In ‘The Autocracy is Wavering’, written in 1903, Lenin observed that ‘there is no more precarious moment for a government in a revolutionary period than the beginning of concessions, the beginning of vacillation.’footnote1 The Soviet hierarchy is, of course, perfectly well aware of the dangers of ‘vacillation’. Yet, since the death of Stalin, and especially since the 20th Congress—now two decades in the past—it has been granting innumerable concessions to its critics and opponents. Not that the concessions go far enough: on the contrary, they are disappointingly meagre, and the method of granting them has been desperately inconsistent and whimsical, testifying not to a coherent policy or well thought out programme of gradual change, but precisely to vacillation and uncertainty. This is not the place to survey at length the enormous transformation that the Soviet Union has undergone during the last two decades: the power of the political police has been broken, the univers concentrationnaire—the Gulag Archipelago—has been largely dismantled. The old days when any Soviet citizen, any member of the Politbureau or Central Committee (except Stalin), could be taken from his home and shot in the dead of night are over. True, there is a lack of freedom, there is persecution, there are psychiatric prisonhospitals and horrors of all kinds, perpetrated on a smaller scale than before, but not therefore any the less reprehensible. But half-hearted and miserable as the concessions have been, they have nevertheless created conditions in which the emergence of a vague, unformed and unorganized opposition has become possible. This opposition has found its voice in Samizdat, compilations of uncensored literature circulating in typescript, in innumerable copies.

Samizdat began to appear around 1964, and initially took the form of a protest against conformism in Soviet letters. After Krushchev’s dismissal, however, these underground writings acquired a more political tone. Half-hearted and halting though Krushchev’s de-Stalinization was, his fall provoked fears that the hard-liners, the Stalinists, would regain the upper hand. Samizdat’s writers attempted to analyse the course of events which led from the 20th Congress, with its denunciation of Stalin, to the efforts (sometimes quite successful) to rehabilitate the dead dictator. This led them further back into history to an analysis of the years of Stalin’s ascendancy, of his victory over all oppositions and the establishment of his undisputed autocracy. In the course of this exploration, many facts of history were revealed, either in the writings of historians who in one way or another gained access to historical documentation or, quite often, in the reminiscences of the few witnesses of 1917 and the early post-revolutionary years, who had survived, as if by a miracle, all the horrors of concentration camps. The politicization of Samizdat was further stimulated in 1968 by the invasion of Czechoslovakia. This does not mean that literary topics have been abandoned. These still take up a considerable amount of space in underground publications, because no novel or poem betraying any sign of originality or ‘modernism’ can find its way to approved journals, and also because, as has always been the case in Russia, literary writings are more often than not marked by political undertones.

The scale of Samizdat is truly staggering. Heavy volumes like The Gulag Archipelago or Medvedev’s Let History Judge are not alone in having large ‘editions’ and circulating in thousands of copies; the regular bulletins are also quite impressive in size. Two volumes of Roy Medvedev’s Political Diary have now appeared in the West. Excerpts from only nineteen of the bulletins which he issued monthly during the years 1964–71 fill nearly 2,000 printed pages.footnote2

The Diary contains comment on current affairs, scathing denunciation of the lies and falsifications of the official press, verbatim reports from conferences at which journalists and writers are briefed by their official ideological tutor Demichev, reports of sessions at which oppositionists are judged by their colleagues at work for their ‘subversive’ views, reminiscences from camps, excerpts from works of authors long banned, long suppressed documents (for example, Bulgakov’s letter to the Soviet Government)footnote3, and so on. It was from the Diary that I first learned about the strange and tragic fate of the Sverdlov family, the story of Myasnikov’s death, the details of the mysterious death of Ordjonikidze.

For the Soviet reader the most revealing writings must be those of eye-witnesses of the revolution who after twenty or twenty-five years in camps have still preserved the memory of the past. Old Menshevik M. P. Yakubovich was a Soldier Deputy in 1917. Later he left the Mensheviks and worked in a Soviet trade agency. Arrested as a ‘wrecker’, he spent twenty-five years in camps. At the age of seventy-five he wrote admiringly about Zinoviev, Kamenev, and other ‘unpersons’. In 1967 he engaged in an acrimonious exchange of letters with Solzhenitsyn. No less curious is the exchange of letters between an old revolutionary, Professor Dashkovsky, and a radio commentator, Stepanov. Dashkovsky just ‘could not believe his ears’ when he heard on the radio remarks about Trotskyism as an ‘anti-Leninist tendency’ and about Trotsky himself as an opponent of Lenin during the July Days. Dashkovsky’s protest against this distortion of truth was made directly to the appropriate governmental authority. Stepanov answered and tried to prove his point. But Dashkovsky replied bluntly: you have not done your homework. You have not even read Lenin. And all your adjectives and epithets about Trotskyism ‘are taken from the arsenal of the era of the personality cult’. No wonder that your mind is such a hotchpotch of erroneous ideas. Another old Bolshevik, V. Gromov, also writes about Trotsky and presents him as a complicated character, full of contradictions, but a great revolutionary. ‘Do not believe what Stalin wrote about Trotsky’, who was ‘perhaps the only opponent who did not try to evade the struggle which Stalin imposed on him . . . ’.footnote4

It is true, as one old Bolshevik remarks in the Diary, that there is a difference between the young who learned history from ‘literature’ and the old who witnessed it in the making. Medvedev, who belongs to the post-revolutionary generation, is undoubtedly a very honest historian; and yet his attitude to Trotsky and the other members of the Old Guard betrays a curious lack of understanding and of psychological insight. For him they remain cardboard figures. He is often unjust to them, perhaps because their revolutionary temperament is so alien to his own evolutionist character. Disliking Solzhenitsyn as man and thinker, Medvedev nevertheless admires his temperament, ‘the dynamic quality of his protest, his tenacity, and his inflexibility’ which remind him of the ‘greatest revolutionaries of the past’. ‘Compared with him, he remarks wistfully, ‘we are all modest reformers.’footnote5

When uncensored activity began there seemed to be near-unanimity among the writers: they all denounced Stalin with equal vehemence, all protested against persecution and fought to get out of the straitjacket of conformity, attacking officialdom with its uncomprehending ossified ‘line’ on how literature should be written and history interpreted. They all demanded more freedom and greater opportunity to influence domestic and foreign policy. More freedom—but for what? To influence their government—but in what direction, towards what goal? Inevitably, quite considerable differences of opinion emerged very soon, and were reflected not only in divergent views of the future of the Soviet Union—which features of the régime should be preserved and which discarded, in what form should the Soviet Union survive and should it survive at all, what tactics should be adopted to introduce the necessary changes—but also in contrasting appraisals of the past. Was Stalin a new, cruel and wilful Tsar who destroyed Russia, or does he deserve some credit for modernizing it? Was Lenin responsible for Stalinism? What was the role of Trotsky and the Opposition in the crucial years before the war? And last but not least: was the revolution an unmitigated disaster, or has it brought some benefits which should still be salvaged?