A dissident is a person who actively objects to or opposes conventional or imposed thinking, doctrine, policy, institution and power or a conventional social structure, especially under dictatorial and totalitarian regimes. The etymology of the word „dissident“ dates from the mid-16th century and originates from the Latin word „dissidentis“ meaning sitting apart, disagreeing. Contemporary use of the word was adopted in the 1940s as a political concept, coinciding with the rise of totalitarian systems. The terms “dissident”, “dissent” and “dissident movements” began to be widely used by Western journalism in the 1970s, to refer to citizens of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries that openly opposed the beliefs of the ruling power and ideology.  

In totalitarian regimes, dissidents were often incarcerated without explicit political accusations, or due to infringements of the very same laws they were disputing, or because they were supporting progressive civil rights. Yet, beneath the surface, a resistive culture was rising in the form of dissident movements that questioned the regime’s doctrine. Dissident secret gatherings conveyed unspoken truths about the regime and enabled pluralist communication between different layers of society.

After Communism took over Eastern Europe and Central Eastern Europe – the intellectuals, scientists and scholars who believed in the power of freedom of speech, suddenly became irrelevant. Those whom the socialists could convince to join the socialist party and used their knowledge for propaganda ended up being praised. Fear in the Eastern Bloc was the emotional fuel in which Communism succeeded upon. Since the media is controlled, if one was to speak up against it, one would disappear. Dissidents did not occur overnight and their work is the reason why the Eastern Bloc today is free from Communism. Due to the presence of secret agents hired by communist parties to report any “treason activity” – anyone who generally did not like the idea of Communism and knows their tactics, was reported to the party and sent away to prison – or sent to an immediate death sentence in concentration camps. This tactic by the party was used to decrease any opposition they might face and to eliminate freedom of thought.

Dissident movements across Europe occurred also through politicians, artists, economists, journalists, writers, students, military figures and ex-party members. The movements did not have one pattern in which it occurred throughout Central Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe and Baltic countries. The communist regime was opposed by democratic parties long before communism obtained power. However, once in power, the right to practice democracy was abolished while the democratic figures remained in the shadows. The only way dissidents could protect themselves using their civil rights (which was already in their constitutions) would be the protection of basic human rights.  

The main cause and legal manner that dissidents worked to improve was the human rights crisis which occurred in all of Eastern Europe at the time under the totalitarian regimes. Dissident groups formed peacefully with the fundamentals being – protecting their right to practice civil liberties which was illegally taken away by the party for decades. Such groups were created all across Europe and their common goal was freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom to emigrate.

In all post-communist countries dissident movements existed and paved a pathway for younger generations to be educated further on democracy by guaranteeing freedom of speech without consequence. It was the work of different dissident movements that caused the abolishment of Communism across Europe. The older generations of dissidents faced much opposition and repressions such as exile, prison, murder – but their teachings always found a way to trickle down to the younger people and lived on through books, art, and music. The spirit of anti-totalitarianism still exists in these regions due to the long fight they had to withstand and conquer. Memorials, museums and statues glorify both the dissidents and communists while keeping history alive. Traces are left and new generations are empowered, however, generations ahead are to inform and educate themselves to avoid history repeating itself.

Source: Szulecki, K. (2019). Dissidents in Communist Central Europe. Oslo, Norway.