Brave Dissenters and the Silent Majority: Lankov, Yurchak, and the Fading USSR

By | September 20, 2013 | No Comments

In the 1960s and 70s, Soviet citizens could criticize most things with relative impunity, but not the "Lenin Myth." | Image: Wikipedia

In the 1960s and 70s, Soviet citizens could criticize most things with relative impunity, but not the “Lenin Myth.” | Image: Wikipedia

Chose any state, and the media both within and without it acts as a concentrator of stories, and (mostly inadvertent) creator of simplified myths. The truth on the ground is often very different to these media-created metanarratives, not least since those narratives tend not to account for the actions of the “silent majority.”

Thus, when Solzhenitsyn described lies as “not merely a moral category but a pillar of the [Soviet] state,” he was describing a disappointing set of circumstances, most certainly, but not a situation ripe for public disorder. Rather, as Professor Andrei Lankov explains in his new essay for Sino-NK, the “silent majority” in the fading Soviet system took it as their task to employ the “authoritative discourse” when demanded by a given party meeting or official gathering, but to ignore it where it was not warranted. They didn’t believe it, indeed they joked about it where it was appropriate to do so, but they didn’t disbelieve it, either. Moreover, they generally believed that that future lay in amending the existing system, not overthrowing it. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

Brave Dissenters and the Silent Majority: Lankov, Yurchak, and the Fading USSR

by Andrei Lankov

Western Vision in a Time of Decline: Three Typologies | I grew up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 1980s, a time when the Soviet regime was steadily (albeit slowly) declining. Economic growth had all but stopped, and knowledge of the economic affluence and political freedoms of nearby Western Europe and America was spreading inside the less-than-well-sealed borders. By the 1970s, the ideological zeal of earlier times had all but died out, and few if any believed the slogans and ideology of the regime.

The Soviet press described the country as a commonwealth of peoples who felt great outbursts of enthusiasm for every new decision of the Communist Party, including those that dealt with “increased nitrogen phosphate production” or “building a new steel mill.” This official picture was clearly quite remote from the actual reality. However, when I began to read what was written in the West about the society I had inhabited, I could not help but think that the image of the Soviet Union in the West was highly misleading – albeit less so than the image promoted by the Soviet official propaganda.

According to this “Western vision” shared by both left and right (with some differences of emphasis, of course), Soviet society, at first approximation, consisted of three groups of people.

First, there were the “brave dissenters,” always willing to challenge official lies and distortions, ready to risk their freedoms and perhaps their lives. Second were the “silent majority” who surely despised the system in their heart – or, alternatively, would have despised it had they not been brainwashed and terrified. In other words, they would have been dissenters had they had more courage, or at least known better. Third, there were the “cunning and ruthless government agents,” people who were bent upon making a career at any cost. They understood the falsity of their own propaganda, but their own cynicism and greed ensured that this realization had little impact on their actions.

"Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More," by Alexei Yurchak (Princeton, 2013)

“Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More,” by Alexei Yurchak (Princeton, 2005)

Seriously at Odds with Reality: Truth on the Ground | By no means all in the West shared this picture, but it was clearly dominant – and to me, it was seriously at odds with reality. I grew up in a working-class family in the second largest Soviet city, and I saw very few of the prescribed types.

No doubt dissenters existed somewhere, but they constituted a tiny group of about a few ten thousand (at most), surrounded by a few hundred thousand passive sympathizers – a tiny fraction of the then-Soviet population of some 250 million. They were not necessarily popular with the common folks, and not merely because interacting with them carried some risks, but also because many saw dissenters’ views as politically extreme and unhelpful.

There was, to be sure, not a short supply of cynical and manipulative officials. Nonetheless, at least at the lower levels, many officials clearly combined cynicism with some belief in the official ideology, and often felt a duty to make their country a better place.

However, the silent majority is the most problematic element in this stylized Western view. It is true that almost no one took the official line at face value. Telling jokes about official propaganda and the almost incomprehensible speeches of former General-Secretary Comrade Brezhnev was very normal (and not dangerous either by the late 1960s). However, jokes about the official ideology (i.e. about communism) were rarely told, and frowned upon when they were. It might be alright to joke about the current leader, the lack of good food in the shops and the like, but joking about Lenin or the fundamentals of Leninist socialism was a taboo, of a sort.

In recent years, one scholar has described this late Soviet society and its peculiar state of mind with particular insight and erudition. I am referring to Alexei Yurchak, whose book “Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More” struck me as a remarkably fair and even-handed description of the Soviet society I grew up and came-of-age in – a highly recommended read for anyone who wants to understand what a Leninist dictatorship looks like in its twilight years.

A Komsomol meeting from 1932. | Image: Wikipedia

A Komsomol meeting from 1932. Such meetings offered an over-abundance of “boring and seriously dishonest” speeches. | Image: Wikipedia

Neither One Thing nor the Other: Drawing the Line | Yurchak stresses the fact that most Soviet citizens of the 1970s and 1980s were not zealous supporters of the government, but neither were they staunch opponents of the government. Mentally they drew a clear line between reality and official discourse. They learnt how to speak the language of officialdom, how to deliver normative messages in what Yurchak describes as “authoritative discourse.” They also understood that such messages and associated language are appropriate only under certain conditions – official media, party meetings and the like. While people did not completely believe what they were required to say, they also did not necessarily strictly disbelieve it either. It was a performance, seen as socially useful but also completely formal.

A local Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) secretary was expected to write and deliver extremely boring (and, at first glance, seriously dishonest) speeches in the official mold – and he would do this, fully understanding that his colleagues and bosses would see the delivery of such a speech as a necessary, perhaps useful, but essentially empty ritual. The same person could be very enthusiastic, hardworking and altruistic, however, when he undertook other responsibilities like organizing concerts, helping the sick and needy, or just arranging maintenance work for offices and classrooms.

What Yurchak demonstrates is that many saw participation in such rituals as a sign of their membership of a broader society, whose principles they shared to a meaningful extent (even while recognizing the large differences between principle and practice). The extent of popular belief in the official ideology was of course in decline, but there was not a sudden collapse in popular belief after the death of Stalin, or as the economy began to run into difficulties from the late 1960s onward. Rather, Soviet people gradually became more cynical about official rituals, but nonetheless continued to uphold them.

Many also did not want to challenge what they perceived as a majority opinion – or, to put another way, the “opinion of all normal people.” These “normal people” were supposed to perform rituals and speak the authoritative discourse when appropriate – and avoid it at other times. As many case studies compiled by Alexei Yurchak (and many more from my own experience) show, dissenters and communist zealots were seen as abnormal or extremist by the “normal” majority.

Some of the educated mainstream went further than this by attempting to limit their interactions with the official system to a bare minimum. They usually avoided participation in all kinds of official functions and, generally speaking, stayed aloof from the government ideological/indoctrination system. Most of the young intellectuals of this kind were interested in such esoteric subjects as classical philosophy, impressionist painting or art-house films. They pursued their hobbies with great zeal, but seldom were willing to challenge the government – and sometimes wanted to keep their distance not only from the activists, but also from the dissenters. For them, the government and its ideological regime was somewhat akin to bad weather: it would be foolish to complain about it too much.

This slow transformation of late Soviet society laid the foundations for its sudden disintegration in the late 1980s, when many switched from passive acceptance of the system to active opposition to it. This switch was surprisingly fast, and took just a few years (1985-1993).

It only took six short years for people to abandon all they knew, liked, and had pretended to believe. | Image: Eastern European Forum

It only took six short years for people to abandon all they knew, some they liked, and much they had pretended to believe. | Image: Eastern European Forum

Laying the Foundations: Conclusion | Yurchak’s description of the Soviet system is very useful for anyone who wants to understand today’s North Korea. My interactions with North Koreans (largely but not exclusively refugees) conveys a picture of a place very similar to the Soviet Union of my youth. It is clear that over the last 10 or 15 years North Koreans, including the current member of the relatively privileged minority, have become remarkably alienated from and resentful about the government. However, this increasingly palpable alienation and resentment does not immediately translate into open dissent.

The average North Korean seems to remain committed to much of the official ideology, or rather, some of its elements.

Many North Koreans still seem to believe in the alleged greatness and superhuman wisdom of Great Leader Kim Il-sung (pretty much like the majority of the Soviet people upheld “Lenin’s myth” until the ideological floodgates opened in the late 1980s). When talking to North Koreans, one still encounters frequent reference to the alleged fact that “had only the Great Leader not left us, life would have been so much better.” The average North Korean also tends to believe hate-mongering propaganda about Japan, and to a lesser extent about America, too. Many (though not all) believe that their ongoing “economic difficulties” are largely the result of America’s “economic blockade” of the country. Last, but not least, it appears that many North Koreans feel a great sense of pride at their country’s nuclear weapons program, and see the development of such weapons as crucial to the country’s survival and protecting its sovereignty.

Such ideas easily combine with a critical approach to their government. For instance, the ubiquity of official corruption is widely understood, and some of the blame for economic and political problems is put upon the shoulders of deceased Marshal Kim Jong-il. Knowledge about the gap between North Korean and its neighbors is also spreading, and the need for some radical change is also widely, if quietly, discussed.

However, it appears that many in the North today are approximately where the average Soviet citizen was in the 1970s. They understand the imperfections of the system, but they still tend to think that such issues can be dealt with more or less within the existing framework. As the Soviet experience has demonstrated, such a state of mind is prone to sudden and dramatic changes, but it seems to remain dominant in the North.

At the same time though, we should not forget that it took just six short years for the Soviet Union’s silent majority to jettison their conditional and equivocal support for Leninist socialism and become (for a brief while, at least) zealous enthusiasts for market capitalism and liberal democracy.

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  1. During the Cold War, I had always believed that the most subversive thing the West could have done would have been to open and fully stock a Safeway supermarket 24 hours a day in Moscow. Spam, 5 kinds of baked beans, fifteen brands of toilet paper demonstrate the differences between public speech and reality to ordinary folk. I would also have streamed The Mary Tyler Moore Show because silly TV sitcoms are based in middle class reality, far beyond the control of propaganda on either side. These two mechanisms would have allowed ordinary folk to reconsider their basic beliefs. And the basic beliefs of ordinary folk matter.

    Three indicators suggest change is likely in North Korea. First, chocopies and CDs of South Korean soap operas and cheap but reliable Chinese clothing are allowing direct comparisons. The markets are important, just as dollar bills are. Second, the Great Currency Confiscation destroyed confidence in stability and the official word of the government: now people appear to be relying on outside money. That is a sign of deep social insecurity. Third, the meth epidemic is demoralizing. Consider our own feelings about drug addiction, where such drugs are recreational options, choices … and now consider the feelings of people whose system is so deficient that, for pain relief, their only choice is to choose between nothing and disaster. They know their options, and resent them.

    The ancient Greeks operated on a rule of thumb that hereditary dictatorships lasted for two generations, and failed in the third. The social disbelief that the article describes for the Soviet Union and which allowed a change from accepted doctrine is already more advanced in North Korea than it was in the 70s there. I don’t think the problem is “when” but “how soon?” Within the next five years.

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