Soviet Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against Party Policy

To achieve creative freedom, Soviet intellectuals expressed disagreement with Communist Party policy, but they faced powerful government pressures to make them conform to communist expectations.

Summary of Event

Seven decades of communist rule in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1991 attempted to modernize Modernization a traditional and largely illiterate society. The new government assigned specific tasks to each social class in the creation of a communist society. Intellectuals, especially writers, were expected to explain and promote the promised utopia, yet the communist dictatorship imposed numerous controls and limitations on its population, and intellectuals suffered under Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and their successors. Communist Party, Soviet;and political dissent[political dissent]
Dissent;Soviet Union
Soviet Union;political dissent
Censorship;Soviet Union
[kw]Soviet Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against Party Policy (1967)
[kw]Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against Party Policy, Soviet (1967)
[kw]Party Policy, Soviet Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against (1967)
Communist Party, Soviet;and political dissent[political dissent]
Dissent;Soviet Union
Soviet Union;political dissent
Censorship;Soviet Union
[g]Europe;1967: Soviet Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against Party Policy[09110]
[g]Soviet Union;1967: Soviet Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against Party Policy[09110]
[c]Social issues and reform;1967: Soviet Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against Party Policy[09110]
[c]Government and politics;1967: Soviet Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against Party Policy[09110]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1967: Soviet Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against Party Policy[09110]
Brezhnev, Leonid
Gorbachev, Mikhail
Sakharov, Andrei
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr
Yevtushenko, Yevgeny

The authorities developed the theory of Socialist Realism Socialist Realism in the 1930’s to direct the intellectuals’ creative efforts. Many Soviet writers worked within these limitations, including several (as Mikhail Sholokhov) who received international acclaim. Other intellectuals, however, chafed under the excessive ideological rigidity that interfered with their creative talents. An undercurrent of unrest and frustration existed among these individuals, bringing them periodically into confrontation with the authorities who responded with various measures to punish these “free-thinkers.”

A famous example of the regime’s control over intellectuals can be seen in the Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S.
[p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;censorship period (1953-1964) when Boris Pasternak Pasternak, Boris was selected to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958 for his novel Doktor Zhivago
Doctor Zhivago (Pasternak) (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958). Widespread and scathing official criticism of his work caused Pasternak to renounce this internationally prestigious award. Such a practice of permitting only limited intellectual independence continued under Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded Khrushchev in 1964 as Communist Party head.

The Brezhnev era quickly developed a reputation among intellectuals for toughness. Arrests of several writers by the mid-1960’s, followed by public trials and lengthy sentences in forced-labor camps, clearly revealed the new regime’s determination to suppress intellectual independence that might stray too far from Socialist Realism or other approved behavior. Another indication of placing intellectual life under state control was the appointment of a member of the party’s powerful Politburo to be the nation’s minister of culture.

The Union of Soviet Writers Union of Soviet Writers served as the primary official professional association that authors were expected to join. They were also expected to follow its designated guidance. (Similar organizations monitored other cultural fields such as theater, film, media, and so forth.) As pressure and harassment of intellectuals grew by the mid-1960’s, however, several brave individuals protested these destructive limitations on intellectual freedom.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn became the most famous example, as seen in his 1967 “manifesto” sent to the Union of Soviet Writers protesting its ideological criticism of his novels that could not be published in the Soviet Union. Several, such as Rakovy korpus (1968; Cancer Ward, 1968) and V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968), were smuggled to the West and published there, which made Soviet authorities even more outraged at his independent behavior. He was ousted from the writers’ group in 1969 and prohibited from any further literary activity in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature Nobel Prize in Literature;Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn[Solzhenitsyn] in 1970. After confiscating a manuscript copy of his exposé of communist dictatorship, Arkhipelag GULag, 1918-1956: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniya
Gulag Archipelago, The (Solzhenitsyn) (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974-1978), the government arrested Solzhenitsyn in 1974 and forcibly deported him from the country. His citizenship also was revoked.


Punishments of the sort meted out to Solzhenitsyn illustrate the various methods the government used against its opponents: lack of publication opportunities; withdrawal of subsidies or other government support; arrest and imprisonment; or deportation and loss of citizenship, to name a few. Nonetheless, all these techniques had the similar objective of controlling intellectuals who sought the right to freely develop their own work in such subjects as science and technology, politics and economics, philosophy and religion, ethnic issues, literature, and numerous other fields. Many noted figures, including the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974 and the poet Joseph Brodsky in 1972, abandoned the Soviet Union for the West in their search for a more hospitable artistic environment.

To surreptitiously circumvent official restrictions and harassment, many intellectuals utilized samizdat
Samizdat to share their views: That is, they prepared “underground” manuscripts, usually in typed carbon copies, to be passed only among the most trustworthy. The state energetically opposed this illegal technique. Those preparing or even possessing samizdat materials, if caught, usually faced a minimum three-year prison term.

Others, like Solzhenitsyn, confronted the authorities directly by written and verbal criticisms. Andrei Sakharov, a noted physicist who began his human rights activity by the later 1960’s, also became famous for this approach. He wrote a significant assessment of the Soviet Union, published in the West in 1968 under the title Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom. Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom (Sakharov) This important statement made him a prominent leader of the intellectual community. His dedicated public support for human rights reform in his country drew world attention to the former physicist, now stripped of his numerous honors and former reputation.

Following Solzhenitsyn’s deportation, and with the Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Andrei Sakharov[Sakharov] being conferred on Sakharov in 1975, the physicist’s reputation grew. The authorities intensified efforts to stem Sakharov’s controversial writing and speaking, and vilified him in the Soviet press and public opinion as a virtual traitor to his country. Finally, in early 1980, Soviet authorities banned Sakharov to internal exile in the city of Gorky. Located many miles east of Moscow, Gorky was a “closed city” forbidden to foreigners, and this substantially reduced his influence.

New leadership finally emerged in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980’s, as Mikhail Gorbachev became the Communist Party head in 1985. His policies included limited changes in economic, political, social, and intellectual life. Identified by terms as perestroika Perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost Glasnost (openness), the Gorbachev period permitted more freedom of expression on diverse and controversial subjects. Especially noteworthy was Gorbachev’s personal decision to permit Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner to return to Moscow in December, 1986, to resume their human-rights efforts in the capital.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a leading poet of this era, described the potential dangers of change in a 1989 poem. Titled “Half Measures,” “Half Measures” (Yevtushenko)[Half Measures (Yevtushenko)] it noted that moving halfway toward reform was not a satisfactory answer any more than trying to keep half of the old system. Gorbachev’s reform commitment and achievements were partial and inconclusive, and they failed. Yevtushenko over many years has consistently called on his fellow citizens, both intellectuals and others, to work for the renewal of Russia, free of government oppression and also avoiding the historical tendency of the population to adopt a subordinate and passive position in the face of authority. Communist Party, Soviet;and political dissent[political dissent]
Dissent;Soviet Union
Soviet Union;political dissent
Censorship;Soviet Union

Further Reading

  • Berlin, Isaiah. The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture Under Communism. Edited by Henry Hardy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004. An intellectual and cultural history, by a respected historian, on the suppression of Soviet artists and the intelligentsia by the Communist Party. Highly recommended.
  • Bonner, Elena. Alone Together. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. Memoirs of Sakharov’s wife, a leading opponent of the communist regime and a human rights activist in her own right.
  • Cerf, Christopher, and Marina Albee, eds. Small Fires: Letters from the Soviet People to Ogonyok Magazine, 1987-1990. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Selection of commentary and letters, including material by Andrei Sakharov, submitted to a reformist publication.
  • Sakharov, Andrei. Memoirs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Memoirs by the noted Russian human rights activist show the state’s attempts to thwart his efforts.
  • _______. Moscow and Beyond: 1986-1989. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Sequel to his memoirs, covering the period of liberalization during the Gorbachev era.
  • Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1984. Lengthy biography of the famous Russian author and dissident.
  • Shlapentokh, Vladimir. “Policy Toward Key Social Groups: Workers and Creative Intelligentsia.” In A Normal Totalitarian Society: How the Soviet Union Functioned and How it Collapsed. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001. Discusses Soviet Communist policies with regard to intellectuals as well as workers. Exposes the underlying elements leading to the collapse of the Soviet political and social system.
  • Tolkes, Rudolf L., ed. Dissent in the USSR: Politics, Ideology, and People. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975. Essays describe the views, concerns, and problems of Soviet intellectuals.
  • Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. Fatal Half Measures: The Culture of Democracy in the Soviet Union. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. Collected writings of a prominent poet who interpreted political and social issues facing his nation.

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