based on 1983wi:Public presentation
© Alan Kimball

[These words were conclusion to a wider discussion of how to "get behind the headlines" in order better to understand what was happening in the USSR. The presentation was delivered by invitation in the first years of Ronald Reagan's presidency at a dozen or so locations in the Pacific Northwest. This text reflects a twist of fate connected with a presentation slated for Linn-Benton Community College.]

Doing what the powers desire, even if voluntarily, hardly deserves to be called freedom. Yet it was the philosopher Hegel [ID] who said that freedom is the recognition of necessity. I'm sensitive to the truth tangled in Hegel's formula. It is nonetheless the sort of truth, a dialectical and abstract truth, against which one might wish to struggle in practice, to struggle in the name of the sort of freedom which means breaking free of restraint, and the sort of liberty which means an exercise of the will to throw off fetters.

The freedom that seems most to deserve the name means to do what the powers do not desire.

There are precious and always imperiled freedoms and liberties that consist precisely in doing what we must or wish, even when the powers do not desire it be done, even when “necessity” prompts otherwise. Real freedom and liberty are expressed by a determination in the face of opposition, whether the powers who oppose be government, society, or any other supposed necessity. These are the freedoms and liberties that gave first impetus to US history and -- although with sorrowful ups and downs -- have lodged themselves in national tradition and continue to motivate citizens of our nation.

The public symposium that has drawn us all here provides a surprising and very relevant example. Consider the vote of Carol Moore, member of the Linn-Benton Community College Board, 15 February 1983. She stood alone against vague and threatening powers of opposition to this very informational gathering. There are those in this region who sought to suppress our gathering. At a meeting designed to formalize the suppression of public discussion right here in River City (so to speak), Carol Moore voted in favor of allowing a discussion of Russian culture on her campus. Every other member of the board crumbled under strong but minoritarian pressure from beyond the campus. In crumbling, her fellow board members betrayed the mission of the school; they betrayed the trust put in them by the institution. But betrayal was surely easier than what Carol Moore did. [Cite Albany Democrat Herald (16 February 1983, front page story). Also see Russ Mitchell’s article in The Gazette-Times.]

Carol Moore has experienced and thus knows something about freedom and liberty, and about our topic dissent. Very few of us are likely ever to experience or know these things in this way, even those of us who have strong and positive views on heroic Soviet dissenters, those of us who have righteous and negative views on the way the USSR mistreats those who dissent. We generally make no reference to solid benchmarks of judgment which would allow us to compare Moore's experience with what we know about Soviet dissenters.

For one thing, Russia has no tradition such as motivates Carol Moore and protects her. Historical Russian law has not recognized anything quite like the writ of habeas corpus ad subjiciendum [ID]. It does not specify and protect anything quite like the essential liberal civil rights embodied in the US Bill of Rights (Madison's first ten amendments to the US Constitution) [ID]. Historical Russian law does not assume that the acts of citizens are legal so long as they are not forbidden by explicit law. Nor does it provide a place for political diversity and factional difference of opinion and the free expression of it in the public sphere. Where we might be encouraged by our traditions to say “it's not against the law”, Russians more frequently would say “but the law does not permit”. Anyone who has lived and worked in the USSR has learned to abide by the laws of zaiavlenie (formal statement of desire to act) and razreshenie (formal permission to act). One may do with confidence only what has been explicitly allowed. The emphasis there is on a sort of freedom that Hegel described as the recognition of necessity.

Within this tradition most Soviet citizens, nonetheless, feel as “free” or as “liberated” as their counterparts in the USA. The powers there have never tolerated freedom, liberty, and diversity; the citizens who have grown up in that system are nearly as fearful and punitive of freedom, liberty, and diversity, when they are liberally expressed, as is the system that nurtured them. My daughter and son both attended Soviet schools for one academic year. Both heard a lot from Soviet fellow students about the “traitor” Alexander Solzhenitsyn [ID]. For the most part, people tend everywhere to be at home in their environment and despise those who criticize it. Here a phrase from the great 20th-century anti-Utopian writer, Aldous Huxley [ID], suggests a painful social-Darwinian truth = People often exercise their great talent in order to make themselves “fit to an unfit fitness”. The Linn-Benton Community College Board found it easy to fit themselves to the emerging national atmosphere of panic and distress about the Soviet threat.

Problems arise when misfits, thinkers, creative artists, free thinkers, spiritual aspirants, just plain “individualists” -- especially the young and all others who, because of their outlook, ambition, personality, ethnicity, color, race, or religion, and especially because of what they have learned about the world in which they live -- discover that they are not in harmony, not in accord, with the powers. Then we have real problems of freedom or liberty, here in the USA or there in the USSR. Anywhere. [Huge 37-hop SAC LOOP on “dissent”]

Even among the usually minoritarian group who feel “dissentful”, most will not express themselves. The small portion of this small group that does express itself will not often sustain their expression for very long. The young grow up, and anyone can grow weary. With few and notable exceptions, rebels are young. A brief youth of hooliganism is seldom sustained. In my first summer in the USSR, in 1965, I roamed the streets of Moscow into the wee hours with new-found friends. Like me, they were youths; unlike me, they were angry and dissident. They went out of their way to tell me about the injustices of their life and to take me to sites that revealed the darker side of the Soviet paradise. When I visited them later, they had become politically reactionary. [And even later, they were appalled by developments since the collapse of the system they earlier reviled.] Resistance to power is a very special agony. Almost none of us put ourselves in for it or keep it up for very long. Few discover that they do not fit the expectations of the powers and most of those give in when they discover themselves in that agonizing position. Political and social systems are powerful and they shape lives even before anyone has to exert overt force. Where inertia fails, loneliness will eventually prevail. Loneliness may be the main emotional ally of the status quo, just as cynicism is the main philosophical ally.

For the dissident, there is little help from what might be called “public opinion”. Public opinion, even in the most hateful political settings, almost always runs in support of the status quo. This is the point on which our own popular histories mislead us. For example we have been sheltered (ironically) from the real heroism of the US “founding fathers” in all those histories that simplemindedly assume that there was something natural and inevitable about the rebellion against English colonial rule and about the affirmation of democratic political and social principles. In a funny way, many of us have been asked to believe that American revolutionary heroism was only an exercise in limited Hegelian freedom -- the recognition of some sort of progressive necessity, a ride on that always upward historical escalator. That's not the way it is, and that's not the way it was. They were lonely men and women, acting boldly against the powers and, on the whole, against public opinion, against almost everyone's sense of propriety.

Real freedom is frequently misunderstood, and not only by historians. Few of us really understand it, and fewer yet are really capable of it. This is the way it is also in the Soviet Union. This is so everywhere. Heroes are not those who “get along by going along [with necessity]”. Heroes are those who struggle against necessity. They always suffer, and most often, but not always, they lose.

Soviet leaders and their ideological gurus, are quite aware of that. However, there will surely always be a small percentage from the small portion of this small group, the extraordinarily few from among the extremely few of the very few, who refuse to give in. As with all forms of deviance or dissent, the powers have a spectrum of options that fall into four categories. The spectrum runs from 1) tolerance, through 2) treatment (cure or correction), 3) punishment, and finally to 4) elimination. It is in its habitually harsh choice from among these options, that the Soviet system has, over the years, so startlingly distinguished itself from European standards, even from tsarist standards.

Do not deal empty-handed with comparative issues like “dissent”. Always carry with you a set of personally tested benchmarks. When you applaud dissent in one setting, you need to put that on some scale with other instances of dissent. What if you or your interests are the object of dissenting opinion? Is dissent always good or bad? In what ways? We applaud Soviet dissenters, but do we applaud the late Martin Luther King? I am speaking here of the actual Martin Luther King [ID], not the comfortable and mythic Martin Luther King set out for school children.

Your benchmarks need not necessarily be unique to you. The more people who share benchmarks, the stronger civil society and the public sphere will be [ID]. Nor need these benchmarks be absolute. Perhaps it is best in the realm of political judgment that these benchmarks not be absolute. These benchmarks should be based on your own growing subtle experience with the wider world. When you learn about remote evil empires or far-away persecution of dissenters or restrictions on civil liberties in some distant place, your benchmarks, based on your own closer experience, should help you contextualize and measure all key terms. The standards implied in the benchmark metaphor are useful for distinguishing the authentic from the inauthentic.

When you think about other cultures, start with who you are and what your assumptions are. (Who am I to say?) Move from that toward the other culture and its characteristics. Be critical of sources. (Who says?) Question authority. Authentic authority desires just that critical attitude. Authentic authority knows its limits and is not afraid to say so. Wizards of Oz don't want you behind the scenes; not all pundits want you “behind the headlines”. Clearly there are Linn-Benton Board Members who do not want any of us there. Be attentive to details. (What is said?) [ID these three parenthetical questions] Are all anti-Soviet dissenters in harmony with one another? Is their dissent in harmony with your ideals? Wasn't Hitler a dissenter? Be slow to make extreme comparisons and contrasts.

When you think about the sufferings of religious minorities in the Soviet Union, and when you take your stand on principle, perform a reality check by testing your feelings about the disciples of Bagwan Shree Rajneesh in Antelope OR [or more recent and familiar Waco TX events (ID)]. When you read about how the powers-that-be in the USSR have brought Andrei Sakharov [ID] under constraint, think of our Carol Moore. He’s a great nuclear physicist sent into exile, and she’s a local board member accused being vaguely disloyal and “soft on Communism”. There are important differences, and we all need to know how to measure those differences. But there are also disturbing similarities that we must also measure. Sakharov and Moore have been asked to accept the same restriction on their moral and intellectual freedoms and liberties. After careful deliberation, make your own consistent and balanced judgments about all this and stick by them until clear evidence persuades otherwise.

At this point there is just one more question. Ask yourself, “What should I do about all this”. Be ready to do at least what you presume those remote Soviet citizens should do.

But begin with yourself, because that’s who you will meet behind the headlines and who you will need to depend on there. Clearest possible self knowledge is the first step and it is also the destination of all knowledge; it is the beginning and end of wisdom.


In a Fall, 1983, presentation in Boise ID, the Federally funded National Endowment for the Humanities, who sponsored and funded the public symposium where the talk was delivered, was instructed by a certain governmental agency to place a person in the hall to report back to Washington DC about what was said. For one thing, the notorious whistle-blowing Idaho Senator Frank Church [ID#1] [ID#2], now marginalized in the early Reagan era, was a participant in the symposium. As it turned out, I knew the person appointed as monitor, and he informed me of his mission before the talk. I was therefore able to introduce him to the other members of the audience and to describe his mission just at that point when I moved into a discussion of KGB infiltration of Soviet intellectual circles. Another fortuitous twist of fate = The Boise newspaper that morning featured on its front page a protest against the symposium. Idaho Senator Steven Symms was quoted as saying that Americans had no need to attend such a symposium to learn from professors what to think about the USSR. He suggested that newspaper accounts of the Soviet downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 [ID] said enough on that topic for any right thinking American. This was also useful for my presentation, just at the point where I had to discuss the constant effort of officials in the USSR to throttle independent thought in the public sphere and to define what should be and what should not be known. Senator Symms perhaps deserved to be cut some slack in this matter, as he had been scheduled to be aboard KAL 007 but took a later flight. Symms was supported strongly by the neo-cons behind the Reagan campaign. They acted successfully in 1980 to bring down the troublesome Senator Church whose Senate committee had done so much over the previous decade to inform citizens of the USA about some of the darker sides of US foreign policy and military-industrialism.