Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Lesson of the Past


Writing in the Moscow Times, Catherine Nepomnyashchy reflects on the career of Soviet dissident Andrei Sinyavsky, and considers the implications of his message and example for our own times:
Whether you look from the United States or Russia, this seems like a particularly bad time to be an intellectual. People don't want to hear about how complex the world is, and those wielding political power are far likelier to turn for advice to almost anyone else -- rich people, celebrities, spin doctors, religious leaders -- rather than to the best-educated members of society. Yet as the trial of Socrates showed, the role of the intellectual in society was thankless even 2,500 years ago. Defending himself from charges of blasphemy, Socrates argued: "For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me."

Sinyavsky was just such a gadfly, nipping away at the tough hide of Russia. As he predicted, Yeltsin turned out to be eminently replaceable. Sinyavsky, by contrast, has not. Now, a dozen years after the Russian president's assault on his own parliament, the lesson to be learned is not so much that he was right to condemn the intelligentsia's support of Yeltsin. Rather, the lesson lies in why he was right. And, more to the point, it lies in the example he left behind.

At his own trial for blasphemy, Sinyavsky defended his right to be neither "for" nor "against," but simply "different." Let us hope that Russia will be blessed in the near future with more such loyal, difficult, insubordinate, trenchant and loving sons.
(Hat tip: Marius)
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