Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Putin has it precisely wrong: the existence of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe, a tragedy, and one of the worst man-made disasters in all of history.
The state that emerged from the seizure of power by the tiny, radical Marxist Bolshevik Party in the capital of the war-ravaged Russian Empire in October 1917 was nothing so much as a vast prison. No one living there could leave, or work at a job he or she chose, or own property beyond personal effects. Nor was the denial of the basic liberties that citizens of democracies enjoy the worst feature of the rule of the Communist Party, as the Bolsheviks renamed themselves. Their regime murdered people on an enormous scale. From the “Red Terror” unleashed after the 1917 coup to the program of “collectivization” in which millions of peasants were driven from their lands and herded into collective farms—in effect an all-out war by the government against the countryside that caused a famine in which as many as five million people perished—to the Great Terror of the 1930s in which Communist Party members and others were slaughtered on suspicion of political disloyalty or for no reason at all, tens of millions of innocent people died. Millions more who escaped execution were dispatched to brutal labor camps, from which many never returned.
The worst repressions and murderous rampages of the Soviet era came during the one-man dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, from the mid-1920s to his death in 1953. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin, freed many political prisoners, and ruled in a less bloodthirsty fashion. Still, the post-Stalin Soviet Union remained a prison, albeit a less murderous one, where free speech, the free practice of religion, and free economic activity—not to mention free elections—were all strictly forbidden. Anyone who publicly advocated any of them suffered severe punishment.
The all-powerful Soviet apparatus of repression, led by the secret police, the KGB, made any successful resistance to the total control of the Communist Party all but impossible. Yet, remarkably, beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing into the 1970s, a few extraordinarily courageous individuals did resist, publicly expressing their opposition to many of the regime’s policies. Those who dissented from the strictly enforced Communist orthodoxy became known as dissidents. On the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the brutal political system against which they struggled, their moral and physical courage and their examples are worth remembering.
While dissidents all resisted the Soviet system and displayed consistent sympathy and frequent solidarity with one another, in their goals they divided into three groups. Non-Russians, particularly Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Ukrainians, sought the cultural autonomy that the Soviet state suppressed and ultimately the independence that the Bolsheviks had promised but never granted. A second group, Jews, sought to emigrate to Israel. They applied for exit visas, the government refused to issue them, and those denied the right to leave the Soviet Union in this way became known as refuseniks.
Non-Russians and refuseniks did not regard the Soviet Union as their country. A third group of dissidents consisted of people, largely ethnic Russians, who did but who sought to make it—against the smothering opposition of the government—a more tolerant, humane, democratic place. Within the dissident movement two individuals—one a refusenik and the other a Russian liberal—achieved worldwide renown for their principled bravery.
Anatoly Sharansky, born in 1948, was a computer specialist in Moscow who grew up in a secular Jewish household but who, in response to the pervasive antisemitism of the Soviet Union and inspired by Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, became a Zionist. He joined those seeking to emigrate to Israel and, because he had taught himself English, served as a liaison with Western reporters and Western visitors to Moscow.
In 1977 he was arrested on false charges of espionage and treason—crimes punishable by death—and held for sixteen months in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison before being tried and receiving a predetermined verdict of guilty. He was not executed, but spent the next eight years in various prisons and labor camps around the Soviet Union. The KGB subjected him to extraordinary pressure in an effort to extract a confession from him that it could then use for propaganda purposes.
Sharansky refused to confess, indeed refused to have anything to do with KGB officials. For this he suffered long months of solitary confinement in oppressive “punishment cells.” He went on several hunger strikes, at one point weighing less than eighty pounds. As brutally as the Soviet authorities treated him, they refrained from killing him because his name and his case had become well known beyond the Soviet borders and his death would have damaged Soviet relations with the West. He owed his notoriety to his contacts with Western journalists and political figures and especially to the tireless efforts of his wife, Avital, who had been allowed to go to Israel and who devoted herself thereafter to publicizing his case.
Finally, in 1986, Sharansky was freed in exchange for Soviet spies the West had uncovered and imprisoned. He changed his first name to the Hebrew “Natan” and in the ensuing years he became prominent in Israel’s public life. He has served as a member of the national Parliament, a cabinet minister, and the head of the Jewish Agency, Israel’s major institutional link to world Jewry.
In his powerful and affecting memoir, Fear No Evil (1988), Sharansky several times mentions the name of Andrei Sakharov. In his excellent biography of Sakharov (2002), Richard Lourie reports that Sharansky keeps a portrait of Sakharov in his office, to remind himself of his fellow dissident’s “straight, clear, pure moral thought.” Sakharov was a scientist of great accomplishment, credited with innovations crucial to the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. For this the regime rewarded him: he was an honored member of the Academy of Sciences and the director of a research institute with the use of both an apartment in Moscow that was comfortable by Soviet standards and a dacha in the countryside.
He was also, however, a free thinker, and the development of his ideas led him to express publicly his opposition to the regime’s oppressive practices and to support, again publicly, those similarly opposed. He joined public demonstrations in Moscow and other cities and lent his name to petitions on behalf of resisters of all kinds.
His activities made him the most prestigious dissident within the Soviet Union and the best-known one elsewhere. For his efforts he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. The fame and respect he earned throughout the world came at the cost of his privileged status and ultimately of his liberty in the Soviet Union. The government revoked some of his privileges and the KGB harassed him and his equally committed wife, Elena Bonner. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979 he protested this publicly, and as punishment was exiled to the Volga River city then known as Gorky but now restored to its pre-1917 name, Nizhny Novgorod. There he remained, in a bubble of social isolation punctuated by more KGB harassment, for seven years. As in Sharansky’s case, Sakharov’s wife, who had some limited freedom to travel, kept his name and his plight alive in the outside world, and that afforded him a measure of protection from even worse persecution.
In 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev, who had assumed the leadership of the Soviet Union the year before, ordered Sakharov released from exile, and he returned to Moscow. As Gorbachev’s reforms dramatically widened the scope for political activity, Sakharov became an influential participant in his country’s public life. At the height of his influence, however, in December 1989, he died of heart failure at the age of sixty-eight, depriving Russia of his moral and political leadership in the crucial years that followed.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the non-Russian nations gained their independence and Soviet Jews were granted the right to emigrate, which more than one million of them proceeded to do. Russia was less fortunate. Vladimir Putin became its supreme leader in 2000 and has held power ever since. His rule is hardly in a class with Stalin’s for bloodletting, but falls far short of the kind of government that Sakharov had wanted.
Sharansky, Sakharov, and their fellow dissidents stand as luminous examples of courage in the face of perilous circumstances. They illustrate the value of persistence in a righteous cause even when success seems distant, or even impossible. And they testify to the power of the political ideas that govern democracies. After his release, Sharansky said, “They tried their best to find a place where I was isolated. But all the resources of a superpower cannot isolate a man who hears the voice of freedom, a voice I heard from the very chamber of my soul.”
Nor are the qualities that Sharansky and Sakharov personified relevant only to the past. In the face of Putin’s dictatorship in Russia, the repressions of the Communist Party in China, the assault on freedom by the ruling mullahs in Iran, and threats to life and liberty elsewhere, courage, persistence, and a determined and often perilous commitment to the ideals of democracy remain, alas, both relatively rare and still greatly needed.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose. His new history of American foreign policy from 1765 to 2015, The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, will be published in June 2022.
Images: Sharansky, National Dutch Archives, https://www.nationaalarchief.nl/onderzoeken/fotocollectie/ad57e846-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84 and Sakharov, by RIA Novosti archive, image #25981 / Vladimir Fedorenko / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16787252
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe