The Turning Tides: reviewing Dissident Histories in the Soviet Union: From De-Stalinization to Perestroika by Barbara Martin6 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Russia
Contemporary Western scholars often come to Soviet history via dissident politics. Unsurprisingly, such narratives are what interest students and professionals alike and will continue to uphold the West’s broader nationalistic political aspirations or moral authority. Perhaps the idea that Westerners have access to texts that were never able to be published in the Soviet Union sustains their interest even more. One of my very first texts in undergraduate Russian cultural studies was The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. From then on, I knew I was intrigued.

If the aforementioned novel piqued your initial interest in studying the Soviet Union, you are not alone. This wonderful new book by Barbara Martin acts as a mediator from that gateway text to many other robust, fascinating de-Stalinization era authors. Not only that, it offers insight into the post-Stalin period up to Gorbachev’s perestroika, as well as the ever-changing public opinion both inside and outside Russia.

Four distinct voices

Martin’s book centers on four dissident authors: pedagogical science PhD Roy Medvedev; independent scholar Anton Antonov-Ovseenko; historian Aleksandr Nekrich; and writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As heterogeneous as four authors can be with varying professional, political, and personal backgrounds, Martin dives into their lives and writing in detail. Martin seeks “to go beyond Cold War era cliches, conveyed not only by Western media but often by the dissident’s own memoirs, framed in the dominant ‘David against Goliath’ narrative.” Martin is able to examine each author objectively through the lens of intention, impact, and historical legacy.

The consequences of publishing dissident work were well-known. Both Solzhenitsyn and Nekrich lived in exile. Others were sent to camps. Medvedev was cited numerous times as saying that the act of studying history is like reopening wounds with salt. Solzhenitsyn shared that the charge of writers and artists is “CONQUERING FALSEHOOD”. This motive was central to his Nobel Prize Lecture in 1970: “no sooner will falsehood be dispersed than the nakedness of violence will be revealed in all its ugliness — and violence, decrepit, will fall.” His stark binaries of what was right and wrong stood in contrast with the murky morals in Soviet life. 

Martin’s book explores the concept of two truths found in Russian culture and how each respective author contended with that concept. Pravda is truth as justice, related to fairness and truth. However, a concrete, subjective truth — istina — stands objectively above the human realm. Pravda ruled above all in the Soviet Union, and Martin writes that “the Party’s monopoly on truth could only be achieved by silencing dissenting choices in the chorus.”

Medvedev’s critique

Medvedev’s capstone novel, a hefty two-hundred-page tome published in 1969, was titled Let History Judge. Let History Judge answered “the question of Stalin’s responsibility for the crimes committed under his leadership”, identifying “factors that had facilitated Stalin’s usurpation of power,” backed up by the “lack of unity within the party”. Originally published abroad, Let History Judge highlighted many of the mistakes Stalin made before and after the Revolution, from his struggles with the opposition and technical intelligentsia during collectivization and industrialization to his numerous diplomatic and military errors.

Both Medvedev and Solzhenitsyn based their writings on the moral value of collective memory as opposed to the regime’s logic of political “expediency”. They used interviews to shine a light on the words of regular people in their research. By doing so, their works remain the “collective monuments to the suffering millions.” However, Medvedev’s writing took a reformist communist approach, whereas Solzhenitsyn’s words were staunchly Orthodox and Russophile.

How should we remember Stalin?

Martin’s analysis proves that history does not move in a linear fashion, neither does the industry of manufacturing history. From 1965 to 1966, ten years after the death of Stalin, the party line found itself shifting. The Communist Party was divided into two groups: “The conservative majority within the Soviet leadership was generally hostile to de-Stalinization but equally averse to any radical ideological shift, the active pro-Stalinist minority lobbied intensively for Stalin’s rehabilitation.” 

During the Brezhnev era, the Party was divided between liberals and Russophiles. Later, during perestroika, the divide was between Memorial and Pamiat’. Memorial struggled to commemorate Stalin’s victims, symptomatic of a new desire to talk openly about the past. On the other hand, Pamiat’ was nationalistic, anti-Semitic, based on an ancient, mythicized Russian past negated by the Revolution. 

The search for truth goes on

Medvedev and Antonov-Ovseenko’s work helped pave the new Stalinist discourse during perestroika. Medvedev was able to convert his years of vocal dissent within the Party into a comfortable political career, as Gorbachev needed intellectuals to support and legitimize his reforms. 

Despite the newly rolled out carpet for many previously anguished dissidents, there was insufficient material for the public to draw on. Glasnost caught many professional historians unprepared. To the embarrassment of many Russian intellectuals, cites the historian William Husband, “historians possessed no significant reservoir of previously suppressed works comparable to those in literary and film circles.” They were also unable to satisfy the post-Soviet society’s thirst for historical truth. These waves of Stalinist rehabilitation and revelations had an overwhelmingly destabilizing effect on the public. 

An empathetic connection

I thoroughly enjoyed Dissident Histories in the Soviet Union and its attention to writers not typically studied in an undergraduate course. Martin’s textual and sociocultural analysis through the lens of moral authority was insightful. It gave texture to my understanding of how Stalin is memorialized in the modern Russian psyche. While living in Russia, I surely encountered the range of opinions of Stalin — from rage that Americans “focus” too much on Stalin to absolute remorse or disgust, and at times, confusion as to why he is considered an influential leader.

I learned a lot about Roy Medvedev while reading and feel sympathetic towards the barriers his family faced in the Soviet Union. After reading this book, I have also developed an affinity for the plight of Anton Antonov-Ovvseenko. Perhaps it is that I come from a family of twins (like Medvedev) or that the death of my father has left a lasting impact on me (like Antonov-Ovseenko). Family plays a clear role in the lives and work of these dissident writers. Thanks to Martin’s book, I have become empathetic to these writers after gaining insight into their upbringing.

Martin shines a light on four authors, but there were many more who contributed to their work, as well as countless voices left unheard. Where I gained the most knowledge was her well-researched chronology of the Party’s changing attitudes towards Stalin in the era of de-Stalinization. 

Book details: Martin, Barbara. Dissident Histories in the Soviet Union: From De-Stalinization to Perestroika, 2021. Bloomsbury Academic. It is available to buy here.  

Featured image: cover of Dissident Histories in the Soviet Union: From De-Stalinization to Perestroika 
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