11 February 2005

Soviet vs. Western Dissidents

Here's an excerpt from what A Step at a Time has to say about Cold War dissidents.
In the 1960s and early 1970s there existed an almost complete disparity, a dislocation, even, between the dissident movement in Soviet Russia and the radical movements in the West (those which gravitated around the Paris "revolution" of 1968, for example). While Western radicals sometimes paid lip service to Soviet dissidents - and there was a mild flurry of sympathy for them during the events that immediately followed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 - in general there was an almost total lack of comprehension on both sides. Western radicals could not understand the admiration felt by most Soviet dissidents for Western democracy and culture, while most Soviet dissidents were appalled by the disdain and hatred felt by much of the Western radical left for Western society. Later, this dislocation crystallized out in the situation described by Sharansky in The Case for Democracy, where Western "ban-the-bomb" marchers walked side by side with KGB operatives who were bent on exploiting the radical left-wing and peace movements, while in the Soviet Union, anti-nuclear protesters and peace activists languished in jails and prison camps.

Looking back on it now, it's hard to see how anyone could seriously have compared the two movements - the radical Western left and the Soviet dissidents. While the Western students and activists were free to utter their opinions, hold public demonstrations and even burn down buildings, in the Soviet Union those who resisted the established order were imprisoned, tortured and killed. "Who could turn away from themselves even under enormous strain, after seeing Ginzburg's tenacious refusal to compromise?" Cali Ruchala writes. Although the dissident movement was by no means homogeneous, and comprised different levels and qualities of disagreement with the power of authority, the example of fortitude, moral sanity and defiance, even under impossible conditions of repression, shown by Ginzburg and others like him was simply over the heads of most Western observers, even those who for their own political and ideological reasons wanted to sympathize with the Soviet outcasts.

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