Monday, January 24, 2005

Dissidents - III

Looking at the photos from central Kyiv, taken on the day of President Yushchenko's inauguration, I was struck, as in the context of the early 1990s, by the almost incredible nature of the events that led up to it and were manifested in it. Who in 1978, for example, could have predicted such upheavals and transformations of the East European political scene, and above all, of the Soviet political space? Probably not even most of the dissidents within the Soviet Union who, by their efforts and sacrifices, laid the groundwork for these enormous changes. would have been able to envisage the new order that is emerging now.

As I looked at those photographs, I found my mind going back once again to the periods I spent in Moscow in the 1960s and 70s - and I remembered Viktor (I've given him a pseudonym), the Canadian-Ukrainian historian who was my block neighbour in MGU, and wondered what his reaction would have been to yesterday's events in Kyiv, had he lived to witness them. I wrote something about him in an earlier post. After he was expelled from the Soviet Union, he moved to Helsinki, Finland, where he met and married a Finnish woman. He returned with her to Canada, then taught at Berkeley for a while, and finally ended up the late 1970s in England, teaching at an institute of higher education on the south coast. Such travels and changes of place were not unusual for him - he had been born of Ukrainian parents in Nationalist China, only arriving in Canada as a teenager. In Canada, and later in California, he had conceived the idea that it was his mission to try to help to change the social order in the eastern bloc, and especially in the Soviet Union, and as a post-graduate research student and assistant professor he managed to secure several fellowships which enabled him to visit Mocow. There he made numerous contacts with the dissident community - I can remember his joy on discovering the new book by Andrei Amalrik, published in 1969, and entitled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, which predicted the collapse of the USSR, some twenty years before this was thought to be a reasonable prospect - if it was ever considered likely at all. In England, Viktor did not fare very well. He succumbed to alcohol and depression, and died in 1981.

In many ways I felt that, though technically he was a "Westerner", Viktor's fate reflected that of many of the Soviet dissidents who either emigrated to the West or remained in the Soviet Union as inner exiles. His tremendous energy and commitment, coupled with a lively sense of humour, was offset by a tendency to melancholy and depression, and in southern England he felt almost totally isolated and cut off from this cultural and spiritual roots. His Finnish wife did her best to give him moral and material support, but Finland and Finnish culture also remained alien to him. I tried to talk to him and continue our friendship, which had evolved in Moscow, but at that time my own life was not yet very settled, I was travelling abroad a lot, and I found it hard to keep in contact with him. The news of his death struck me as abominably sad, but I could also see that the Cold War had claimed another victim.

I believe that this is something that's not always understood about the Cold War - that it was a real war, with deaths and casualties. Of course, America had its Korea and Vietnam - but there was another dimension to the war, one that was often hidden from people in the West. It existed in the horrible conditions of the Soviet Gulag, which was not only a vast and complex system of concentration camps, but also an inner system that infected people's minds with fear, suspicion and hatred. The purpose of the Cold War - conceived and instigated by the Soviet Union - was to divide humanity against itself, and by physical force, both conventional and nuclear, to silence dissent.

Now, 15 years after the fall of Communism and almost 60 years after the beginning of the Cold War, we are only just starting to witness the onset of a new process: the breaking of the silence and the ending of the division caused by the evil of the Soviet experiment. Because of the deep-seated nature of its origins, that process may be a long and arduous one.


Nika said...

Thank you and please continue writing. (So sad that "Victor" died so early...)

Warmest wishes,

David McDuff said...

Thanks - I'll do my best to write some more, though looking back such a long way is sometimes hard. The memories are often vivid, though.