‘His memoir offers an interesting and useful historical perspective to Russian human rights defenders for their struggles today.’ Margot Light reviews The Dissidents by Peter Reddaway.

15 June 2020

By Margot Light

Margot Light reviews The Dissidents: A Memoir of Working with the Resistance in Russia, 1960-1990, by Peter Reddaway.  Brookings, 337 pp., £25.50, 2020, Hardcover ISBN: 9780815737735; Ebook ISBN: 9780815737742

Peter Reddaway is, perhaps, best known for editing and publishing Chronicle of Current Events, the English version of Khronika tekushchikh sobytii, which can be considered the Soviet era precursor of Rights in Russia.  It was compiled by dissidents in the USSR, who painstakingly produced a factual account of recent human rights abuses, reproducing it by typing several copies of each page using carbon paper.  The document was circulated in the Soviet Union by being passed from hand to hand.  From 1968 onwards a copy was also smuggled to London, where Reddaway translated, edited and distributed it, first, in typewritten form, and then, from 1972 until it ceased appearing in 1983, as a periodical published by Amnesty International.  Thus samizdat (self-published) was transformed into what became known as tamizdat (published there) and the plight of victims of human rights abuses became more widely known in the West.

The Dissidents is Reddaway’s personal chronicle of his involvement with the Soviet Union from his first trip as a student in 1960 until the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.  Already during his first trip he discovered that although many people seemed afraid of foreigners, it was relatively easy to make friends.  Moreover, the people one got to know often felt able to express opinions that were very different from the official ideology.  The discovery that the USSR was not as totalitarian as usually depicted determined his future career: ‘Intrigued by the way the Soviet system denied human rights to its citizens, yet left open a few gaps’ (p. 73), he decided that he wanted to assist any Soviet citizen who might seek his help.  He devoted a great deal of ingenuity, energy and time to giving that assistance and his memoir describes the many forms it took. 

Apart from his work on Chronicle of Current Events, Reddaway was instrumental in getting many dissident-authored books published in the West.  He worked closely with Professor Karl van het Reve, who set up the Herzen Foundation in Amsterdam in 1969 to publish and publicise dissident authors.  He also collaborated with the Reverend Michael Bordeaux to establish Keston College in 1969 to study religious persecution under communism.  In 1971 he set up the Working Group on the Abuse of Psychiatry for Political Purposes which campaigned vigorously to publicize the political use of psychiatry made by the Soviet authorities to deal with dissidents.  He gives a detailed account of the long and arduous campaign to persuade the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) to take action, which led eventually to the Soviet Society of Psychiatrists resigning from the WPA in 1983 to pre-empt the ignominy of expulsion. 

Throughout the memoir, Reddaway offers the reader vivid vignettes of some of the most prominent Soviet dissidents he knew, and of the translators, editors and other people who helped to circulate and publish their work in the West.  Less enamoured with Mikhail Gorbachev than most people in the West, Reddaway does not share the optimism and enthusiasm about perestroika and glasnost’ that many Westerners felt at the time.  This means that he was not surprised by the way things turned out.   Russia, he concludes gloomily, is not ‘pregnant with a new order that will prove stable and conducive to lasting reform’ (p. 312).  His memoir offers an interesting and useful historical perspective to Russian human rights defenders for their struggles today.

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