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Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Not all members of the Soviet intelligentsia, however, were content to put up with the officially sanctioned limits of cultural and intellectual freedom and keep quiet. In particular, many were deeply concerned that, with the advent of Brezhnev, Krushchev’s cultural and ideological “thaw” was substantially curtailed. They feared a return of harsh Stalinist practices, and they had the courage to protest openly against violations of civil liberties. The authorities used a whole arsenal of repressive measures, short of killing dissidents, yet were unable to root out dissidence.

In the 1960s and 1970s dissidents typically expressed their criticisms in letters of protest and appeals to Soviet leaders and law-enforcement agencies. These were typed and copied by their supporters and disseminated among like-minded friends. In the Soviet Union this free underground press became known as samizdat (“self-publishing”). Through various channels some of this literature filtered through to the West and was published there as tamizdat (“over-there publishing”).

Two figures in the dissident movement in particular caused constant trouble for the Soviet authorities. One was Alexander Solzhenitsyn (b. 1918), a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature and the author of such novels as Cancer Ward and The First Circle, widely circulated in samizdat and tamizdat. The other was Andrei Sakharov (1921–89), one of the inventors of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and later a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Both rose to personify the Soviet dissident movement.

The writer and the scientist were in opposition to the Soviet regime, but they also disagreed with each other about the path that Russia should follow. Their divergent views bring to mind parallels with the Slavophiles versus Westernizers controversy, the intellectual argument that has animated Russian social thought ever since the “great debate” of the 1840s. Solzhenitsyn, with his nationalist views, stood in the succession line to the Slavophiles, whereas Sakharov’s ideological preferences were more in tune with the Westernizers’ liberal orientation. Their ideological differences, however, were of secondary importance. What mattered was their open opposition to the Soviet regime and their determination to free the country from Communist authoritarianism.

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