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Requiem For a Dissident Dream

Every day, it seems, we read new press reports relating to the rule of law in Russia, or rather the lack of it. Over the past year, I read these articles in the morning – before scouring the archives of the Eastern European Research Centre at the University of Bremen, where I was conducting research on a Fulbright grant.

October 16, 2013 - Emily Tamkin - Articles and Commentary

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The aim of my research was to study the connection between legal dissidence in the Soviet Union and the rule of law in Russia today. How, I asked myself, do you make the connection between a historical movement and something that doesn’t exist?

The “legal dissidence movement” is the name of the project in Soviet Russia by which activists – poets and mathematicians alike – tried to hold their government accountable to its own laws. The movement was the brainchild of Aleksander Esenin-Volpin, son of the famous poet Sergei Esenin. The movement came about at the very beginning of the Brezhnev era with the reversal of Khrushchev’s “de-Stalinisation” policies. Writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were accused of anti-Soviet activity under the ubiquitous Article 70 of the Soviet Russian Criminal Code in 1965 for the “crime” of publishing short stories abroad. Esenin-Volpin led a protest on Pushkin Square in Moscow, in which dissidents held up signs with simple slogans: “Respect the Soviet Constitution,” “We demand transparency in the case of Sinyavsky and Daniel.”

The protestors on Pushkin Square did not actually believe that their signs would lead to a non-guilty verdict (which in fact they didn’t). Nor did the editors of The Chronicle of Current Events (an underground, self-published journal published in the 1970s and detailed the injustices of the Soviet Union) think that they were going to write a more honest regime into existence. Nor did the handful of people who stood on Red Square at noon in August 1968 to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia do so because they thought their banner would roll the tanks back.

The legal dissidents, however, by living by the law were simply trying to do as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn titled one of his most famous works: Live Not by the Lie. As famed dissident Vladimir Bukovsky said: “We were not expecting any victory – there was not the slightest hope of winning. But everyone wanted to have the right to tell his or her descendants: ‘I did all I could. I was a citizen and I always demanded legality.’” The descendants of whom Bukovsky speaks are now the ones currently fighting to tell their descendants the very same thing.

The interviews

Although the majority of my research was conducted in the archives, I supplemented it with a few interviews with the people who had written them – that is, with the dissidents themselves. My first interview with a Soviet dissident was conducted in April of 2012. It was with Aleksandr Esenin-Volpin, about whose dissidence I was, at the time, writing my thesis. He was unwell and was not living quite in the present. He could not, for example, remember who the current president of Russia was. But he remembered the protests on Pushkin Square in 1965. And he remembered what he had done for his country that no one had done before. He knew that he had come up with the idea of holding the government accountable to its own laws while going through various interrogations and years in exile and in prison. He told me that the protests in Moscow one December almost 40 years ago was the best thing he had done as a dissident.

My second interview was six months later. I wanted to read the archival documents of Natalya Gorbanevskaya, one of the protestors against the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, editor of Kontinent, author of Red Square at Noon, a survivor of horrible treatment under psychiatric arrest, a subject of a Joan Baez song, and a resident of Paris. I needed to contact her for permission to do so. To my surprise, and delight, she agreed to both of my requests. I arrived on time at Gorbanevskaya’s apartment, but she chided me for being early. She gave me coffee and cake and smoked tiny, skinny cigarettes throughout the interview. She did not want me to go question by question – instead, she grabbed my typed list of questions, read them over, and began to speak. Gorbanevskaya told me that her problem with the word “dissident” was that it made her – them – sound like something other than what they were, which was normal people.

“I am who I am,” she told me. A poet and a translator, and, yes, a protestor. “If I were not a poet,” she mused at one point, “maybe I would never have gone to the Square.” She spoke of the first publication of The Chronicle of Current Events, and of what an important moment that was, and how, one August night, she and several other people fought and debated for hours on what the right course of action was, before taking to Red Square at noon the next day. She agreed that the language surrounding Russian policies and politics today was strikingly similar to that of Soviet times, and that today, as then, there are protest movements consisting of all sorts of people with all sorts of aims.

But when I asked her what the outcome of what these new movements would be, and what the future of rule of law in Russia looked like, she paused, took a puff of her skinny cigarette, and looked at me. “I’m not a prophet,” she told me. “I never was. We will see.” Before I left, she gave me the number of a friend, Arina Sergeevna Zholkovskaya-Ginzburg, widow of Aleksandr Ginzburg, a prominent dissident whose second arrest and imprisonment was for publishing The White Book, a compilation of documents surrounding the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Sinyavsky and Daniel. Zholkovskaya-Ginzburg was also a dissident in her own right.

Zholkovskaya-Ginzburg was the picture of dignity and decorum. Her dog slept on the couch in the dining room as we spoke. She did not answer my questions directly – she told me that she would not do so because she wanted me to get a full picture of the movement and of what it was fighting against. It was hard, almost impossible, to understand it from the outside. She wanted me to understand that the demonstrations then were not like the demonstrations today. Hers was not a political movement – it was about being honest and decent in a country that tried to make its people anything but. And it was unprecedented. Russia in Soviet times was a country of mass mentality, and mass mentality meant fear. Fear was the disease of society, but they, the dissidents – she did not mind the word – would not be afraid.

I asked her about Russia today. It is a country, she told me, ruled by bandits who came to power – not unlike the Bolsheviks. The people now, as then, were not ready for what had ascended to the throne. I asked her what the future of Russia was. She spoke not of humanitarian movements, or of individualism, or of Putin’s banditry, but of the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea was a lake in Central Asia that dried up after misuse and abuse by the Soviet powers, claiming that the drying up of the lake was inevitable. But that was untrue. It wasn’t inevitable, and there had once been a sea, and now there isn’t. Russia, she told me, could be the next Aral Sea.

The conclusion that wasn’t

I tried to write an academic article about my research – about the connection between legal dissidence in Soviet Russia and the Eastern Bloc and rule of law in Russia today. I wrote a 45-page draft with 78 footnotes, and noted all the ways in which the Russian legal system today is strikingly similar to that of the Brezhnev era. I concluded that Russian dissidents had failed to ask for enough and failed to go outside the system, and that they needed to do so if there was ever to be rule of law in Russia.

I sent the draft to my advisor; who asked me what, exactly, was my new contribution to the discussion in this field. I thought about it being an original contribution in both the comparison and conclusions that I drew. But I realised then that my conclusion was substantively incorrect. What was I saying that the Russian dissidents should have done? Where outside of the system and into what was I telling them to go?

I realised I would not be able to make an original contribution to the academic field by answering the question set out in my grant proposal, or even answer the question at all. The question I asked – the question that got me the grant that brought me to Bremen, Germany for the year – was the wrong one.

The question is not: “What is the connection between legal dissidents in the Soviet Union and rule of law in Russia today”. The question should be: “Would we be able to ask about, or even think of, a future of rule of law in Russia without the dissidents of the Soviet Union?” If there weren’t people who decided that they were going to do what was right only because it was right, could there possibly be people – Russian citizens – who were going to do what was right in the hope of changing what was so wrong? I may never know the answer to the question. A year of research, and I have nothing but a supposition of an answer to what I think is, at long last, the right question. And that is more than enough.

Emily Tamkin has a BA degree in Russian Literature and Culture from Columbia University and is due to start MPhil in Russia and East European Studies at Oxford University, where she is a contributor for EUspeak. She spent last year on a Fulbright grant in Bremen, Germany, conducting research on dissidence in the Soviet Union and its connection to the rule of law in the region today.

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