During the Cold War people who criticized Soviet government, its practices and abuses were called "dissidents" in the West, even if they politically supported Socialism or advocated better application of the Soviet laws, such as the constitution.

Yet now it seems similar people in the West are not called "dissidents" but a new term "whistleblower" was invented. Was it invented specifically so to not attract any association with the USSR and to underline that those people are not opposed to the system as a whole bet merely criticize abuses?

Or is there a fundamental difference?

  • 2
    A whistleblower can be a dissident, but not all dissidents are whistleblowers. I can oppose a policy or party (thus being a dissident) without revealing anything (which would make me a whistleblower).
    – Publius
    Nov 3, 2013 at 9:18

1 Answer 1


The terms are not synonymous:

  • A dissident is someone who actively opposes the official policies.

    While it's true that the term was once used almost exclusively for vocal critics of Eastern bloc regimes, nowadays it's used for any notable figures that critisize a goverment's established policies on a philosophical, ideological or political level. For a non Eastern bloc example, think Noam Chomsky.

  • A whistleblower is someone who exposes illegal activity in an organization (a corporation, a government, etc), usually having obtained their information by being a member of said organization (e.g. an employee).

    This is a much more specific term. For someone to be branded a whistleblower, they must first bring forth actual evidence of illegal activities. They might or might not oppose the organization's official policies, the fact that they discovered and revealed something illegal doesn't tell us much about their feelings towards the policies.

Someone can be both a dissident and a whistleblower, however not all dissidents are whistleblowers, and not all whistleblowers are dissidents.

  • If whistleblower exposes illegal activity, he opposes the policy, is not it? Many dissidents did not oppose Socialism, they opposed illegal abuses on the part of the government.
    – Anixx
    Nov 3, 2013 at 3:01
  • @Anixx An example of a whistleblower would be a government employee bringing forth evidence of government corruption. The fact that they exposed illegal activity tells us absolutely nothing at all about their feelings towards said government's official policies. For all we know, they may be strong supporters of the official policies.
    – yannis
    Nov 3, 2013 at 3:13
  • is the Prism official policy or not?
    – Anixx
    Nov 3, 2013 at 3:17
  • 1
    @Anixx It is. However, at least according to Snowden, PRISM operated at a far larger scale than anyone outside a handful of people at NSA realized. Snowden can be considered both a whistleblower (for exposing PRISM's existence and scale) and a dissident (for criticizing the US' surveillance programs and policies in general, regardless of their legal status).
    – yannis
    Nov 3, 2013 at 3:42
  • 1
    @Anixx More or less. A whistleblower is an insider that exposed information to the general public. A combination of insider & informer, if you will.
    – yannis
    Nov 3, 2013 at 22:38

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