A Talk by Barbara Walker: Soviet Dissent in the Cold War: The Power of Self-Sacrifice
On November 15, 2005, Professor Barbara Walker of the UNR Department of History gave a lecture on “Soviet Dissent in the Cold War: The Power of Self-Sacrifice,” under the auspices of the Grant Sawyer Center. Other university sponsors included the Departments of History, Political Science, and Sociology, as well as the Core Humanities Program. In her talk Barbara Walker discussed her research on human rights workers in the Soviet city of Moscow from the 1960’s through 1980s, especially about her recent interviews with many former Soviet dissidents in Moscow, the United States, and France. The central theme of her talk was the enormous courage that it took for Soviet dissidents to challenge a hostile Soviet state, thereby placing themselves in danger of arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment in jails, labor camps, or mental hospitals. Such experiences, deeply debilitating, could sometimes lead to death.
Her conclusions offer new insights into the historical meaning of the Soviet dissent movement. She argued that they found their courage through self-giving, or caritas, in the context of a network community of close personal ties, and that this spirit first coalesced around the impulse to aid political prisoners. Beginning around 1966, a series of informal charitable organizations for that purpose began to form among Moscow intellectuals who were questioning the power and the policies of the Soviet state, culminating in the establishment by Alexander Solzhenitsyn of the Fund for the Aid of Political Prisoners in 1974. The participation of many supporters in these charitable efforts created an atmosphere of self-giving and support that encouraged some of the bolder members of the community to sacrifice themselves more dramatically by taking the kind of public stances against the state that led to arrest and punishment. They were also aware that they and their families would be aided by a charitable network if they were arrested and imprisoned. Their willingness for self-sacrifice in turn helped to inspire the significant support of members of the foreign community in Moscow such as diplomats and journalists.
Walker’s multimedia talk was given against the background of a series of dramatic images from the era of Soviet dissent created by Ashley Dolezilek of the Grant Sawyer Center. It is hoped that this is the first of a series of presentations dealing with the former Soviet Union and the new nations now developing in that part of the world.