"The Higher Circles": The Western Intellectual Community and the Campaign for Human Rights in the USSR, 1968–84

Friday, January 6, 2012: 10:10 AM
Los Angeles Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Yana Skorobogatov, University of Texas at Austin
“The Higher Circles” traces the emergence of a Western intellectual community that campaigned against civil and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Brezhnev regime against Soviet dissidents during the 1970s. Composed of writers, Nobel Laureates, university faculty members, and prominent Western cultural figures, this transnational network lobbied against the Brezhnev regime’s frequent abuse of human rights, a practice that included censorship, political incarceration in prisons, labor camps and mental asylums, anti-emigration laws, anti-Semitism, and forced exile.

Because the majority of the regime’s victims were renowned members of the Soviet intelligentsia, their colleagues in Western intellectual circles felt a moral and professional obligation to defend them by writing articles and letters to American and Soviet authorities, joining and creating their own non-governmental human rights organizations, and creating publicized political alliances with members of the growing democratic movement behind the Iron Curtain.

Using documents from the Andrei Sakharov and Amnesty International USA Archives, along with the Human Rights and International League for the Rights of Man Collections, this paper analyzes the rhetoric and underlying motives that members of this newly politicized intellectual community employed in their appeals to Soviet and American statesmen and the general public at large. It does so in order to demonstrate how grassroots efforts to affect Soviet domestic policy led to significant changes to U.S. foreign policy in order to accommodate a human rights agenda. Furthermore, it illustrates how larger shifts in the international system and the détente era transmuted the average citizen’s sense of belonging in the global community from one based on national citizenship to another defined by professional and personal solidarity.

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