During the Cold War, the secret that the Soviet Union sought to hide from the West was its fundamentally ideological character. Although the Soviet system was animated by the drive to change human nature and remake reality, the Soviet Union depicted itself as a democracy that differed from Western democracies only in the population’s extraordinary degree of unanimity.
The Soviet Union boasted an array of supposedly democratic institutions—trade unions, courts, a parliament, and a press. Faced with this democratic facade, it was often easiest for Western representatives to treat the Soviet Union, if not as a democracy, then at least as a country whose motives were those of any great power. The ideological underpinning of the Soviet state was frequently ignored.
In this context, Soviet dissidents were important because they spoiled the mirage of voluntary unanimity that the Soviet regime took pains to construct. Because of their dedication and bravery (and the repression that their courage inspired), the democratic facade of the Soviet Union was discredited and the ideological nature of the East-West confrontation became impossible to conceal.
The Soviet dissident movement during the Cold War had an important effect on both the Soviet Union and the West. In the case of the West, the dissident movement acted to push Western societies, sometimes unwillingly, toward attention to first principles. The dissident movement had a profound impact on Western public opinion. The emergence of protest within the Soviet Union demonstrated to many in the West that the surface calm of Soviet society was misleading. Soviet leaders continued to speak about the “total political and ideological unity of the Soviet people,” but thanks to the activities of the dissidents, this claim became increasingly hollow.
The dissidents revealed the mechanism of political repression in the Soviet Union by speaking openly, refusing to play the roles assigned to them as Soviet citizens in the nationwide political play. This defiance led to arrests that were publicized by other dissidents who in turn were arrested. As the number of arrests grew, more information became available, and other dissidents compiled and made public accounts of the system of labor camps and psychiatric hospitals that was used to enforce political conformity. It became undeniable that the element holding the system together was fear.
At the same time, the dissidents, by gathering and circulating information, identified the hidden fault lines in Soviet society, calling attention to the plight of persecuted groups—Jews and other religious minorities, non-Russians seeking to emigrate, and many others—whose situation had been little noticed or poorly understood. The dissidents also wrote and helped produce and circulate works of analysis and literature that, when they became available in the West, discredited the Soviet “experiment” in ways that works written by those outside the Soviet Union rarely could.
The effect of the dissidents’ activities was to establish a source of truthful information independent of, and in some cases competing for attention in the West with, the disinformation apparatus of the Soviet state. This proved highly important. The dissidents were not able to give the West a complete understanding of the character of the Soviet system, but they provided enough information to raise doubts about the regime’s intentions.
By affecting Western public opinion, the Soviet dissident movement, in turn, had an impact on the policies of Western governments. There were those in Western governments who would have preferred to deal with the Soviet Union “pragmatically,” concentrating on what they imagined to be “mutual interests.” But in many Western countries, the repression of the dissidents had aroused public opinion and made such policies politically impossible. The expansion of measures advantageous to the Soviet Union during the détente era (for example, trade, scientific exchanges, and arms control treaties) was accompanied by calls in the West for accompanying steps to make the Soviet Union more open and to protect human rights. This led to such measures as the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the U.S. Trade Act and the 1975 Helsinki agreements that, in exchange for Western acquiescence in the European territorial status quo, committed the Soviet Union to respect human rights and facilitate the free exchange of information. The emotions inspired by the struggle of the Soviet dissidents also helped motivate the human rights campaign, initiated under President Carter, that represented the first attempt at an ideological counteroffensive directed against the moral vulnerability of the Soviet Union.
Because of the dissidents’ effect on Western public opinion and the policies of Western governments, they also influenced the policies of the Soviet government. The Soviet authorities could have crushed the dissident movement overnight, but behind the dissidents stood the West, which gave the Soviet dissidents their strength.
One way in which the dissidents influenced the Soviet government was by forcing it to grant limited freedom of written expression. In 1965, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were sentenced to long labor camp sentences for publishing their works abroad. The international reaction to the case, however, seriously damaged the image of the Soviet Union. Sinyavsky and Daniel served out their labor camp terms, but the Soviet Union never again imprisoned a writer for his writing. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was forcibly exiled, and Vladimir Voinovich, Vasily Aksyonov, and Georgy Vladimov emigrated under pressure. But in the meantime they and other writers were able to create the noncommunist Russian literature that helped to sustain the cultural and moral values of more than one generation of Soviet citizens.
The activities of dissidents also compelled the Soviet authorities, for the first time, to allow mass emigration from the Soviet Union. Before the 1970s, it was virtually impossible to leave the Soviet Union legally. With the birth of the Jewish emigration movement, however, the Soviet authorities faced a choice between allowing Jews to emigrate or accepting the political cost of repression. The decision was made to allow Jews to emigrate under a formula—that they were returning to their “historic homeland”—that opened emigration for Soviet Germans as well.
Finally, the dissidents influenced the government’s treatment of dissenters themselves. Yuri Galanskov, one of the earliest dissidents, died in a Soviet labor camp, but for many years afterward, despite extremely harsh treatment, the Soviet authorities tried to keep well-known dissidents alive. They also spaced out the arrests of prominent dissidents, allowing many of them to continue their activities; declined to arrest Sakharov (although he was exiled); and allowed some dissidents to emigrate. As a result, dissent became a somewhat more viable option for Soviet citizens.
The concessions that the Soviet dissidents were able to force from the authorities wrought important changes in Soviet society. Moscow and, to a degree, Leningrad became centers of serious political discussion. The authorities, who did not want mass arrests in the capital that would, on the one hand, embarrass them internationally and, on the other, create new dissidents, tolerated expressions of opinion as long as they did not take public form. The result of these tolerated conversations was that, when perestroika began, alternatives to the communist system had already been considered.
At the same time, the stream of free information that the dissidents provided (much of it broadcast back to the Soviet Union by Western radio stations) helped give moral orientation to a large part of the Soviet intelligentsia. By their example, the dissidents also demonstrated that resistance was possible. As a result, when the controls were drastically loosened in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, millions of people were immediately ready to assume an active political role.
The story of the Soviet dissidents during the Cold War is the story of people whose power derived solely from the power of an idea. By refusing to participate in the obligatory ideological play in the Soviet Union, they became de facto the defenders of the values of civilization that the Soviet system was organized to destroy.
It was sometimes argued in the West that the dissidents did not deserve the attention that they received in the Western media, that they were few in number, and that they represented no one but themselves. This logic, which would have made sense in a democracy, was completely fallacious when applied to the Soviet Union, where political strength derived from ideological subservience and opposition was, inevitably, the opposition of an idea. The dissidents were powerful because that idea was powerful, and under totalitarian conditions, they found the strength to represent that idea.