Saturday, January 22, 2005

Dissidents - II

Cali Ruchala, the author of the article The Canvas Is A Crime - Yuri Galanskov and The Saints of the Lubyanka, part of which I quoted in an earlier post, tells me in an email that after completing the article, he had a copy sent to Aleksandr Ginzburg in Paris. Unfortunately, Ginzburg died less than a week later. Ruchala goes on:
Looking back on it, I think I was still in the haze of pessimism that came when Serbian and Croatian dissidents grew up and became scoundrels. I still have an old letter signed by Zoran Djindjic, Vojislav Kostunica and others demanding the release of Vojislav Seselj from prison.

As tragic as Galanskov's story is, I have to say that today, being a little older, I would make Ginzburg the focus of the article. It's no fault of Galanskov but I've come to understand that it's harder to live a long life and remain true to one's beliefs than it is to become a young martyr.

Ginzburg, like Galanskov, was one of the pioneers of the samizdat movement in the Soviet Union during the late 1950s and 1960s. Unlike Galanskov, however, Ginzburg lived on, eventually dying in political exile in Paris at the age of 65. Cali Ruchala has an account of Ginzburg's life and work at this URL. The dissident movement strove to provide a source of independent, non-state-controlled information in the extremely difficult conditions of totalitarian rule. Like other members of the movement, Ginzburg was repeatedly imprisoned for his activities and views. He edited a journal called Sintaksis, and it was here that the writing of some of the best-known figures of the dissident groupings appeared: the young Joseph Brodsky first saw his poems published in the journal.

As a British Council exchange student in Moscow during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had some experience of the Soviet dissident movement - the stazhory, as we were called, housed in Zona V of the Stalin-era MGU skyscraper on Lenin Hills (now Sparrow Hills), functioned in some sense as guinea pigs for the very active KGB wing of the student Komsomol brigade in the Zone, and my block neighbour happened to be a Canadian-Ukrainian activist and history scholar visiting from Berkeley, California, who was subsequently expelled from the Soviet Union after a press campaign against him. Through him, I gained a partial but first-hand knowledge of Soviet dissident life, and became acquainted not only with dissidents in person, but also with their publications and manifestos.

In the 1960s and early 1970s there existed an almost complete disparity, a dislocation, even, between the dissident movement in Soviet Russia and the radical movements in the West (those which gravitated around the Paris "revolution" of 1968, for example). While Western radicals sometimes paid lip service to Soviet dissidents - and there was a mild flurry of sympathy for them during the events that immediately followed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 - in general there was an almost total lack of comprehension on both sides. Western radicals could not understand the admiration felt by most Soviet dissidents for Western democracy and culture, while most Soviet dissidents were appalled by the the disdain and hatred felt by much of the Western radical left for Western society. Later, this dislocation crystallized out in the situation described by Sharansky in The Case for Democracy, where Western "ban-the-bomb" marchers walked side by side with KGB operatives who were bent on exploiting the radical left-wing and peace movements, while in the Soviet Union, anti-nuclear protesters and peace activists languished in jails and prison camps.

Looking back on it now, it's hard to see how anyone could seriously have compared the two movements - the radical Western left and the Soviet dissidents. While the Western students and activists were free to utter their opinions, hold public demonstrations and even burn down buildings, in the Soviet Union those who resisted the established order were imprisoned, tortured and killed. "Who could turn away from themselves even under enormous strain, after seeing Ginzburg's tenacious refusal to compromise?" Cali Ruchala writes. Although the dissident movement was by no means homogeneous, and comprised different levels and qualities of disagreement with the power of authority, the example of fortitude, moral sanity and defiance, even under impossible conditions of repression, shown by Ginzburg and others like him was simply over the heads of most Western observers, even those who for their own political and ideological reasons wanted to sympathize with the Soviet outcasts.

Now many of those "outcasts" are dead and forgotten. After the fall of Communism, in the glow of victory it was all too easy for their memory to be put aside and neglected. Yet in Russia today there are still those who may be considered heirs to the dissident heritage, and whose input to the moral constitution of Russian society is a vital one. In the campaigns that are still being fought for justice within Russia - in connection with such issues as the war in Chechnya, the corruption of the law enforcement agencies, the increasing threat to free speech, and the resurgence of the KGB, people such as Elena Bonner (Andrei Sakharov's widow), Sergei Kovalyov, Andrei Babitsky, Anna Politkovskaya, Yevgenia Albats, and others are asserting the old and honourable Russian tradition.

Although there are still some voices in the West - and many in Russia itself - that seek to discredit this opposition by using the term "dissident" in a disparaging or condescending way (the same thing can more often now be encountered in relation to China and its internal political opposition, it seems likely that the example it sets will hold and be valid for some time to come. In the West, after all, the conditions of freedom exist. And, as Natan Sharansky points out, it's the duty of free nations to help and sustain the spreading of freedom throughout the globe:

The community of free nations will not emerge on its own. It will require both the clarity of the democratic world to see the profound moral difference between the world of freedom and the world of fear, and the courage to confront fear societies everywhere. I am convinced that a successful effort to expand freedom around the world must be inspired and led by the United States. In the twentieth century, America proved time and again that it possessed both the clarity and courage that is necessary to defeat evil. Following that example, the democracies of the world can defeat the enemy that threatens our world today and the tyrannies that would threaten it tomorrow. To do so, we must believe not only that all people are created equal but also that all peoples are created equal.

In the new world order, the struggle and sacrifices of the dissidents in the non-democratic nations of the world won't have been in vain.

See also in this blog: Fear and Freedom
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