By David Michael Newstead.
Vlad Men discusses elements of the Sinyavsky–Daniel Trial, which took place in the Soviet Union between 1965 and 1966. The verdict in this case is historic for marking the end of the Khrushchev Thaw and its more liberal policies. Under those policies, artistic liberties were allowed, political prisoners were freed, and the falsely accused victims of state repression were officially rehabilitated (often posthumously). Premier Khrushchev began a de-Stalinization campaign and attacked the deceased dictator’s personality cult. In literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which was groundbreaking at the time for criticizing the horrific legacy of Stalinism in Russia. But when Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown in 1964, that limited ability to speak your mind came to an end.
The Sinyavsky–Daniel Trial soon followed.
In 1966, a Soviet court convicted two obscure writers to seven years of hard labor based solely on the content of their literary work. Andrei Sinyavsky was the author of the novel, The Trials Begins. His friend, Yuli Daniel, was the author of the novel, This is Moscow Speaking. Despite being works of fiction, these books were deemed to be Anti-Soviet and both men were imprisoned because of it. At the same time, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other prominent authors were also being persecuted as the Soviet system became increasingly stagnant and closed to discussion.
This characterized much of the remaining years of the USSR until the Gorbachev era. And while the Sinyavsky–Daniel Trial is famous for being a milestone to Soviet dissidents, it arguably relates to the legal system of contemporary Russia as well. Today, the law in Russia is often arbitrarily enforced and twisted to serve repressive ends like in the case of Sergei Magnitsky. Furthermore, writing about the government is extremely dangerous and there have been numerous, high-profile murders of Russian journalists and critics in the last decade, including the killing of Boris Nemtsov this February.
For me, reading through the 1966 trial transcript was a lengthy, but informative window into a courtroom discussion about irony, metaphor, and literary criticism that resembled a college class. But unlike your undergraduate course in literature, people’s lives hung in the balance during these surreal legal proceedings.
Unfortunately, that tradition continues today.