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The Kompanii They Kept : THE THAW GENERATION Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era by Ludmilla Alexeyeva and Paul Goldberg (Little, Brown: $18.95; 344 pp., illustrated; 0-316-03146-1)

August 19, 1990|Jane A. Taubman | Taubman, professor of Russian at Amherst College, is the author of "A Life Through Poetry: Marina Tsvetaeva's Lyric Diary" (Slavica) and co-author of "Moscow Spring" (Summit).

By now, almost everything they fought for has been granted by the reformist hands of Gorbachev & Co. In their own country, their names and feats of self-sacrifice are nearly unknown to a whole new generation. Meanwhile, the Soviet dissidents whose story is told in this book have faded into oblivion in the West, where many now live in emigration. But Ludmilla Alexeyeva, one of the founders of the Soviet human-rights movement, is philosophical: "We take no offense at Gorbachev and his associates for not citing us as sources. We are happy that our ideas have acquired a new life."

Alexeyeva has previously written a detailed history of the Soviet dissident movement ("Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights," Wesleyan University Press, 1985), but in this engaging book, she has joined with journalist Paul Goldberg to produce a more personal account of her generation's political awakening and gradual move to dissidence.

Born in 1927, Alexeyeva was nearly 30, a graduate of Moscow University and the mother of two sons when Khrushchev made his secret speech unmasking Stalin in 1956. Like many others in what was to become the human-rights movement, she came from a relatively privileged Soviet background. Her father, a devoted Komsomol (Communist youth league) member, rose from poverty to become a bureaucrat, and in the peak purge year of 1937, the family moved into a comfortable apartment house that was rapidly being vacated by the purges. The father himself barely escaped arrest, only to be killed in World War II.

Still, Alexeyeva remembers her childhood as relatively happy, and, full of optimism, she entered the history department of Moscow University in its first postwar class. Initially, nearly all of her classmates were female, but they were soon joined by frontoviki , war veterans with little previous schooling but lots of patriotism, who were admitted outside the entrance competition. Unprepared for even the minimal intellectual demands of the purge-ridden university, they soon learned that a career could be built of loyalty and slogan-mongering. Alexeyeva and her friends faced two choices: opt out of political activity entirely, leaving the careerists in control, or join the party and try to reform it from within. At first, Alexeyeva chose the latter course.

Alexeyeva's crowd got their real education in kompanii , informal evening talk fests cum historical consciousness-raising sessions that suddenly emerged in the mid-'50s, when the fear of informers subsided. In the kompanii , "old politizeki (political prisoners) would be shouting something at young philologists, middle-aged physicists would be locked in hot debates with young poets, and some people I had never met would be doing unrecognizable dance steps to someone's scratched Glenn Miller record."

One of the more eccentric characters who frequented the kompanii was Aleksandr Esenin-Volpin, son of the poet, Sergei Esenin, who had a crazy idea: What would happen if Soviet citizens acted on the assumption that they had rights? And what if trials, in accordance with the Soviet constitution, were held openly, under conditions of glasnost --a word that had been around long before even Esenin-Volpin?

In 1965, Alexeyeva's friend, Yuli Daniel, and his friend, Andrei Sinyavsky, were arrested and charged with publishing stories abroad under pseudonyms. Their trial was the watershed event for the thaw generation. It was the signal from the new Brezhnev regime that the heady, if inconsistent, era of limited intellectual freedom under Khrushchev had come to an end, and it became the test case for Esenin-Volpin's theories.

By now established professionals in their 40s or older, the kompanii intellectuals supported Sinyavsky and Daniel by trying to gain access to the courtroom, or by signing letters of protest. The defendants themselves broke tradition by denying their guilt. And in the crowds outside the courtroom, the intellectuals began to forge their first contacts with Western journalists. With a smuggled tape recorder, they compiled a transcript of the Kafkaesque trial and published it abroad.

In the camps, Sinyavsky and Daniel met other "politicals," particularly from national minority movements, whose names and struggles had been unknown to the Muscovites. Political links grew out of a support network of prisoners' wives, and the samizdat Chronicle of Current Events began to appear, publicizing political repressions all across the Soviet Union.

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