Simon Cosgrove reviews ‘The Dissidents’ by Peter Reddaway: ‘A profound tribute to the moral imperative to speak out in the name of truth and human rights in a repressive society.’

17 June 2021

By Simon Cosgrove

Simon Cosgrove reviews The Dissidents: A Memoir of Working with the Resistance in Russia, 1960-1990, by Peter Reddaway.  Brookings, 337 pp., 2020, ISBN: 9780815737735

The Dissidents is an absorbing memoir looking back over Peter Reddaway’s distinguished career as an academic focusing, in particular, on his close cooperation with Soviet dissidents and human rights activists. Throughout a busy career as teacher, researcher and writer Reddaway played an active role in numerous initiatives and campaigns related to the emergence of samizdat and the Soviet human rights movement, including translating and editing samizdat publications (for example, many issues of the Chronicle of Current Events), participation in the London-based Working Group on the Internment of Dissenters in Mental Hospitals, a campaign to have the Soviet Union expelled from the World Psychiatric Association and the setting up of Keston College.

Reddaway describes his genesis as a scholar of Soviet and Russian affairs, as a young and adventurous student of Russian, during two short trips he undertook to the region and subsequently on an academic stay of eight months that ended with his expulsion on spurious charges in May 1964 (he was not allowed to return until January 1988). Such an event might have meant the abrupt end to an academic career in Soviet studies. Yet for Reddaway his expulsion seems to have contributed to the motivation that was to make him one of the West’s foremost scholars of Soviet affairs, not least because, as he notes, he began to see that his ‘expellee status confirmed a certain compensating advantage […]: I could write freely on this subject without having to temper my views to avoid being put on a Soviet blacklist’ [p. 102].

Reddaway’s early observations of Soviet society as a traveller and student fed into his later understanding of the situation of dissidents and the possibilities for social and political change. Early on, he diagnosed the Soviet Union as a divided society with a ‘huge, dangerous gulf […] between the intelligentsia and the mass of poor people’ [p. 57] where a privileged ‘upper class’ ‘never understood the depth and urgency of the problems to be solved if the goal of economic reform were ever to be achieved’ [p. 59]. During his stay in Moscow in 1963-1964 Reddaway concluded that ‘Soviet society was moving toward becoming a seedbed for the emergence of samizdat and the expression of public dissent’ [p. 88]. Soviet people, he came to believe, ‘were not as passive or conformist as they looked’ [p. 289] and ‘the regime, being unusually rigid, would not be able to handle the emergence of open dissent, and would sooner or later collapse’ [p. 289]. The theme of The Dissidents is the ‘rise, despite official persecution, of independent thinking and action over a period of nearly thirty years’ [p. 290].

Reddaway views dissent and human rights activity, on the one hand, as the outcome of individuals courageously heeding a moral imperative in a repressive society and, on the other, as a phenomenon with the potential to bring about social and political change. We see the first in the rich series of portraits he sketches both of individual Soviet dissidents (such as Aleksandr Yesenin-Volpin, Anatoly Marchenko, Andrei Sakharov and Larisa Bogoraz, to name but a few) and of groups of people such as the ‘national’ dissidents (Crimean Tatars, Jews, Ukrainians) and religious believers (Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Protestants). He pays particular attention to the victims of punitive psychiatry (such as Petr Grigorenko, Zhores Medvedev and Vladimir Bukovsky) whose plight he did so much to publicise. Reddaway also casts an eye on those who, like himself, worked to assist Soviet dissenters, such as Robert van Voren, Marjorie Farquharson and Karel van het Reve. 

The moral imperative is one thing; social and political change is something else. Reddaway suggests that the failure to achieve the kind of change, in terms of human rights and democratic politics, to which many dissident protagonists of ‘independent thinking and action’ aspired can be explained by the fact that ‘the will and creative ability needed for a civil society had emerged before the prerequisite for civil society’s survival: an economic and legal base’ [p. 292]. When a reformist political leader finally did emerge in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev. the ideas of the dissenters were ‘partially adopted by the country’s political leadership’ but reforms were introduced ‘from above’ without any broad social consensus [p. 292]. What then occurred was that the protagonists of ‘independent thinking,’ many of whom were becoming increasingly politicised and radicalised [p. 291] as they sensed ‘some sort of revolution was not so far off’ [p. 293], found themselves confronted by those who espoused other ideas, including various forms of conservative or radical nationalism and the undemocratic, statist, authoritarian tradition of Soviet-Russian political culture [p. 293]. Reform from above, then, led to a conflict of ideas, political instability [p. 292], a crisis of legitimacy [p. 241] and – given the balance of forces – a situation pregnant with the possibilities of revanche [p. 233].

Reddaway is scathing of Gorbachev, who, he considers, failed to grasp the country’s political realities [p. 223] and had ‘no real popular authority, no steady principles, no commitment to his few political allies, and no ability to select an economic reform plan and implement it, even as the abyss of his removal from office approached’ [p. 285]. Yet Reddaway himself argues that, absent an economic and legal – and one might add institutional – base for civil society, a reformist leader would inevitably face very great, perhaps insuperable, difficulties. The rise of ‘independent thinking and action’ was indeed a powerful factor for social and political change but of itself was insufficient to determine the outcomes its protagonists desired [pp. 289-90]. Looking back on two decades of rule by Vladimir Putin, Reddaway concludes: ‘Even today […] Russia is far from being pregnant with a new order that will prove stable and conducive to lasting reform’ [p. 293]. Yet, in at least one aspect, Reddaway’s memoir, as fascinating as it is inspiring, is far from pessimistic: a profound tribute to the moral imperative to speak out in the name of truth and human rights in a repressive society.

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