Soviet Dissidence and the Public during De- and Re-Stalinization

The historiography of the Soviet dissident movement usually takes the end of the 1960s as its starting point and concentrates on turning points at which Soviet citizens began to protest publicly. The studies presented here take on a different perspective. They explore the gradual development of social behaviors beginning with the transition towards post-Stalinism, i.e., behaviors in public gatherings, or in correspondences – with government agencies or with Soviet as well as Western journalists and politicians, etc. The national public and the dissident counter-public are not viewed as pre-existing opposites in this frame of research. Instead, the analysis focuses on the ways in which the legal and journalistic debates constituted themselves in the first place. Furthermore, it looks to contribute practices and discourses.

Currently, the investigation takes place in different formats: The Dissident Library, the archive seminar Bookworm, and a project on court records in the trial against Joseph Brodsky.

Fig. above: Russian samizdat publications and photo negatives of unofficial literature in the USSR, © Nkrita, Moscow 2017, License CC BY-SA 4.0, Source: Wikimedia.

Apr–Sep 2022 funded by a Memory Work scholarship of the Federal Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Eastern Germany
Oct 2022–Mar 2023 funded by the ZfL and the Leibniz Association
since 2022
Head researcher(s): Olga Rosenblum


The Dissident Library

since 2021

The Dissident Library aims to intervene in the academic discourse on the Soviet movement of dissidents and strives to make their methodological objectives and results available to a broader public. The project consists of a series of online seminars conceived by the now-liquidated human rights organization International Memorial. It connects scholars from around the world. The seminar also features smaller formats with individual authors. Discussions with contemporary witnesses (especially dissidents and authors of the first monographs on dissidence from the 1970s and 1980s) focus on the contextualization and historicization of earlier research. This will result in a digital library of dissidence that—while taking into account different research perspectives and understandings of concepts—collects audio and video materials as well as contemporary documents.      


funded by a Memory Work scholarship of the Federal Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Eastern Germany at the memorial site and museum Sachsenhausen
April–September 2022

The archive seminar compiles comments on open letters by Soviet dissidents. In an authoritarian, enclosed society, open letters create accessible public spaces for debates on socially important questions banned from official media. E.g., Soviet dissidents reported on human rights violations in open letters that were quoted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Today, many of these letters can be found in the Archiv Samizdata, a collection of unofficial, self-published documents spread across different institutions worldwide. Thanks to its online format, the archive seminar enables collaboration among participants of students from different universities and countries.

Between Literature and Forgery. Court Records in the Trial against Joseph Brodsky

funded by the ZfL and the Leibniz Association
October 2022–March 2023

The project will examine the trial against author Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996) who, in 1964, was sentenced to five years in exile on charges of “social parasitism,” but soon thereafter, in 1965, returned to Leningrad after an intervention by Soviet and Western intellectuals. In post-Stalinist times, the trial was the first in which the audience created and distributed alternative court records. One of these records made it to the West and made the Brodsky case known there as well. Just like the open letters, this record is viewed as a form of journalism and analyzed as a genre oscillating between literature and law, prose and document. The analysis will focus on ways in which the individuals involved (defendants, attorneys, supporters) developed their own juridical rhetoric, discursive strategies, and forms of communication as a result of an intense engagement with institutions and representatives of Soviet law. They did this to redefine their place in society and force the state to engage with the opposition’s arguments and accusations.