Whatever Happened to the Soviet Dissidents?

Reported by Reese Erlich, Producer, the Russia Project

WALTER CRONKITE: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Roy Medvedev [med-vay'-dev]. These and other Soviet dissidents became well-known in the West for speaking out against Soviet repression. Many Americans thought the dissidents represented a significant movement for freedom and democracy inside the Soviet Union. But today virtually none hold positions of political influence. Russia Project producer Reese Erlich tracked down some of the old Soviet dissidents to find out why.

REESE ERLICH: In 1975 17-year-old Alexander Tarasov joined a small Marxist organization that thought the Soviet Union wasn't socialist enough. He was arrested, and without a trial, thrown into a mental institution under the control of the KGB.

ALEXANDER TARASOV: (Via Translator) I was told that my views alone are proof of the fact that I am mentally disabled.

ERLICH: He was given electroshock ten times. Doctors also induced insulin comas.

TARASOV: A person is injected with insulin and then he gets into a coma and is very close to death. At the right time he is injected with glucose to save his life.

[Sound of prison door opening]

ERLICH: Tarasov was released after a year and today lives in Moscow. He was one of thousands of Soviet political and religious dissidents who faced arbitrary arrests, brutal prison conditions, and sometimes torture in the post-Stalin era. Many in the West thought dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and Natan Sharansky were leaders of a significant movement for democracy.

[Natan Sharansky rally—"I would now like to introduce Natan Sharansky" Shouts of "Yeah!"]

ERLICH: If the dissidents really had led a major movement, one would expect former dissidents to hold political office in the new Russia, or at least to exercise political influence—they don't.

Today the former dissidents are largely ignored by politicians and the public alike. And that was true even back in Soviet times, according to well-known dissident Larisa Bogaraz.

LARISA BOGARAZ: (Via Translator) The Soviet authorities would reproach us that the dissidents weren't representing anyone. We wanted the situation to be just like that. Each dissident could represent himself.

ERLICH: Boris Kagarlitsky spent 13 months in prison during the Brezhnev years. He says Western countries, and the US in particular, knew that the dissidents had little popular base of support, but used their cases for political purposes.

BORIS KAGARLITSKY: They saw the dissident movement as a temendous propagandistic asset in Cold War discussions, especially outside the Soviet Union. The irony is that, I think they were not so much interested in dissidents as the dissident voices inside the Soviet Union because they didn't—at that moment, at that stage—they didn't consider the dissident movement as a force capable of changing things within the Soviet Union. They actually wanted these voices to be heard around the world as a kind of ideological and psychological deterrent against the spread of communism.

[Music from Soviet period]

ERLICH: Some dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were anticommunists. Some, such as Sakharov, were advocates of Western-style political systems, and others, such as Tarasov, were Marxists. But they all faced harsh government repression. Larisa Bogaraz says some dissidents asked the Western press and Western government radio networks to publicize their cases.

[Radio Liberty station ID]

BOGARAZ: Western radio stations like Voice of America and Radio Liberty had a huge effect on our society. Their support was crucial for the dissidents in Russia.

ERLICH: Kagarlitsky says the increased contact with Western media and governments impacted the thinking of some dissidents.

KAGARLITSKY: So, I think the American political apparatus tried to influence these people politically. It was very much about manipulating people. For example, if we take the late academician Sakharov; he started as democratic socialist. And then, the longer he dealt with their international apparatus, the more he was shifting to the right politically, including saying the Americans did it right bombing Vietnam, and so on, and so on.

ERLICH: During 1960s and 1970s dissidents fought a hard, if lonely, battle for political rights. Then in the late 1980s, under Gorbachev's administration, a few gained political prominence.

Shortly after Boris Yeltsin took power in 1991, however, the former dissidents fell out of favor. The new rulers didn't want to be criticized for human rights abuses. And the dissidents failed to attract mass support because they offered no practical solutions for the problems in the new Russia. Historian and famous dissident Roy Medveyev [med-vay'-dev] explains.

ROY MEDVEYEV: (Via Translator) They were dissenting against the authorities from a moral point of view. They never developed a goal to be political leaders. That's why there are few dissidents who are political leaders.

ERLICH: Many of the former dissidents say that human rights violations continued under Presidents Yeltsin and Putin, although not on the scale of the old Soviet government. Ludmila Alexeeva chairs the Moscow-Helsinki human rights group.

LUDMILA ALEXEEVA: It's a mass phenomenon in all parts of our country. But what is the most painful is our trials. Of course, we have no independent judicial system.

ERLICH: Boris Kagarlitsky, who now leads a small, social democratic party, agrees that human rights violations still abound in the new Russia.

KAGARLITSKY: Russia is a kind of democracy guided through electoral fraud. We are free to speak, we are not free to choose. Those who are in power stay in power, no matter what.

ERLICH: Today's dissidents find themselves in a similar political dilemma as during Soviet times. They don't face long jail sentences. But their protests against human rights violations are ignored by the authorities. The difference, this time, is that they are largely ignored by the West as well.

For the Russia Project, I'm Reese Erlich, Moscow.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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