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Cracks in the Soviet Monolith

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Film "Solaris" by Andrei Tarkovsky: 1972  

The work and activities of Soviet writers, artists, filmmakers, scientists, academics, and other intellectuals had prepared the soil for the rebirth of civil society in the late 1980s and its emancipation from tight party-state control. In the conditions of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union these small circles of like-minded intellectuals were not yet pressure groups in the full sense. Their intellectual explorations and aesthetic search were conducted within the permissible leeway, prescribed explicitly or implicitly by the authorities. Attempts to go beyond the allowed limits of creative or academic freedom by such groups and their individual members were not tolerated: such “trespassers” were branded “dissidents” and subjected to repression.  

Even the privileged “oases of free thought” that flourished in the academic think tanks remained insecure. In the early 1980s conservative elements in the Soviet leadership attacked the USA and Canada Institute, the reform-minded economists from the Novosibirsk branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and the Economic-Mathematical Institute in Moscow. A crackdown at IMEMO was also planned, following the arrest by the KGB of two members of its staff accused of distributing leaflets that criticized the official interpretation of the recent events in Poland and openly sympathized with the Polish Solidarity movement. A high-ranking party commission was set up to scrutinize the activities of the institute, with the undeclared intention to discredit its staff and oust its director, Nikolai Inozemtsev.

Under Brezhnev’s authoritarian rule, cultural and academic pluralism remained limited in scope and fell short of real ideological and political pluralism. Nevertheless, the rise of informal interest groups in the postwar USSR was an indication of the important developments in the depths of Soviet society that were beginning to affect and modify its political system. The cultural and scholarly activities of the educated elites were softening the totalitarian monolith gradually, eroding its outdated ideological and intellectual foundations imperceptibly, spontaneously, and almost unintentionally. The full effect of these changes would be felt in the Gorbachev period and beyond, when the reformist ideas, aired and developed in the 1960s and 1970s, would spread from the educated society to reach the key decision makers in the government.

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