Saturday, December 03, 2005

They Chose Freedom

On December 1, the Sakharov Centre in Moscow was host to the premiere of a new four-part documentary film by director and presenter Vladimir Kara-Murza – They Chose Freedom - about the history of the dissident movement in the USSR. The showing of the film was followed by a discussion in which former Soviet dissidents Sergei Kovalev and Alexander Podrabinek took part, together with writer Viktor Shenderovich. The film has a total duration of 90 minutes, was made by the RTV/I “Ekho-TV” company, and is the first such detailed televisual analysis of the subject in Russia.

Participants in the film include Elena Bonner, Vladimir Bukovsky, Vladimir Dremlyug, Alexander Esenin–Volpin, Victor Fainberg, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, Naum Korzhavin, Sergei Kovalev , Eduard Kuznetsov, Pavel Litvinov, Yuri Orlov, and Anatoly Sharansky.

They Chose Freedom traces the development of the dissident movement in Russia from the breakthrough of the late 1950s and early 1960s, through the Red Square protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (the four surviving participants of the demonstration discuss their memories, including those of the brutal treatment they received at the hands of the authorities), to the reinforcement of punitive psychiatry (originally introduced in the time of Khrushchev), which after long-delayed protests from the West was followed by the gradual retreat of the authorities during the 1980s. Elena Bonner talks about the exile of her husband, physicist Andrei Sakharov, which she shared with him in the town of Gorky.

For a Western viewer, perhaps the most fascinating part of the series is the final one, where the present-day situation in Russia is discussed. Alexander Podrabinek shows how, while after the collapse of communism in Poland and Czechoslovakia former dissidents actually took power, in Russia everything was different. What took place was not the creation of true democracy, but the manufacture of a fiction, a democratic image, which wasn’t real. Sergei Kovalev considers that the people who helped Yeltsin - Soskovets, Grachev, Lobov, Korzhakov, “and others of that ilk” - were “just a normal Soviet nomenclatura in slightly different surroundings”. Gorbanevskaya expresses the opinon that it’s sad the Russian people should choose a KGB lieutenant colonel as their president, while Kuznetsov refers to Anouilh’s play about Joan of Arc, with its message that only a people that is prepared to fight for freedom is worthy of freedom.

Elena Bonner says that the Yeltsin government did a great disservice to the dissident movement, discrediting it primarily in moral terms. Podrabinek thinks that the Putin government which has replaced it needs above all to have an enemy – just as in Soviet times, when the USSR was “surrounded by enemies”, a useful tactic for creating public support. If the war in Chechnya had not been started, some other war would have been found instead. Kovalev states the view that while the present-day authorities realize the impossibility of resurrecting such Soviet institutions as the Gulag and censorship, they don’t actually need to re-establish them, because of the mass psychology which was created by the Soviet system, and which still prevails in Russia today. One thing the film makes abundantly clear, however, is that that even in today's Russia, a small circle of people can and could change the entire course of the nation's history. Vladimir Bukovsky is pessimistic about Russia’s future, and foresees the breakup of the country.

The four parts of the film can be watched here, here, here and here. (Warning: these are large .asf files, more than 30MB each. Links to smaller, lower-quality versions of the files can be found on the main link at the beginning of this post.)

It’s to be hoped that a version with foreign-language subtitles will be released before long.

(Hat tip: Marius)

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