Coming of Age

In the Post-Stalin Era

By Ludmilla Alexeyeva and Paul Goldberg

Little, Brown. 339 pp. $19.95

"ON February 25, 1956, when I was nearing thirty," Ludmilla Alexeyeva writes, "Nikita Khrushchev shocked the delegates to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party -- and the entire nation -- with the revelation that the deceased Great Leader was actually a criminal. The congress put an end to our lonely questioning of the Soviet system. Young men and women began to lose their fear of sharing views, knowledge, beliefs, questions. Every night, we gathered in cramped apartments to recite poetry, read 'unofficial' prose, and swap stories that, taken together, yielded a realistic picture of what was going on in our country."

For Alexeyeva and her friends among the intelligentsia, Khrushchev's speech was the opening moment of "the time of our awakening," a prolonged period of inquiry into the nature of the Soviet state and their relationship to it as individuals. It was by no stretch of the imagination an easy process. The reforms initiated by Khrushchev were subsequently compromised by Leonid Brezhnev and his apparatchiks, who found themselves torn between "two contradictory trends . . . one, toward Stalinism, the other, toward continuing liberalization." Then, in 1968, the repression of reform and dissent in Czechoslovakia ended the thaw and encouraged the Kremlin to step up the containment of protest at home; the movement was driven underground, into a world of secret meetings and samizdat publications and clandestine connections with foreign sympathizers.

Yet somehow the movement maintained its coherence and its momentum. Though its numbers were strikingly small and though the odds against it were equally large, it persisted through sham trials and internal exiles and KGB surveillance and all the other devices that Brezhnev brought to bear against it. At times the hard core included no more than a few dozen people, some of them on prolonged Siberian holiday, yet they kept the faith, and in the end they won. A word they had started using in the early 1960s -- glasnost, "an ordinary, hardworking, nondescript word that was used to refer to a process, any process of justice or governance, being conducted in the open" -- suddenly became the official policy of the Soviet government; though Mikhail Gorbachev cannot be said to have arisen from their movement, much less to have been a creation of it, the reforms he started to put in place were those for which they had worked and suffered.

The men and women of "the thaw generation" are, as Alexeyeva points out, Gorbachev's contemporaries. Though they were the intelligentsia and he was a party bureaucrat, all of them had their antennae redirected during those years in the 1950s and early 1960s when, for about a decade, the terror of Stalinism was lifted and it became possible for citizens of the U.S.S.R. to question all of the assumptions upon which the state, and thus their own lives, had been founded.

Ludmilla Alexeyeva was one of those who did so. Her parents were poor but bright and ambitious people -- her father an economist, her mother a mathematician -- who achieved responsible positions within the bureaucratic structure yet who reared her in a relatively open atmosphere. Though she grew up on all the pieties of the time and place, she also grew up wondering, "Why do I remain different, no matter how hard I try to be like everyone else?" She believed in the goodness of Stalin and the rectitude of the socialist cause, yet somewhere within her seeds of doubt had been planted; her crusty Uncle Borya for years had dismissed all those in the Kremlin as "brigands," and gradually she began to agree with him, especially after a close reading of Lenin's writings convinced her that there was not within him "an iota of concern for soldiers, workers or peasants," that "the country he created was not a happy place."

Thus Alexeyeva was ripe to ask questions when, in 1956, Khrushchev suddenly made it acceptable to do so. She recalls meeting a fellow student a day after Khrushchev's speech and having a frank talk with him about the Communist Party and its sordid history. "Such conversations would have been unthinkable a day earlier," she writes. "Now, suddenly, they had become normal, commonplace and necessary." Young people began to gather in kompanii, "to dance to jazz, drink vodka, and talk until dawn." Areas of common ground were charted and alliances were made and jokes were told: "Q. What will happen after Cuba builds socialism? A. It will start importing sugar." Or: "Radio Armenia is asked: 'What's the difference between socialism and capitalism?' Radio Armenia answers: 'Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under socialism, it's the other way around.' "

Then in 1966 the writers Yulik Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky were tried and convicted for "anti-Soviet propaganda." It was, Alexeyeva writes, "the beginning of the twenty-year war waged by the Brezhnev government against the intelligentsia." Her account of that war, which occupies more than half of this book, is detailed and passionate, yet it is told with a distance and clarity that make it all the more powerful. The stories of Sakharov and Scharansky and Orlov are here, but so too are those of people such as Alexeyeva herself, people little known in the West if at all yet invaluable troops in the battle against official repression.

Their stories are at once heroic and ordinary. As Alexeyeva writes: "When you spend so much of your life under the threat of laws like Article 70 and Article 190, the penal system becomes a threat you take for granted. It's a very simple principle: if all of your friends go to Paris, you see nothing extraordinary about going to Paris; if all of your friends go to prison, you see nothing extraordinary about going to prison." Somehow Alexeyeva herself managed to stay out of the gulag, but not for lack of trying: she was active in publishing and distributing Khronika Tekushchikh Sobytiy, bulletins about human-rights violations that were issued for 14 years, and she was a founder of Helsinki Watch, which monitored violations of the Helsinki Accord on rights.

Eventually Alexeyeva was exhausted by the struggle; she emigrated to the United States in 1977 and now lives, as an American citizen, with her husband in one of Washington's Virginia suburbs. But she has kept up the fight -- she wrote a "reference manual on all movements in Soviet dissent" that was published in 1984 -- and she continues it with this fine book. As she says at its end, "The new thaw would have been unthinkable without the dissidents." That, in an hour of deep uncertainty about the Soviet Union's future, is unimpeachable fact.