‘Translating’ Dissidentism

Dissidents in Communist Central Europe: Human Rights and the Emergence of New Transnational Actors Kacper Szulecki Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, pp. 242

The history and meaning of dissidence have acquired new importance. The year 2019 has been dubbed ‘the year of the street protester’ as mass demonstrations erupted across the globe, including in Hong Kong, Georgia, Russia, Chile, Argentina, Lebanon, Sudan and many other places.1 Some have compared 2019 to 1968, while others have compared it to the 1980s.2 Street protest is different from what we typically understand as dissidence. Dissidents rarely go to the streets. They are a different type of oppositional figure defined by their intellectual status, marginalization in a larger society, and the power of the written word. Yet as global challenges to democracy unfold, the questions of how to counter anti-democratic regimes come to the forefront. What does dissent mean? And how did the dissident figure come about?

These questions are at the heart of Szulecki’s compelling book on Dissidents in Communist Central Europe: Human Rights and the Emergence of New Transnational Actors. As the author explains, dissidents are not assigned to any specific national context, but can typically be found in states with repressive regimes such as China, Russia and Iran. But how did we come to understand the dissidents as transnational actors? As Szulecki explains, the roots of today’s concept of the dissident goes back to Communist Central Europe and the distinct ways in which dissidents interacted with international audiences.

‘Dissidence’ has had an ambivalent meaning in American and European discourses. The term originated as a religious concept to describe those who ‘dissented’ from the dominant doctrine.

Focusing on Poland, former Czechoslovakia, and Hungary (with some discussion of the GDR and the Soviet Union), Szulecki offers a fresh perspective on dissidents. He is not interested in individual biographies or the role of dissidents in bringing down the Communist system. The book instead explores the history and representation of what Václav Havel identified as disidentstvo or dissidentism. In other words, Szulecki seeks to establish dissidentism as a category of analysis by taking it out of the “realm of action to that of analysis” ( 32).

In the process, dissidentism emerges as a quintessentially transnational endeavor. Transnationalism, in this case, does not only mean the well-documented cross-border connections among activists from different countries in the region.3 More important, it means the Western imagining of the dissident figure as crucial to how dissidentism originated and functioned. As the author aptly puts it, the dissident figure “can only be understood and analyzed—on the outer frontiers of the West and under its gaze” (6).

Historical Junctures in a New Way

A major strength of the book is that it does not repeat worn-out political narratives of dissident activity. Instead, it looks at historical junctures in a new way to demonstrate the making of dissidents: not only as powerful symbols of “living in truth,” but also as transnational figures transmitting a particular perspective on their societies to the world. In other words, Szulecki assembles the building blocks that went into dissidentism and that resulted from an interactive process shaped by the dissidents, the repressive states in which they lived, and the international audiences.

‘Dissidence’ has had an ambivalent meaning in American and European discourses. The term originated as a religious concept to describe those who ‘dissented’ from the dominant doctrine. In the first half of the twentieth century, the meaning of the term shifted to describe internal opposition within the Communist project. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first individuals (and countries) deemed dissident were rebels against the dominant dogma of Soviet Stalinism.

These included the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who emigrated to the West in 1951, as well as states that embarked on their own socialist projects such as Albania and Yugoslavia. Havel expressed his distance to dissidence as a primarily Western concept in Power of the Powerless. During the 1970s and 1980s in Poland, the more common term to describe the anti-regime activity was ‘opposition’ rather than dissidence, because the latter implied passivity and solitary intellectual work rather than a supposedly superior action and movement (25).

The critical time for the emergence of the dissident figure, according to Szulecki, was the period between the two Eastern European revolutions: that of 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia. The efforts to reform Communism during that time created a set of conditions for the dissidents to enter the stage. First, the liberalization of the Thaw eliminated the Stalinist terror machine and allowed for a degree of pluralism within society. Second, the pre-reform opposition within the party voiced alternative ideas of the socialist order. These forces gave rise to what Szulecki considers the first dissident document: The Open Letter to the Party penned by Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski in 1964.

Human Rights as a Unifying Platform for Dissident Groups

The Open Letter has recently been rediscovered as an important yet forgotten voice of the oppositional left in Poland.4 Debates persist, however, regarding the message and aims of the letter. Did it indeed advocate a new socialist revolution? Or was the Letter a discursive device to delegitimize the ideological monopoly of the party? Szulecki does not address these questions, but rather turns to the Letter as a breakthrough document that had less to do with ‘reform Communism’ and more with creating the dissident figure and the transnational power of dissidentism.

First, Kuroń and Modzelewski established the personification of dissent by acting in open ways and writing under their own names. Second, the document generated a strong reaction from the domestic leadership, exposing just how threatening leftist dissident ideas were to the Communist regime. Third, the trial of Kuroń and Modzelewski fueled unprecedented international attention. The two authors, who dared criticize the ruling regime in the open, became “internationally recognized prisoners of conscience” (71). Finally, their writing inspired others: it generated more upheaval that culminated in the student demonstrations of March 1968.

The critical time for the emergence of the dissident figure, according to Szulecki, was the period between the two Eastern European revolutions: that of 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

For Szulecki, 1968 in Poland and Czechoslovakia was most significant for re-orienting the dissidents from internal leftist challenge to an anti-regime stance. The full-fledged dissidentism did not crystallize, however, until the dissidents in Central Europe found a common language to overcome their own ideological differences. That language emerged in the mid-1970s with the help of the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords, in which nearly all European countries (in addition to the United States and Canada), including those from the Eastern bloc, agreed to uphold and respect human rights.

The language of human rights provided the much needed unifying platform for diverse dissident groups in the region. In addition, it generated a strong connection between Central European dissidents and the wider Western public by disassociating dissidents of a strictly leftist orientation. Dissidents were now understood as the ‘democratic opposition’. This umbrella term included socialist ‘revisionists’, as well as liberal and conservative groups, all believed to work for upholding human rights against violations by the Communist regimes.

The critical time for the emergence of the dissident figure, according to Szulecki, was the period between the two Eastern European revolutions: that of 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

A False Picture of the Anti-Communist Opposition in the West

Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are those about the process of ‘translating’ dissidentism to the international public. Travel restrictions and language barriers limited direct contact between Central European dissidents and the Western public. Rather, a number of mediators emerged to communicate and explain the dissident messages at the international forum.

These included post-1968 emigres such as Jiří Pelikán and Milan Horáček from Czechoslovakia, and Irena Lasota and Irena Grudzińska Gross from Poland, who achieved prominent professional and academic positions in the West. Another group of powerful mediators consisted of Western scholars, foreign correspondents and journalists, who proved instrumental in propelling “the growing authority of dissidents in the West” (138). Through the 1970s, more and more lectures, discussions, exhibitions, and television programming in the West dealt with the dissidents to the extent that some of them became household names. By no means, however, were dissidents universally cheered by Western audiences. Szulecki reminds us about the ambivalent position of prominent politicians such as French President Valéry Giscard d ́Estaing, who worried that the Western support for dissidents could interfere with détente. Translating dissidents thus had one overarching goal: garnering international support for the dissidents.

The full-fledged dissidentism did not crystallize, however, until the dissidents in Central Europe found a common language to overcome their own ideological differences.

It is no surprise that the process of translation contributed to a romanticized image of the dissident that distorted the more complex reality. In particular, the “generalization of the dissident figure,” prominent in Western discourses, created an impression that large groups of people took part in anti-communist activity in their home countries (147). The omnipresent language of human rights, at the same time, not only overshadowed the internal differences within opposition movements, but also generated a false picture of the anti-communist opposition as uniformly committed to democratic values. “That is why strongly nationalist, religious, or other anti-modernist opposition currents,” Szulecki writes, “were not caught by this supposedly ‘catch-all’ label” (194). In other words, the ideologies that did not fit the ‘translated’ image of the dissident figure did not make it to the public discourse. This had profound consequences for future politics and for dissidents themselves.

Dissidents with an Aura of Unmatched Heroism

The book closes with a discussion of post-dissident Central Europe and the backlash that dissidents experienced after the fall of Communism. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the strong transnational grounding of dissidentism had proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Western publicity helped mitigate the repression against dissidents in their home countries. On the other, it provided ammunition to Communist propaganda to vilify dissidents as “the agents of the West, detached from their native societies” (156).

The latter hunted the dissidents long after 1989 as they were often blamed for economic and political shortcomings produced by the painful transition to a free market and parliamentary democracy. In the end, it turned out that their link to wider society was tenuous at best. The societies that the dissidents claimed to represent were divided and did not necessarily subscribe to dissident values such as liberal attitudes or the embracement of human rights. These became especially visible in the resurgence of nationalism in the region. In many ways, dissidents became victims of their own transnational fame.

The book opens compelling questions for further studies. In particular, the different understandings and uses of human rights within the dissident milieus deserve further exploration as they may help understand the recent authoritarian turn in such former strongholds of dissidentism as Poland and Hungary. The instrumental approach to human rights on the part of dissidents (and often their Western advocates) comes across most vividly in the section on The Absent Women, in which Szulecki delineates the dominant masculine culture of dissidentism.

In their quest for human rights, dissident movements rarely generated a reflection on gender identity. This supports the larger claim of the book that the language of human rights primarily served as a unifying platform for a variety of dissident orientations. Keeping that language vague and unreflective, one may argue, benefited the dissidents’ agenda of avoiding internal friction. This does not mean, however, that we should not analyze what the dissidents actually said and wrote about human rights.

Through the 1970s, more and more lectures, discussions, exhibitions, and television programming in the West dealt with the dissidents to the extent that some of them became household names.

Gender analysis holds a particular potential here. It can expose the gap between the dissidents’ everyday practice and the cultural construction of the dissident figure. As Szulecki notes, although dissidents had often been imagined as solitary figures, in reality, many of them relied on the support of their wives (the most prominent examples being Olga Havlová and Gaja Kuroń), and other women in how they carried out their dissident activity. Moreover, their Western ‘interpreters’ were aware of the substantial female participation in dissident movements but chose not to include women in their public narratives. As Szulecki notes, foreign correspondents often interviewed female dissidents and obtained important information from them, but they nevertheless tended to report only on prominent male figures.

The notion of totalitarianism underscored the evils of Communism and gave the dissidents an aura of unmatched heroism, but it did little to understand the social and political reality of state socialism.

The book is an inspiring and engaging read. It gives much needed analytical perspective on dissidents. It also prompts us to re-think conventional historical narratives on postwar Central Europe that we have often learned from dissidents. It was the dissidents, for example, who promulgated the idea of ‘totalitarianism’ as an essential characteristic of the states they came from. The notion of totalitarianism underscored the evils of Communism and gave the dissidents an aura of unmatched heroism, but it did little to understand the social and political reality of state socialism. Rather than replicating the dissidents’ perspective, we need to explore how it came about. Szulecki starts this important endeavor. He does so with utmost scholarly rigor and sensitivity while not diminishing the accomplishments of the courageous men and women, who often put their lives on the line to “live in truth.” It is through such critical assessment and humanization of the dissident figure that we can start learning important lessons for today.


  1. Jackson Diehl, “From Hong Kong to Chile. 2019 is the year of the street protester. But why?” Washington Post, 27 October 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/from-hong-kong-to-chile-2019-is-the-year-of-the-street-protester-but-why/2019/10/27/9f 79f4c6-f667-11e9-8cf0-4cc99f 74d127_story.html Accessed 30 January 2020
  2. Robin Wright, “The Story of 2019: Protests in Every Corner of the Globe,” The New Yorker, 30 December 2019 www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-story-of-2019-protests-in-every-corner-of-the-globe Accessed 30 January 2020
  3. See, for example, Padraic Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
  4. See, for example, Bartłomiej Starnawski, “’Tu stoję, inaczej nie mogę…’ Wokół Listu Otwartego do Partii oraz pojęcia ‘rewizjonizmu’ w perspektywie analizy retorycznej dyskursu o opozycji politycznej lat 60. w Polsce,” in Katarzyna Chmielewska, Agnieszka Mrozik, and Grzegorz Wołowiec, eds. Komunizm. Idee i praktyki w Polsce 1944-1989 (Warsaw: IBL, 2018), 377-433; and Michał Siermiński, Dekada przełomu. Polska lewica opozycyjna, 1968-1980. Warsaw: Książka i Prasa, 2016.

Małgorzata Fidelis

Małgorzata Fidelis is an associate professor of history, University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research focuses on social and cultural issues, particularly everyday life and the relationship between individuals and state power, in post-1945 Eastern Europe. She is the author of Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Polish translation, 2015.

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