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Soviet Dissent : CONTEMPORARY MOVEMENTS FOR NATIONAL, RELIGIOUS AND HUMAN RIGHTS by Ludmilla Alexeyeva; translated by Carol Pearce and John Glad (Wesleyan University: $35; 521 pp.)

September 29, 1985|James E. Mace | Mace is author of "Communism and the Dilemmas of National Liberation: National Communism in Soviet Ukraine, 1918-1933" (Harvard, 1983). and

Ludmilla Alexeyeva, herself a former Moscow dissident and now Western representative for the Moscow Helsinki Group, has given us the best treatment of Soviet dissent yet available in any language. While most treatments of the subject--indeed, of anything having to do with the Soviet Union--tend to concentrate almost exclusively on Moscow and Leningrad, she is able to give us a panoramic view of challenges to the Soviet system posed by nations other than the Russian, churches other than those officially sanctioned, and movements to defend rights that the state refuses to recognize.

As is to be expected in any effort undertaken on so massive a scope, there are the occasional errors (almost invariably on the background of a given topic, not on the substance of her major topics), but these are few and relatively minor. Alexeyeva's book is one of the most important works on the Soviet Union to have appeared in years.

Because the foreign press and diplomatic corps are concentrated in Moscow, we hear very little about opposition to the Soviet system in places like Ukraine and the Baltic republics. Yet, among political prisoners in the Soviet Gulag, Ukrainians and Balts together outnumber the Russians and all other non-Russian Soviet nationalities combined. Indeed, in the not far distant past, Ukrainians alone accounted for an absolute majority of Soviet political prisoners.

The western regions of Ukraine and the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) were annexed by Stalin only in the early stages of World War II as part of his reward for the pact he made with Hitler. When the latter reneged on the agreement and invaded, these territories were among the first occupied by the Germans. Those who sought national independence, which the Balts had only just lost, often took up arms against the foreigners, and when the Soviets returned, they did not lay down their weapons. The immediate postwar period witnessed protracted guerrilla warfare: The last Lithuanian insurgent was captured in 1956, the last Ukrainian in 1960.

Ukrainian dissent predates its Moscow counterpart by over half a decade, boasting a relatively unbroken record going back to the late '50s, while the dissident movement in Moscow began in 1965. Of 17 dissident groups arrested from 1958 through 1973 in Ukraine, 10 were in Western Ukraine (an area containing only 16% of Ukraine's population). Except for the traditional capital of Kiev, Ukrainian dissent seems to be concentrated in the western region, which escaped the worst blows of Stalin's day; namely, the man-made famine of 1933 which claimed 7 million lives and the massive purges that utterly destroyed the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, eliminated 80% of Ukraine's writers, and crushed even the nationalist wing of its Communist Party.

In the traditionally Catholic West, by contrast, the Ukrainian Catholic Church survives with an underground hierarchy and priesthood, despite the fact that it has been illegal since 1946. One of the more recent developments in Ukrainian dissent was the arrest earlier this year of Yosyf Terelya, leader of the Initiative Group to Defend the Rights of Believers and the Church, which demands the legalization of the two national churches and whose work points toward a marriage of national and religious aspiration.

The potent mixture of religion and nationalism in Lithuania is an acknowledged fact. In 1980 one petition demanding the return of the Klaipeda Cathedral to the faithful was signed by nearly 150,000, a number all the more impressive when we realize that there are only 2.75 million Lithuanians in all.

Alexeyeva deserves special praise for her chapters on the attempts of the Crimean Tartars and Meskhi, groups exiled en masse by Stalin, to return to their homeland, as well as on the efforts of Soviet Germans and Jews to emigrate. Thanks to the efforts of the Jewish Diaspora, we have heard much about the refusniks' plight, but those who lack such diasporas also deserve our attention. So too do the Baptists, Pentecostals and Adventists, as well as the brave men who have tried to establish free trade unions for the most exploited working class of any industrialized country.

By placing the development of Russian dissent in the context of the often more numerous movements around it, Alexeyeva does not diminish the movement in which she was for many years a leading participant; rather, she enables us to gain a fuller appreciation of its role in cooperating with a panoply of forces much different from itself, in acting as a conduit for information among them and to the West, and in defending the rights of these forces to exist and express themselves.

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