SOVIET DISSENT: Contemporary Movements For National, Religious, And Human Rights. By Ludmilla Alexeyeva. Wesleyan University Press. 522 pp. $35.

SOMETIME in 1957 or 1958 a badly- translated typewritten copy of George Orwell's 1984 circulated in Moscow. This early example of what later became known as samizdat had a stunning impact on Soviet readers lucky enough to get hold of the text. Orwell's mirror of a society based on lies and double-think, appearing just after Khrushchev's revelations about the crimes of Stalin, shook the monolithic faith of many intellectuals and created an environment of doubt and questioning. The Moscow intellectuals who first engaged in discussion of the Soviet past and its potential futures had no political program. They had to relearn how to think differently; indeed, they had to restart the history of the Russian intelligentsia which had been so brutally broken during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. At the beginning, the dominant political expression of the dissenters was a democratic socialist reformism. Party "liberals" like Roy and Zhores Medvedev brought like-minded people together in salons, published political and historic treatises against Stalinism, and nurtured an enthusiasm for a return to Leninism. An eclectic collection of personalities, including the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov and the then-unknown writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, came together under the influence of the socialists. But the Soviet smashing of the Czechoslovak experiment in "socialism with a human face" shocked the Soviet reformers and fragmented an already diverse movement into a divided but durable opposition.

The despair that many intellectuals felt about the possibility of a decent life witn the Soviet Union led both to more fundamental critiques of the system -- Solzhenitsyn's peculiar brand of non-Marxist authoritarianism, revolutionary nationalism, religious rejection of communist materialism -- as well as efforts by some to emigrate to the West. To Medvedev's socialist ideas were added Sakharov's liberal humanism, out of which grew a broad movement for human rights and observation of the provisions of the Helsinki Accord of 1975. A few brave men and women demonstrated against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, held vigils outside of trials of dissidents, and organized an underground network of publication and distribution of unorthodox, illegal writings. For nearly 30 years the small opposition to the official ideology managed to survive police repression and forced emigration in a desperate attempt to provide alternative understandings to the Soviet people and open a dialogue with the ruling party.

Soviet dissent has reached a moment of crisis after three decades, and a summation of its activities is here provided by Ludmilla Alexeyeva. Herself once a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Alexeyeva participated in the samizdat movement and helped found the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. Threatened with imprisonment, she left her homeland with her husband and two sons in 1977. In her systematic review of the variety of dissident movements she includes not only the well-known human rights activists and the Jewish emigration movement, but the national rights efforts of Armenians, Crimean Tartars, Estonians, Georgians, Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Meskhians (Muslim Georgians), and Ukranians. The trials, even martyrdom, of Protestant sects -- Evangelicals, Pentecostalists, Seventh-Day Adventists -- and the Russian Orthodox clergy are related, as well as the movements of trade unionists, neo-Marxists, and Russian nationalists. Basing her work almost entirely on the samizdat publications which have appeared in the Soviet Union since the late 1950s, Alexeyeva has produced an English version of the indispensable Chronicle of Current Events, the underground journal which collected and published the data on the oppostion within the Soviet Union. Her recording of the heroic, often futile, sacrifices made by her compatriots is an inspiring example to the timid in countries with more tolerant governments. She makes clear the extraordinary breadth of the political dialogue within the Soviet opposition, ranging as it does from anti-Semitic, proto- fascists on the right to reformist Marxists on the left. The story of how these movements arose out of the dark night of Stalinism is also the tale of people generating their own politics within a system which sought to reserve all discussion and decision-making within a small privileged elite. From the totalitarian monopoly of communication under Stalin a fragile area of autonomy, an emergent civil society, has developed since the dictator's death.

Regrettably, the presentation by Alexeyeva is not a full history of the Soviet opposition. By telling the story of each movement in separate chapters she does not permit any chronological or thematic reconstruction of the evolution of Soviet dissent. Also missing here is the context, social and political, domestic and international, which made dissent a possibility after 1953. The end of Stalinist terror, the opening to the West under Khrushchev, the gradual dismantling of the apparatus of control which had been established 20 years earlier -- all of which contributed to the atmosphere in which dissident views could be expressed without the expectation of execution -- are only superficially discussed. The more "tolerant repression" of the Khrushchev years, when naked terror was replaced by less harsh punishments, permitted the dissidents to gain audience both within their country and through the western press. Finally, the autor does not provide any real explanation for the kinds of dissent that have arisen in the Soviet Union, why some have flourished and others have wilted.

THE RISE of dissent in a totalitarian society, just like the feeling of love in the novel 1984, seemingly needs no explanation other than an understanding of human nature. There is an unwritten assumption that if people are left to their own devices they will chose to be free, and, indeed, to be free in precisely the way we in the West are free. As an indictment of the Soviet system (and of socialism), the dissident movement serves as a vindication of western democracy with its superior record in the area of political and religious rights. But this view, so congenial to people in the West, neglects to consider the specificity of the Soviet Union's historic experience. Soviet dissent, rather than being a yearning for the blessings of the West, is part of a discourse set by Russian history. One cannot treat all Soviety dissidents as if they are Sakharov, that is liberal humanists with real affinities with western political norms. Soviet dissent comes out of the classic debates between liberals and socialists, Westernizers and Slavophiles of the 1840s, between Populists and Marxists, religious messianism and anti-intellectual philistinism of the turn of the century. Moreover, a deep dichotomy found in the Russian past has reasserted itself -- the historic gulf between the narod, the simple people, and the obshchestvo, educated society and the intelligentsia. Much of dissent is an intellectual pursuit, not the business of working people. The Soviet population remains largely indifferent to their critiques, to politics in general, and is, at best, mildly reformist. While many critical intellectuals hope for great intellectual and political freedom and are prepared to risk their lives and careers for it, there is a powerful strain in Soviet society which is nostalgic for the orderly days when a strong hand was at the helm.

Alexeyeva writes from within the movement, and her testimony is heartfelt and valuable. But by relying so exclusively on dissident sources and neglecting the broader context in which dissent has arisen, she has not given us a full comprehension of the limits of the opposition. Some appreciation of the sources of loyalty to the existing system by millions of Soviet citizens, particularly the role of the operating ideology of Soviet patriotism, is required. People do not easily abandon a political system, no matter how harsh it appears to some, from which they have received material benefits and for which they have made the greatest sacrifice. As attractive to the West as the liberal dissent movement might be, it has found little resonance in the Soviet population. Far more impressive in terms of popular support are the nationalist movements with which Alexeyeva begins her account. The record she establishes convinces one that along with economic stagnation and the international danger, the Soviet leadership is faced by another chronic problem which nearly 70 years of Soviet power have been unable to resolve.