Volume 27, No.4 - Winter 1981
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright 1981 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Joshua Rubenstein. Soviet Dissidents. Their struggle for Human Rights. Beacon Press, Boston, 1980. XVII and 304 pages. Hardcover edition: $12.95; paperback edition: $6.95.

In the last fifteen years, many books and articles of various kinds appeared in many Western languages concerning the various aspects of the dissident movement (or movements?) in the Soviet Union. There have been as one can readily see in the Bibliography in this book, pp. 279-286 legal volumes, memoirs, collections of documents, personal experiences in the struggle, many long articles, etc., etc.

The book under consideration here tries to show both the very beginnings of the dissident movement as well as its main points of development from the very weak beginning (i.e., ca. 1946), and particularly in the period 1965-1980. The author's method can be described in his own words, "My approach has been to explore the origins and development of dissent through the lives of important activists." (p. XII). Furthermore, as Harrison E. Salisbury states in his 5-page Foreword, "Joshua Rubenstein emphasizes the role of writers and poets in the early manifestations of dissent." (p. VIII).

Briefly, the book consists of the following parts: Foreword by Harrison E. Salisbury; Introduction; 1. Refreezing the Thaw; 2. The Awakening; 3. New Trials, New Arrests; 4. Movement Matures; 5. Zionists and Democrats; 6. Detente and the Dissidents; 7. The Helsinki Watch Groups; 8. The Struggle Against Fear; Postscript; Notes on Sources; Bibliography; Index.

One could say that Rubenstein ascribes the beginning of the dissenting ideas, first and foremost, to literary movements, particularly the small group of Moscow intellectuals around Victor Krasin who, as early as 1946, began to meet once a week to discuss literature and philosophy. Stalin's "eyes", of course, found out, and Krasin wound up in the frozen wastes of Kolyma.

Only after Stalin's death (March 5, 1953), during the so-called Thaw-period, under Khrushchev, tiny flames of dissent started appearing even in the official Soviet press; e.g. Solzhenitsyn's Denisovich, and others.

Rubenstein then, basically in chronological order, describes the reaction of the regime to these tiny flames of non-conformity, starting in particular with the cases of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel (1965) until the exile of Andrei Sakharov to Gorki in 1980.

It is a very clear, informative summary of most well-known facts, and of some not so well-known.

Rubenstein looks at all these events not only through the eyes of the leading activists, but, as it were, from one central location, namely Moscow. That is/perhaps, good and proper for this kind of approach. The author states that many anti-regime movements, especially those farther away from Moscow, were only mentioned.

But here several problems arise. For example, although the dissidents in Moscow do cooperate with the dissidents, let us say, from Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, etc., their final aims are quite different. The Moscow dissidents struggle, primarily, for the human rights, but the Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Georgians, Armenians, etc., are motivated also by their desire to restore not only human rights, but also the independence of their countries. I.e., they protest not only the trampling of human rights, but also the occupation of their formerly independent and sovereign countries. In other words, they struggle against the Soviet Union as the occupying power.

It is true, several vague references are scattered here and there, but never as clearly as one would expect. Just one example: on p. 258, concerning Lithuania, the author writes, "By 1979, twelve unofficial samizdat journals were circulating, defending the integrity of the church and of Lithuanian culture. By Soviet standards, Lithuanian activists have created a virtually free press." Certainly, it's almost a miracle that in Lithuania (population ca. 3.5 million, 80% of them ethnic Lithuanians) there are more underground journals then in many a huge area . . . But it is also clear that by any standard it is not " a virtually free press." More importantly, many of these Lithuanian journals do not only defend "the integrity of the church and of Lithuanian culture", but also defend and promote political freedom for Lithuania (and other subjugated nations) as an independent and sovereign nation, at present illegally occupied by the foreign power which is the Soviet Union.

But these are, perhaps, minor points. Generally, the book is well written, clear and precise. It should be on the shelves of every public as well as every school library.

The University of Rochester