Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Historian Explores ‘Limits of Freedom’ in Soviet Times

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 6 – The standard narrative on Soviet society from the death of Stalin to the rise of Gorbachev holds that it was almost entirely unfree except for the actions of a few courageous dissidents, but a new Russian study argues that “the limits of freedom” there during that period were significantly broader and involved far more groups.
In a new book entitled “Dissidents, Informal Groups and Freedom in the USSR” (in Russian, Moscow: Veche, 2008), historian Aleksandr Shubin discusses both those usually classed as dissidents of various stripes as well as others who actively opposed the regime within the limits of the existing “’rules of the game’” (www.rabkor.ru/?area=articleItem&id=1138).
Shubin thus talks about individuals and groups like the democratic socialists, the Marxist-Leninists, the anarchists, the liberal democrats and westernizers, Russian conservatives and nationalists and Stalinists, all of which were dissidents even when some of them had relations with one or other group within the establishment.
But he also describes scholars and artists who sought to extend the limits of the permissible, cultural and historical preservationists who pushed their own agendas, supporters of democratization of the Soviet model, informal society groups, ecological activists, singing groups, and even writers and readers of science fiction.
According to Shubin, this period from 1953 to 1985 provided various milieu out of which emerged “many fruitful ideas which are developing in our time in the humanitarian sciences and contemporary commentaries” on a wide variety of subjects, something that many involved in these areas frequently do not acknowledge.
The author insists that “the Soviet Union of the post-Stalin period already did not represent a totalitarian state which exercised all-embracing ideological control over the lives of broad strata of the population” but rather “an authoritarian regime with a concentration of power in the hands of representatives of the bureaucratic elite.”
And as long as members of this elite did not see their power challenged, most but of course not all were prepared to allow a certain amount of flexibility and even the growth of what Shubin calls “the space of freedom in the USSR” in which many were able to “struggle for a broadening of civil and political rights and freedoms.”
In support of his contention, Shubin employs statistics of criminal convictions to show that “the most severe Brezhnev period persecutions of the political opposition did not reach even the minimal number of such cases that had been launched in the period of the Khrushchev thaw,” a period most recall as far more liberal.
One reviewer suggests that some of the book’s most interesting passages concern the willingness of some members of the elite to try to reach accommodation with one or another “dissident.” Thus, Shubin describes the willingness of Interior Minister Shchelokov to publish Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” prior to the latter’s publication abroad.
And Shubin says that Shchelokov even proposed reaching some kind of compromise with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as a means of attracting more dissidents into the ranks of the regime’s supporters, an idea that at several points in his career, Yuri Andropov also apparently considered, although of course, the KGB leader also suppressed many dissidents in his time.
Among the many other intriguing points Shubin makes is his argument that the nature of Soviet ideology, which always talked about the construction of communism as a task ahead, led even those opposed to it to think more about the future than about the past, a focus that promoted optimism rather than pessimism and liberation rather than authoritarianism.
That orientation was reflected in the science and social commentary of the late Soviet period, the historian notes. But now, both writers of science fiction and commentators in post-
Soviet Russia devote far more attention to the past and not “the reconstruction of real history” but rather the creation of “tales and fantasies.”
That shift from the future to the past also affects the left, of whom Shubin is a member and with whom he is generally in sympathy. And while he argues that he can understand their shift given that of the entire society, Shubin suggests that the Russian left is far too concerned with “the aestheticization of the past than [a focus] on the future.”
But perhaps the most challenging argument the Moscow historian makes is that if one compares the last decades of the Soviet system with the current Russian one, there are many cases in which the former offered more freedom than does the latter, a view certain to provoke controversy even with all the evidence Shubin himself provides

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