that Soviet socialism had sound foundations and could be changed from within were  already  perceived  within  the  dissident  environment  as  being  marginal.  Such  a  marginal niche at the beginning of the 1970s was filled by Roy Medvedev, who continued to adhere to this position.

It turns out that during the Thaw left-wing dissidents thought within the framework of Soviet socialism. However, when it became obvious that it had lost its legitimacy as a system, it was possible to move from this point either to the right or to the left. Why did they mostly move to the right and not to more radical leftist positions?

The movement on either side was related to a particular political strategy, and evolution in terms of mere ideas appealed less to people. On both sides it was connected with the practical  application  of  ideas,  with  the  question  of  “what  is  to  be  done?”. Considering  that internal change in the system proved to be impossible, that underground groups did not work out, that dissidents cannot appeal to the broad masses and are very vulnerable in the face of the purges, a human rights-based strategy is born. This turn also had a pragmatic aspect with the coming of détente, when the Soviet Union at the official level confirmed its dedication to respecting basic civil and political rights. Later the USSR signed the Declaration of Helsinki, which the human rights movement  actively  made  appeals  to.  Such  a  public  human  rights-based  strategy  appeared  effective  because  it  could  influence  the  actions  of  the  government,  which  was  afraid  of a negative reaction in Western public opinion. The human rights-based strategy – at least at first – was not a move to the right, but a pragmatic choice. The  political  evolution  that  followed  the  choice  in  favor  of  the  human  rights  perspective occurred later, it was rather gradual. Even in the middle of the 1970s, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s radical anti-communist beliefs were seen rather negatively in the human rights environment. It often happened that the dissidents deliberately used the official discourse in their struggle against the system. This leads to a problem: how to separate left-wing dissidents from those who used socialist rhetoric for tactical purposes?

The way, which can be applied here, is to have a look at the texts that circulated in the samizdat publications, where people expressed their opinions frankly and did not anticipate that they would be addressing public authorities. It is easy in this context to differentiate between those who sincerely used Marxist analysis and took it as a core mode of attitude to reality and those who thought in absolutely different terms.

There  is  a  widespread  idea  that  dissidents  behaved  towards  Soviet  language  in  an  instrumental  way  and  that  their  leftist  declarations  were  just  a  maneuver.  However, this point of view is not  well-founded,  as  there  are  many  texts  that  were  not  of  an  instrumental nature.

The story of dissent is often described using binary oppositions like “conformism–nonconformism” and “pro-state–anti-state.” The foreword to your collection of essays was written by an anthropologist Alexei Yurchak, known for his book Everything Was Forever,  until  It  Was  No  More,  where  he  is  critical  of  such  a  mode  of  description.[2]  Do  you  consider  his  ideas  of  a  “performative  shift”  and  “living  vne”  [“living outside”–translator’s note] as substantive for analyzing the history of dissidents?

I think Alexei Yurchak has written a very important book, and his approach refocuses the debate on late-Soviet society. He questioned the conventional (for instance, for Western Slavonic  studies)  idea  of  “double  consciousness”  –  that  Soviet  people  were  honest  at  home but lied in official circles. This position largely owes its origin to the dissidents. In  particular,  Solzhenitsyn’s  famous  essay  “Not  to  Live  in  a  Lie”  is  based  on  the  very  idea  of  “double  consciousness.”  Similar  positions  were  held  by  Vaclav  Havel  in  “The  Power of the Powerless.” Yurchak’s approach is also important for a reconsideration of the historical frame of the mainstream dissidents that is still being repeated by many authors.  My  project  concerning  the  left-wing  dissidents  is  also  aimed  against  such  a  frame, and that is why I feel a significant ideological proximity to Yurchak’s approach.

Who were the dissidents in terms of social class? How significant was the social distance between workers and the intelligentsia, and how did it affect the dissident movement?

If we  look  at  the  members  of  the  groups  from  the  1950s–1960s,  then  we  will  almost  never  find  people  from  the  elite;  we  will,  however,  see  quite  a  lot  of  people  who  were  intellectuals  from  the  first  generation.  A lot  of  them  came  from  provincial  towns  to  the big city to study where they burrowed into new environments and discovered new ideas.  That is  why  their  attitude  to  these  ideas  was  very  serious;  this  was  natural  for  many intellectuals of the first generation.

The  underground  groups  of  the  Thaw  did  not  reduce  the  social  composition  of  the  Soviet society to the simplistic dualism of the passive masses and totalitarian power. In  general,  the  discourse  of  freedom  was  not  peculiar  to  them  as  the  issue  of  justice  was more important. The shift from the Thaw to the Era of Stagnation and the rise of a human-rights-based strategy largely coincided with the shift from the subject of justice to the subject of freedom. The demand for justice, on the cusp of the 1950s–1960s, was quite high in society. This was proven by the eruption of civil riots in Novocherkassk, Murom, Kryvyi Rih, and many other cities of the USSR.

In this  respect,  the  history  of  the  Union  of  Communards  group  from  Leningrad,  which was formed in the early 1960s around two young engineers, Valery Ronkin and Sergei  Hahaev,  is  very  interesting.  The  backbone  of  this  group  was  made  up  of  the  so-called “volunteer police brigades.” These were student organizations that, with the approval of the Komsomol and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, patrolled the neighbor-hoods and discos and monitored the maintenance of public order. For the members of Ronkin  and  Hahaev’s  circle,  the  activists  of  these  “brigades,”  the  main  enemies  were  “stilyagi” [subculture, based on the copying of American lifestyle and jazz music] and “fartsovshchiki” [black-marketeers acquiring consumer goods and currency from foreigners – translator’s note], the spoiled children of wealthy parents who were cynical about  the  Soviet  state.  In  his  wonderful  memoirs,  Ronkin  describes  how  the  enraged  feeling of social injustice that he felt when encountering the stilyagi pushed him and his friends to create an underground socialist group.

Ukrainian dissident Leonid Plyushch also mentioned in his memoirs that before be-coming a dissident, he was a member of a Komsomol group that combated the stilyagi. He did not like them either.

Yes,  this  was  a  popular  opinion  back  then,  because  stilyagi  were  taken  to  be  cynical  bourgeois subjects, who, for all their affectations of being off beat, were actually quite conservative. It was this bourgeois conformism that revealed the discrepancy between the reality of Soviet society and the ideals that it declared. Interestingly, in modern liberal mythology, the stilyagi are presented as “dissidents” [nonconformists, the ones who dissent – translator’s note], advocates for freedom who challenged  the  grey  Soviet  reality  with  their  bright  clothes,  although  it  was  all  often the other way around.

The stilyagi are almost the only representation of the Sixtiers in modern Russian culture. We see this in Fartsa, the television series, for example.

Yes, there is a whole sequence of similar cultural productions: TV series like Fartsa and TheOptimists [Optimisti], the film Stilyagi, etc. A few years ago there was an exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery dedicated to the Thaw that mostly repeated a similar mythology: the thaw is a period, related to seasonal natural changes when spring replaces winter, and one generation replaces another. The new generation is always freer at heart, more open and braver than the previous one. This account weakens the political significance of the Thaw, it makes it part of a perpetual history from which subsequent periods can be extrapolated (for example, in modern Russia, after the winter of Putinism, its own “thaw” will come, since seasonal changes are inevitable.) I believe that such mythology depoliticizes the real Thaw that occurred on the cusp of  the  1950s-1960s  and  raises  some  true  problematics.  Actually,  the  cultural  motif  of  that  time  was  an  anxiety  directed  at  the  sense  that  the  new  generation  was  growing  up  to  be  cynical,  total  conformists.  This  is  the  key  theme  of  all  the  filmmaking  that  occurred during the Thaw.

You mean, for instance, Marlen Khutsiev's films?

Certainly. This is the key problematic of I Am Twenty, [Mne dvadcat’ let, another title of this  film  is  Zastava  Iliča  – translator’s  note]  and  July  Rain  [Iûl’skij  dožd’].  Meanwhile,  the  pathos  of  the  Stilyagi  is  a  retroactive  idea  that  has  little  basis  in  the  cultural  heritage of the Thaw.

In the 1970s and 1980s everything changes, both liberal and conservative dissidents adopt an elitist attitude to the people. Meanwhile, Varlam Shalamov,who was an insider among the left-wing oriented dissidents, wrote, “And don’t they‘ chant ’about the people? Don’t they‘ chant’ about the peasants? I do not know what it means. Don’t swindlers and dealers chant that the intelligentsia is guilty towards someone. The people, if this term exists, owes the intelligentsia a great dept .”[3] How much elitism was characteristic of left-wing dissidents?

I don’t think that Shalamov’s quote speaks for his elitism but is instead aimed against the idealization of the people, which was widespread among, for instance, the “pochv-venniki” [a term derived from the word “pochva” – “soil” – translator’s note] and present in some of the intelligentsia’s environments of the 1970s. Concerning left-wing dissidents, they were left-wing mostly due to their different idea of  society.  They  did  not  reduce  it  to  the  conflict  between  freethinking  individuals  and  the silent majority. I would say that the dissidents-socialists considered there to be two different branches of such an alternative analysis of society and the idea of their role in it. The first one is class analysis. The major works of the left-wing dissidents are primarily interesting because they tried to determine what was the true class structure of Soviet society.  There  was  the  official  thesis  that  in  the  Soviet  Union  there  were  two  friendly classes  –  the  proletariat  and  the  peasants,  and  also  the  stratum  of  the  intelligentsia  that was friendly to them. All the dissident-socialists agreed on the fact that this was an  absolutely  anti-Marxist  absurdity.  Since  there  are  classes,  then  the  antagonism  between them would still exist, wouldn’t it? Many dissident-socialists concluded that there  is  a  real  ruling  class,  the  nomenklatura  elite,  the  existence  of  which  was  being  concealed.  Then  the  question  arose:  what  kind  of  role  in  such  a  structure  is  given  to  the intelligentsia, which side does it take? Some of the Marxist dissidents declared that the very invention of the intelligentsia itself as a stratum was necessary so as to conceal the existence of the bureaucracy. Where then shall we include the people who hold managerial positions? If it is impossible to include them as either workers or peasants, then there must be a place for them to fit in to. This ruling class is trying to oppress, corrupt, and win over intelligentsia, whose task  is  to  be  as  one  with  the  working  class.  This  is  an  idea  of  Ronkin  and  Hahaev’s  major book From Dictatorship of Bureaucracy to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat  [Ot  diktatury bûrokratii k diktature proletariata]. Also, the books of A. Zimin (the pseudonym of left-wing dissident Elkon Leikin) contain some very complex criticisms of the official class structure in the USSR.The second branch of the consideration on the role of the intelligentsia focused on the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia. For instance, this was a characteristic of the Leningrad group, formed at the end of the 1950s around the mathematician Revolt Pimenov. The members  of  this  group  were  very  interested  in  the  populist  and  social-revolutionary  tradition  of  the  late  19th  and  early  20th  century  and  mostly  identified  themselves  as  its successors – intellectuals-advocates for the people. This interest in the revolutionary-democratic branch  of  the  pre-Soviet  intelligentsia  was  rather  wide.  Even  many  authors of Novy Mir considered their journal to be a continuation of Belinskiy or Cherny-shevskiy’s approach. The  very  subject  of  the  people,  of  the  attitude  to  them,  was  characteristic  during  the 1970s and at the beginning of the 1980s when the separation between the nominal zapadniks [Westernizers – translator’s note] and pochvenniks was crucial to dissident society. The latter were not successors to the Russian revolutionary populists of the 19thcentury  but  represented  a  new  variant  of  conservative  thought,  where  the  appeal  to  the people was of a specific nature. In it, the people were not an active political subject but an unstructured mass carrying deeply rooted traditions. What is important for this conception is that there are true, primal people – the concept of “the people” and, against this,  there  is  the  mass  of  Soviet  people,  deprived  of  their  national  heritage  –  rootless,  industrialized,  cut  off  from  their  rural  origins.  And  there  is  a  need  to  overcome  this  artificial Soviet nature in the name of a “true” one. This  conservative  conception  in  its  core  idea  became  very  important  during  the  times of perestroika. It is hard not to notice how the idea of the rootless Homo Soveticus arises during this period. In this regard, the discourse of perestroika’s social and political journalism takes over from the conservative samizdat of the 1970s. It is enough to open the major anthology Inogo ne dano (There is no other way), to which almost all the notable perestroika journalists  took  a  part,  to  see  that  the  theme  of  the  true  and  the untrue “people” is revealed in almost every other article.

What were the differences between the left dissidents and the liberalones, with their human rights discourse? Can you describe the controversy between Roy Medvedev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the context of late socialism?

The  problem  of  human  rights  became  central  for  the  Soviet  dissidents  of  the  second  half  of  the  1960s,  while  the  political  differences  took  a  back  seat.  This  was  typical  for  those  with  left-wing  views;  thus,  one  of  the  founders  of  the  human  rights  movement  in the USSR was Petro Hryhorenko, who, at least until the beginning of the 1970s, still considered  himself  a  communist.  The  turn  to  human  rights  activism  was  related  to  the  disappointment  of  many  of  the  left-wing  dissidents  in  the  various  political  strategies that they tried such as creating underground groups or attempting to influence the  “progressive”  elements  of  the  party  bureaucracy.  For  a  major  part  of  the  former  left-wing  dissidents,  this  reorientation  to  human  rights  was  indeed  the  step  toward  a  gradual  shift  of  their  political  views  to  the  right.  While  in  the  1960s  an  approach  of  “democratic socialism” (or at least a convergence of socialism and capitalism) was more or less shared by the vast majority of the dissidents, in the 1970s this turned toward an openly  anti-communist  position.  An  exceptionally  important  role  in  this  turn  to  the  right was played, certainly, by Solzhenitsyn with his extremely conservative views. In the  1970s,  these  views  represented  the  most  radical  and  constant  opposition  to  the  Soviet regime while the “democratic socialism” of Medvedev, on the other hand, looked like a variation of conformism.

This sends us back to the debate between the zapadniki [Westernizers] and the Slavophiles during the 19th century. The latter held a similar idea regarding the people.

Yes,  certainly,  the  Slavophilia  influence  persists  here.  Yet,  for  the  Westernizers  and  Slavophiles of the 19th century, one of the crucial moments was the attitude of the state towards the people. The Slavophile idea lay in the idea that the state is the modernist machinery  of  an  exterior  violence  that  invades  the  people’s  life  and  tries  to  deform  it  in  an  artificial  way.  From the  Westernizers’  point  of  view,  the  state  is  the  engine  of  progress that civilizes the mob and puts it on the road to progress. That is why, despite the conflicts over the nature of the current state, it in general plays a positive role.In  the  case  of  Solzhenitsyn,  this  conservative-Slavophile  direction  is  obvious:  the  Soviet  Union  is  a  repressive  evil,  the  influence  of  which  needs  to  be  gotten  rid  of.  We  need to return to our roots to acquire organic unity with the people in a reborn Russian Empire or a true Russian national state.

As regards the Westernizers, for them, the state in the Soviet reality was neither an ally nor a proponent of historic progress. The place of historic consciousness was gradually occupied by the West, the international community, the UN, and global power brokers, all of which provided a pathway for progress into the dark and passive reality. But the evolution  of  thinking  in  this  direction  went  quite  slowly.  In the  1970s  there  were  few  people, even among the liberal human rights activists, who reflected on this so directly.

In the 19th century, the emergence of socialist thought in the Russian Empire and the destruction of the Slavophiles’ monopoly on the peasant community by Herzen removed the dichotomy of Westernizers and Slavophiles to some extent. Where,in the USSR, do the left-wing dissidents stand in this discussion?

When the conversation becomes focused on the topic of “the true people” or the image of the West as a universal rights defender, then it is hard for the left-wing representatives to take part in the debate. The leftists during this period tried to shift the focus of the debate  from  large  transhistorical  topics  to  an  analysis  of  the  actual  social  dynamics  playing out in the Soviet Union.

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How did the events in the Eastern Bloc affect the left-wing dissidents in the USSR?

A lot of leftist students’ groups in the USSR got their start with the protests against the Soviet invasion  of  Hungary  in  1956.  They  knew  that  the  workers’  councils  played  an  important  role  there,  and  from  the  point  of  view  of  many  this  uprising  was  of  a  class  and anti-bureaucratic character. Also, in the second half of the 1950s, Yugoslavia and Poland were of great importance. At the end of the 1950s, the foundations of an alternative Yugoslav model were formed. This is the time when the articles by Edvard Kardelj and other leaders of the Yugoslav regime appear. They touched upon the questions of what socialist self-government is, how  to  build  a  socialist  society  differently.  This  period  coincides  with  the  renewal  of  diplomatic relations between the USSR and Yugoslavia – Yugoslav publications started to be sold at Soviet newsstands. Some of the members of the dissident groups of that period have  said  that  they  almost  purposely  learnt  the  Serbian  language  so  they  could  read  Borba newspaper, whose content was rather different from the official Soviet newspapers. In Poland, in the autumn of 1956, the so-called Polish October begins, when Władisław Gomułka  returns  to  power.  The  political  changes  happening  there  in  public  life  were  of  a  much  deeper  character  than  the  changes  in  the  Soviet  Union  after  the  20th  Congress.  There  were  elements  of  an  independent  press,  legal  discussion  clubs,  and  the  well-known media outlet Po prostu appeared. The connections with Polish groups had a  rather  significant  intellectual  impact  on  the  same  Krasnopevcev  circle  at  Moscow  State University.

As for Solidarność, it represented another model: from below, a powerful labor movement  is  emerging,  which  is  actively  supported  by  the  intelligentsia.  This  option  was  also of great interest to Soviet dissidents, but in a different historical situation – at the cusp  of  the  1970s–1980s.  For  example,  the  magazine  Poiski  (in  which  Mihail  Gefter,  Petr Abovin-Egides, and Gleb Pavlovsky participated) published translated articles by the ideologists of Solidarność. But they were interested in their experience more from the point of view of how it would be possible in the USSR. The instance of Solidarność was impressive and was greatly influential. Yet, unfortu-nately, this influence could not lead to something similar in scale under the conditions of the late USSR. There were failed attempts to create some analogues of Solidarność. For  instance,  the  Free  Interprofessional  Association  of  Workers  (SMOT).  This  organization  was  rather  anti-communist,  it  is  hard  to  call  it  a  leftist  one;  one  of  the  SMOT’s  leaders was Valeria Novodvorskaya. On the other hand, she tried to present herself as a defender of the workers’ interests. As SMOT’s aim was the struggle against the regime, and the self-organization of workers acted as a tool, the number of workers who were ready for such a struggle was very small.

Commons [Spil’ne – title in Ukrainian–translator’s note] once published an interview with Oleg Dubrovskiy,[4] a leftist worker activist from the city of Dnipro [Dniprovetrovsk–the previous name of the city–translator’s note] .He always insisted that his activism was inspired by the example of Solidarność. Before that, he had read the discussions of the 1920s and was interested in the Workers’ Opposition, but did not go any furt her. After Solidarność, he began trying to organize something at his factory and was engaged in labor activism until the end of the 1990s. But when we spoke to him, he appeared to be distanced from the dissidents. He is a worker, and they are intellectuals. How common was this?

It  seems  that  what  you  have  described  was  a  kind  of  a  reaction  to  the  situation  of  the  early 1980s, when, firstly, the dissident movement stopped existing due to the purposeful KGB suppression of it, and, secondly, the very concept of “dissident” had a certain reputation. Dissidents were those about whom Radio Liberty spoke and who constituted a very small circle of activists that conducted public activities and distributed samizdat. By  various  estimates,  this  circle  included  several  hundred  people  around  the  USSR.  Nevertheless, millions of Soviet people knew about the existence of dissidents, but only thanks to Western radio stations. The emergence of initiatives in the working environment, including political ones, is generally a very big topic. In my book, there is a short chapter about an interesting group formed in Samara in the early 1980s around Aleksey Razlackiy. It was later called the  Party  of  the  Dictatorship  of  the  Proletariat.  This group focused  exclusively  on  the  industrial working class and was involved in organizing at least one major strike. The members of this group did not see themselves as dissidents and considered themselves completely  separately  from  the  dissident  movement.  They listened  to  Chinese  radio,  where the Soviet Union was criticized from the left. Partly under the influence of this criticism, they  created  an  original  theory  that  in  its  practical  implementation,  paradoxically, could come close to the conclusions of Solidarność.

Poland was an example that showed that the workers were not just part of the passive masses. In Solidarność, there was a left wing, represented by Jacek Kuron and the others. Why did the influence of Solidarność not provoke a left turn among the dissidents? You mentioned Novodvorskaya, but we know whos he eventually became. Why were the re no more examples of Dubrovskiy, who was and remained a leftist?

We  must  realize  how  the  Soviet  people  could  get  information  about  Solidarność:  besides the Soviet media, they could get it from the Western radio broadcasts, where no-body went into particulars of Kuroń’s or Modzelewski’s positions. I doubt that anybody spread the word that there was a left wing in Solidarność. It was said that this was an anti-communist  movement  that  fought  for  the  dignity  of  workers,  and  that  the  USA  trade  unions  and  the  entire  free  world  sent  them  friendly  greetings.  In  order  to  get  a  more accurate idea of the situation there, it was necessary to have access to closed and marginal sources of information.

Were the left dissidents familiar with the political, social,and economic concepts of the Prague Spring? I mean “socialist democracy” as expressed in the Action Program of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the Law on Socialist Enterprise that would have established workers’ councils practically in the whole of the Czechoslova-kianeconomicsystem?[5]

The Prague Spring was a model of how the reform could begin within the framework of  “real  socialism”:  men  of  education  and  principle  lead  the  Communist  Party,  the  leadership  is  renewed,  the  old  conformists  with  the  Stalinist  background  leave,  then  censorship is canceled and a broad discussion of the renewal of socialism begins. Certainly,  the  Soviet  invasion  and  the  defeat  of  the  Communist  Party  of  Czechoslovakia  had a devastating effect on the idea of “self-reform” within the Soviet system. All that happened in Czechoslovakia during 1968 was at the center of attention for Soviet dissidents, who were well aware of such fundamental documents towards understanding these events as the “Action Programme” or “Two Thousand Words” by [Ludvík] Vaculík. It can be said that their ideas were shared by most of the Soviet human rights community, whose anti-communist and pro-market elements were extremely insignificant in 1968. It is worth remembering that in the first half of 1968, Andrei Sakharov wrote his first major work, Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom [Razmyšleniâ  o  progresse,  mirnom  sosusˆestvovanii  i  intellektual’noj  svobode],  which,  by his own admission, was inspired by the reforms in Czechoslovakia. It is also worth remembering  that  the  editorial  office  of  the  journal  Problems  of  Peace  and  Socialismwas in Prague, which was considered one of the main “nests” of reform-oriented Soviet intellectuals.

Were there any connections between Soviet left-wing dissidents and Western leftists? How did the Soviet left-wing dissidents learn about the ongoing debates in the left environment abroad?

The Western leftists also varied. We can divide the people interested in the Soviet left-wing dissidents into two groups: those who were, let’s say, directed toward the “right” by the communist, pro-Moscow parties such as the Eurocommunists and social democrats, and those who were on the left, such as the Trotskyists and anarchists. First of all, this interest was expressed in the fact that the publication of literature, the  so-called  tamizdat  [“tam”  –  “there”  –  translator’s  note],  was  partly  carried  out  by  Western leftists. Among the social democrats, we can distinguish the Herzen Foundation in Amsterdam, which was created by Dutch social democrats who sympathized with the dissident movement in the USSR. They published many important books such as, for example, a selection from Roy Medvedev’s Political Diary [Političeskij dnevnik]. On the left, publishing was also carried out by Trotskyists. Thus, in Paris, there was a publishing house named “Slovo” that was associated with the Revolutionary Communist  League  –  they  published  many  books,  including  the  aforementioned  Zimin.  Also,  there was an interest in dissidents who emigrated from the USSR and had a reputation for  being  leftists.  In particular,  this  concerned  Petro  Hryhorenko,  Leonid  Plyushch,  and  Boris  Weil.  Extremist leftists  in  the  West  tried  to  reach  out  to  them  and  engage  in  a  discussion.  For  example,  the  well-known  Ukrainian  Marxist  magazine  Diyalog,  published in Canada, printed a long interview with Plyushch.[6] But this did not lead to any sort of ideological evolution on the part of Hryhorenko or Plyushch since by that time  they  adhered  to  a  human  rights  strateg y,  and  their  political  views  had  already shifted  to  the  right.  Now  in  the  West,  they  expected  to  find  more  serious  allies  than  the Trotskyist groups. Apart from that, a few of the Western Trotskyists visited the USSR in the 1970s–1980s trying  to  build  bridges  here.  They sometimes  succeeded  in  collecting  information,  getting some samizdat manuscript, and taking it to the West. In this sense, for Western leftists,  the  USSR  was  a  much  more  closed  territory  than  were  Poland,  Yugoslavia,  or  Czechoslovakia. For instance, Ernest Mandel could visit Warsaw during Soviet times and give a public lecture (certainly not as a representative of the 4th International, but as a representative of the left wing of the Belgian trade unions). As regards Czechoslovakia, before  the  Soviet  invasion  there  were  no  obstacles  to  going  there.  For  instance,  Rudi  Dutschke,  the  famous  leader  of  the  West  German  radical  leftists,  visited  Prague  and  gave a speech in front of a huge youth audience. In the 1960s in Yugoslavia, there was a summer school under the auspices of Praxis magazine that attracted many Western leftist theorists, who also gave speeches.

In the article on the Cold War, you write about the impossibility of “a third position”as a result of which “a ny form of opposition to ‘realsocialism’ turned out to be identical to the conscious choice of an alternative offered by the opposite side –the West.” But did the left-w ing dissidents manage to form a “third position?” Can they be compared to the Trotsky ist tradition of third camp socialism in the West?[7]

I have to make some qualifications here. First of all, Western Trotskyists generally did not consider themselves as a “third camp.” That was the name of those Western leftists who considered the USSR to be an exploitative society, a form of state capitalism, and so  on  and  so  forth,  and  did  not  see  any  conceptual  difference  between  the  USSR  and  the Western bloc. For most Trotskyists that difference existed, which, certainly, did not mean that they blindly supported the Soviet government. As for the left-wing dissidents, in the 1950s and 1960s they thought that historical progress was mainly on the side of the USSR, but it did not mean that the Soviet Union was right in everything.

You write that for those Western leftists who adopted the pro-Western position in the Cold War, the possibility of inside criticism “turns into the source of power and competitive advantage.”To what extent can we admit the contrary in the USSR – that the pro-Western position did provide some protection, but at the same time isolated them from society?

The  dissidents  who  were  human  rights  activists  during  the  1970s  did  not  consider  their position as pro-Western – they considered it to be just humanistic and universal. Inasmuch as the West was upholding these principles more consistently, it seemed as though  it  were  the  only  ally.  Also,  this  situation  of  the  human  rights  movement  was  typical for the period of détente between the USSR and the West, when the main issue was to avoid a conflict that could lead to nuclear war. For instance, Andrey Sakharov in Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom focuses not on the  question  of  which  social  regime  would  be  ideal,  but  on  how  to  avoid  the  danger  of a global war. As a person who realized the destructive nature of the bomb, he tried to infer from it a pragmatic project, where the existential interests of humanity would come first and the political or ideological wars second. This goal was quite widespread among some parts of the human rights community.

How did left-wing dissidents react to the political war during the time of perestroika?

By the time perestroika began, the dissident movement was in a state of political and organizational defeat, so we can only talk about the position of its representatives. In the  late  1980s,  only  a  small  number  of  dissidents  could  establish  their  political  positions. Sakharov is rather an exception to the rule. In general, dissidents – right, left, and liberals – do not have a serious political influence on post-Soviet reality. However, their ideological  influence  –  primarily  of  the  liberal  and  right-wing  dissidents  –  is  beyond  doubt.  It  can  even  be  said  that  the  post-Soviet  official  discourse  was  largely  indebted  to the combination of elements of the liberal and right-conservative tendencies within the dissident movement. The main body of people who were dissidents-socialists during the Soviet times was not  related  to  the  leftist  politics  of  the  post-Soviet  times.  Some  members  of  the  leftist  groups of the late 1950s – such as Mikhail Molostvov or Viktor Sheinis – became, in the 1990s, famous leaders of the liberal camp. On the other hand, some representatives of the last generation of dissidents-socialists, such as Boris Kagarlitsky or Pavel Kydukin, played  an  important  role  on  the  Russian  left.  However,  these  rare  instances  rather  confirmed the common rule: for modern post-Soviet leftists the question of historical continuity remains a serious problem.

Is there a common point of reference for the Russian left presently? Is it the socialist revolution of 1917?

Unfortunately,  Russian  leftists  are  very  polarized  today:  while  one  part  might  relate  itself to the October heritage, following left criticism of the Soviet regime, left opposition,  and  looking  up  to  dissidents-socialists,  the  other  sees  the  Russian  revolution  as  being only a prelude to the Stalinist USSR, which remains for it an ideal. My research, dedicated to the left-wing dissidents, is definitely a part of this ideological fight for the heritage of 1917.

You write in your book that Putin’s ideological constellation is anti-revolutionary because of the spectre of a Russian “colour revolution.” Is this type of revolution a model for a part of the Russian left?

I  think  that  the  “colour  revolution”  is  a  dangerous  but  influential  construct,  created  and  heavily  used  by  the  ruling  elites  (both  in  the  West  and  in  Russia),  that  needs  to  be  criticized  from  a  leftist  point  of  view.  The  term  “colour  revolution”  means,  first  of  all,  that  the  post-Soviet  or  Arab  mass  protests  bear  nothing  unique,  and  all  of  them  are  organized  from  above  according  to  the  same  standard.  It  also  means  that  their  programme is the same anytime and any where – a “regime change” that is restricted to  political  schemes  and  that  does  not  suggest  any  fundamental  social  changes.  This  perspective – technological and conspiratorial – defames the very term of a revolution, and the task of the modern leftists is to also struggle for the idea of a revolution.

Originally published in Russian. Ilya Budraitskis, “Lev ye dissidenty mogli stať zvenom, svâzy-vaûsˆim  dosovetskuû  socialističeskuû  tradiciû  s  postsovetskoj,”  Commons  Apr.  27,  2021  (online at vSoDBa2Skh0Ppdes2U2xWTcvSKzLQOk8iw_nupI  [accessed  Sept.  16,  2021]).  The  questions  of  the original interview were prepared in consultation with Stas Sergienko and Viacheslav Tsyba. Additional questions related to state socialist Czechoslovakia were asked by Michael Hauser.

Translated by Yuliia Kulish


[1]   Ilya  Budraitskis, Dissidenty sredi dissidentov  (Moscow: Svobodnoe marksistkoe izdatelstvo, 2017).

[2] Alexei  Yurchak,  Everything Was Forever, until It Was No More (Princeton: Princeton University  Press, 2006).

[3] Varlam  Shalamov,  Chetvertaâ Vologda  (Vologda: Grifon, 1994), p. 135.

[4]  Oleg  Dubrovs’kij,  “Administrac iâ  nazvala  mene  pidburûvačem i  profesijnim organizatorom strajkiv. Ce najvisa ocinka moïj diâ l’nosti,” Commons, Apr. 5 2013 (online at [accessed Sept. 16, 2021]).

[5]    “The  Action  Program  of  the  Communist  Party  of  Czechoslovakia,”  (online  at [accessed Sept. 30, 2021]).

[6] Marko Bojcun, “Mi perejšli vid ukraïns’kogo nacionalizmu do radikal’nogo socializmu, deâkiz  nas  —  i  do  troc’kizmu,”  Commons ,  Dec.  13,  2017  (online  at [accessed Sept. 30, 2021]).

[7]  Online  at  [accessed Sept. 30, 2021].

[book-strip index="3" style="display"]
Dissidents among Dissidents
Ilya Budraitskis, one of the country’s most prominent leftist political commentators, explores the strange fusion of free-market ideology and postmodern nationalism that now prevails in Russia, and...
Dissidents among Dissidents
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Red Flag Wounded
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What About the Workers?
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The Soviet Century
One hundred years after the Russian Revolution the Soviet Union remains the most extraordinary, yet tragic, attempt to create a society beyond capitalism. Yet its history was one that for a long ti...
Dissidents among Dissidents
Ilya Budraitskis, one of the country’s most prominent leftist political commentators, explores the strange fusion of free-market ideology and postmodern nationalism that now prevails in Russia, and...
Russia without Putin
It is impossible to think of Russia today without thinking of Vladimir Putin. More than any other major national leader, he personifies his country in the eyes of the outside world, and dominates W...
Red Flag Wounded
Red Flag Wounded brings together essays covering the controversies and debates over the fraught history of the Soviet Union from the revolution to its disintegration. Those monumental years were ma...
What About the Workers?
Most writing on the dramatic events in the former Soviet Union has been based on the assumption that Russia is engaged in a transition from “state socialism” to capitalism, and focuses on political...
The Soviet Century
One hundred years after the Russian Revolution the Soviet Union remains the most extraordinary, yet tragic, attempt to create a society beyond capitalism. Yet its history was one that for a long ti...

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