A few years ago, I was standing in a queue at my bank in Tarrytown, New York, when I heard Russian being spoken behind me. This was not an everyday occurrence. Tarrytown is a suburban Republican enclave of neat lawns and narrow minds. I turned around and was startled to see a large, bushy- haired man in a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts bending down to address his young daughter. He looked slightly uncomfortable in his new American garb.
I recognized him as Pavel Litvinov, grandson of Stalin’s ex-foreign minister and wartime ambassador to Washington, Maxim Litvinov. I had not seen Pavel since our last chat in the corridor of the Moscow District Court House as we awaited the sentencing of a group of his dissident friends in 1968. I was then a young correspondent for Associated Press. He was the most important supporter of the accused, all of whom eventually went to the gulag or into mental hospitals.
Memories came flooding back. The last I had heard of Pavel was news of a different trial a bit later. He and fellow-dissident Larisa Bogoraz were branded as criminals and exiled to a small town in Siberia near the Mongolian border. Generally, they were considered “hooligans.” Specifically, they were sentenced for raising their voices against the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia and unfurling anti-invasion banners on Red Square. The invasion established the Brezhnev Doctrine, resetting the degree of obeisance the Kremlin required of its client states. And it was a signal to the Soviet people — and the West — that any moves toward freedom of expression would be crushed.
It was seven years before Pavel was allowed to come back to Moscow.
A physics teacher in a Moscow high school, Pavel had become one of the most prominent of the Soviet dissidents — by his courage, his privileged background and his fluency in English. Now he had landed almost literally in my back yard, teaching physics at Tarrytown’s Hackley School, a smart private school for boys. We had a warm reunion standing in that queue, and remained in touch for while, reminiscing about the Moscow hardships we suffered together and separately. He had been valuable to me as I tried to make sense of the growing Russian political resistance of the 1960s.
It was a special pleasure to welcome Pavel back into my life because Russia has been a personal obsession of mine since I first grappled with the Cyrillic alphabet in college. My interest has never flagged. The collapse and dismemberment of the country in 1991 remains a keystone event of my life. Collapse? How could this happen? To some degree because ordinary Russians like Pavel and Larissa had the moxie to face down the old men in charge — the gerontocracy that ruled the Kremlin. “We likely had an effect on changing people’s attitudes,” Pavel reminisced in an interview with a Czech journalist a few years ago. “This eventually — although earlier than we expected — brought about the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe.”
The anguish of the dissidents’ lives has been captured in dozens of books by and about them, creating a genre of protest literature all its own. These books include four volumes by Pavel about his clashes with authority. Others that I still pick up and reread are Vladimir Bukovsky’s To Build a Castle (1978) and Eduard Kuznetsov’s brutal Prison Diaries (1975). My favorite survey of the dissident world is by an American, Josh Rubenstein, who wrote the comprehensive Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights (1980). Rubenstein praised the dissidents for providing a
consistent and reliable means for the West to see and understand the reality of Soviet life… The dissidents created the first channels to the West, in political samizdat(self-publishing) and the example of courage in the struggle against fear. They proved that one could challenge the regime and survive, that truth provided its own strength, that law was worth defending.
And the books are still coming. British journalist Marc Bennett’s Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin, due out in February, looks at the new breed of dissidents such as the young women of Pussy Riot threatening President Vladimir Putin.
To my mind, the most engaging of all these books is by the late Andrei Amalrik, who wrote with style and humor about his gulag life in Notes of a Revolutionary (1982). His powers of observation never waned despite his dire circumstances. He described one prisoner in these terms:
There were several poets in our camp. One of them, a man of about fifty, was a genuine romantic, and as such, he had planned to commit suicide. He had decided he would use a hunting rifle for the purpose, and would combine his suicide with a 24-shot “salute to the nation,” so that the death of a poet would not go unnoticed. With the tenth shot, however, he accidentally wounded somebody else and got arrested.
Living conditions in the camps were below basic. He recalled life in one of his Siberian gulags:
In Novosibirsk, we had scarcely stretched out on the floor to sleep when a huge rat, accompanied by her little baby rats, came out of a hole and approached us. Meantime, bedbugs were attacking us from the rear. “Those bedbugs aren’t ours,” said the chief warder. “You brought them with you.”
“And the rats? I suppose we brought them along too?”
“No, the rats are ours,” the warder replied proudly. And indeed, the bedbugs could hardly stand comparison with the rats.
Almarik said he was known in the camp as “the guy got into trouble by scribbling stuff he shouldn’t have.” He was serving a long sentence for his sensational 1970 book Will the Soviet Union Survive till 1984? He was only seven years off. He died in 1980 in a car accident heading for a meeting of protesters in Spain.
Reading these tomes reminds us of what has happened during our lifetime in Russia and how the country’s new experimentation with “managed democracy” faces new repressive measures under President Putin.
The original dissident movement had a specific mission: political relaxation (reform from within) and respect for the law. It was an important factor in Mikhail Gorbachev’s formulation of glasnost and perestroika liberalization policies in 1985. The country was feeling pent-up frustration with the police state and the dissidents helped point the way forward. They were initially known as inakomyslyashchyi — the different-minded. Gorbachev’s most senior advisor, the late Alexander Yakovlev, was said to believe in the relatively small political dissident movement ; Gorbachev’s popular reforms embraced their main values (free expression, judicial transparency, right to emigrate). The lid was off: Their ideas helped lead to an era of liberalization that ultimately released a burst of free expression in the media and a modernized parliament. (Neither, alas, survived intact for very long, although some gains remain.)
Most people outside of Russia have little awareness of the courageous figures who helped break down the barriers and undo seventy years of shopworn communist ideology. By sheer good luck, I witnessed the birth of the dissident movement and came to know the main players personally. Most of them were educated men and women, some from the “working class” and some, like Pavel, from privileged families. With few exceptions, they looked like your typical Russian of that time: unhealthy, somewhat ragged and desperate for intellectual fresh air.
Why is it important to remember them today? Because repression is happening again and no one can say where it will stop or restart. Russia has a long history of clampdowns followed by relaxation followed by more clampdowns. When Vladimir Putin, hand-picked in 1999 by retiring President Boris Yeltsin, suddenly arrived on the scene (“like an imp from a snuffbox,” as the Russian saying goes) he showed initial signs of liberal thinking. He ultimately returned to repressive measures, however, imprisoning opponents and restoring government control of the media. But now, as the Sochi Winter Olympics approach, he has freed some high-profile political prisoners. Does this herald another period of thaw? Maybe.
Leading dissidents from the past have reminisced with me, often marveling at the goals they achieved. Some of these men and women are now in New York and Boston, some are in London, some in Paris, others are in Israel and a surprising number have stayed behind in their beloved Russia. A reunion of emigrant dissidents was held in 2004 at the Russian Tea Room in New York a few years ago. “It all seemed so anti-climactic,” one participant told me. “When the dust settled, we didn’t really get the credit we deserved.” They raised several glasses “to our hopeless cause,” their traditional ironic toast.
Given the cloak-and-dagger nature of Moscow reportage, Western journalists had problems deciding how the political dissidents fit into the Soviet jigsaw. Pavel and his friends at first seemed shady — might they have been planted to compromise us? They whispered their information in conspiratorial tones, eyes darting. Who were these strange people? Their motives were unclear. Most were unpublished writers or self-described intellectuals, but a few scientists were mixed in. Much of their news consisted of rather pompous “appeals to world opinion.” Well-trained American journalists were uneasy with them. Who cared about their appeals? And when they reported facts, they could not be double-checked.
Even the U.S. embassy wanted nothing to do with them. High-level Washington and Moscow diplomats in the early 1970s were trying to be accommodating. Furthermore, one could never be sure the alleged dissidents were not playing a game of entrapment. Expulsions often were based on just such traps, causing diplomatic incidents that often got out of hand with tit-for-tat exchanges.
And yet the characters were irresistible.
One of Pavel’s friends and fellow protester was a former Red Army General, Pyotr Grigorenko, a big man, 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds. I first met him in deep snow outside a Moscow courtroom where a handful of reporters waited for the sentencing of two dissidents. I assumed he was KGB. But I was soon disabused, or at least confused, for Grigorenko, ruddy, weather-beaten and bent, always turned up on the street outside these closed-door political trials, tentatively mixing with us reporters on stakeout duty. For a military man he was surprisingly affable, even in front of the thuggish KGB enforcers wearing red armbands and pointing their cameras at us.
My Russian was fluent enough to attract his attention. And yet as a skeptical reporter, I at first wondered how real his life story could possibly be: a defrocked Red Army general, a former cybernetics professor at the Frunze Academy (the Soviet West Point), recently released from a prison psychiatric ward in Tashkent after an arrest on trumped-up charges? We didn’t even know what “cybernetics” was in 1970. His story was too fanciful for words.
Yet it was all true and Grigorenko soon became my main source for dissident actions as reported in the latest copies of the underground press, Chronicle of Current Events, an illegal bimonthly account of civil rights abuses throughout the country. (Translations can be found here.) The samizdat“newspaper” appeared more or less regularly for six years, from 1968 to 1974. (What is samizdat? someone once asked Bukovsky. “I reported it, I wrote it, I typed it up, I distributed it,” he replied.)
Little did we know that as we lived our well-cushioned lives, attending diplomatic receptions and well-oiled dinner parties, what sinister activities were going on out of public view.
Thousands of innocent Soviets were being arbitrarily arrested and sent to labor camps in brutal conditions. Some examples: One physicist was convicted merely for possessing a copy of Boris Pasternak’s banned novel Doctor Zhivago. The charge was anti-Soviet behavior. Hundreds of Christian faithful were imprisoned for being members of the Evangelical Christian Church, known in Russia as the Baptists. In one celebrated case, a young Baptist was beaten unconscious by the police in an effort to force him to recant his religious convictions, then drowned to cover up the cause of death.
A deep strain of anti-Semitism, well-known among Russians for centuries, also surfaced among those who stayed away from the dissidents. Two of the most influential protesters, both of whom who went public after my time there, were Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Sakharov was nicknamed “Sakharovich” and Solzhenitsyn became “Solzhenitsky,” names that carry Jewish overtones in Russian. The racist slurs were understood by all, insinuating that troubles came from the Jews, not the ethnic Russians. Of course, neither was Jewish.
In his richly documented autobiopgrahy, Grigorenko: Memoir, Grigorenko related in great detail descriptions of torture inside one of the early Soviet “psycho-prisons”:
One method for enforcing discipline was the “wetpack,” in which the inmate was tightly wrapped in strips of canvas sheeting. The wrapping shrank and tightened as it dried, causing such pain that the inmate screamed in pain throughout the day and night. It served as a warning to others that misbehaving might bring the same treatment.
Dispassionately, he explained the official rationale:
All of the punishments are applied arbitrarily, as a means of imposing discipline or of punishing inmates who complain or refuse to cooperate. The frequency of their application may vary somewhat from one hospital to another. The newest ones have the mildest regime, but as their medical personnel become ‘militarized’ and traditions develop, the regime there too becomes more savage.
Prisoners sometimes sought transfer to the hospital hoping to find better conditions there. “In fact, the conditions are far worse,” wrote Kuznetsov in his Prison Diaries, “so the criminal employs his own form of protest. Many disfigure their bodies with tattoos. Others rip open their stomachs, swallow sets of dominoes or chess pieces, even bits of glass and barbed wire.”
Grigorenko was shocked by what was going on around him. An act of one prisoner, deranged by a long sentence and intolerable conditions, was to tattoo an anti-Soviet slogan on his body. Another tattooed “Slave of Khrushchev” on his forehead. He was taken to the prison hospital for removal of the offending section of flesh. In stitching up the wound, the surgeon pulled his eyebrows so high that for the rest of his life he could not close his eyelids. The other prisoners from then on called him “The Stare.”
The psycho-prison system greatly expanded under Khrushchev, then continued to grow under Leonid Brezhnev in the 1960s and 1970s. The first justification for this abuse of medicine had been spelled out by Khrushchev himself. Proud of his thaw that began in 1962 in the post-Stalin years, he said that henceforth only the mentally ill were to be incarcerated. As he put it in a Pravda interview:
A crime is a deviation from the generally recognized standards of behavior, frequently caused by mental disorder….To those who might start calling for opposition to Communism…. clearly the mental state of such people is not normal.
Public disruptions were not supposed to happen in Soviet society, and Litvinov and friends had the secret police on full alert, as we know from recently declassified archives. As a senior KGB official put it, Soviet citizens were forbidden to “dream different dreams.”
Archives would show that the dissidents even rattled the top leadership. KGB then-president Yuri Andropov informed Communist Party leader Brezhnev in 1969 that “politically incorrect literature” was circulating throughout the country and that his agents were taking measures “to suppress what the authors of samizdat have done.” Those measures included the full panoply of police state arsenal — telephone taps, unconcealed tailing, death threats, official warnings, interrogations and sentencing to the gulag. Andropov ultimately succeeded in stifling the dissidents in the mid-1970s but not before the breadth of discontent throughout the country had been revealed. In 1969, he reported to the top leadership that samizdat materials were circulating in Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa, Novosibirsk, Gorky, Riga, Kharkov, Sverdlovsk, Karaganda, Iouno-Sakhalinsk and Obninsk, among other towns and cities.
How big was the movement? Certainly there was no groundswell of outrage —ordinary Russians were too cautious for that. Rather, a protest leader told me in the late 1960s on a darkened Moscow side street that the best image would be a series of concentric circles. “I think of myself and my friends as sitting in the center, fully committed,” he said, “and ever-larger rings of sympathizers stretching out across the country like the ripples from a stone thrown into a pond.” The wider the ripple, the more the awareness but the less the commitment to action. His comparison was apt. The ripples reached across the eight time zones of the Russian landscape, from Moscow to Sakhalin to the Sea of Japan, as Andropov had reported.
The movement started so modestly that few of us in the foreign ghettos took it seriously. The original instigator was an eccentric, stuttering mathematician, Alexander Yesenin-Volpin, son of the popular poet Sergei Yesenin who committed suicide in 1925 and famously left a farewell note written in his own blood. The son, who giggled as he spoke and seemed slightly off-kilter, organized the first assembly of dissidents on Pushkin Square in 1965, the starting point for the dissident movement, just 18 months before I arrived to take up my Moscow posting. The ripples were still apparent when I started my job and the police presence at political trials had become markedly reinforced.
Yesenin-Volpin was the most fearless and outgoing of the dissidents. I remember taking a step back the first time he approached me on the street outside a courtroom. Did I really want to be associated with this odd-looking individual? I wasn’t sure what to expect. Chatting, we discovered some common ground — we were both forbidden entry to the courtroom, although these political trials were legally bound to be public.
He found this charade amusing and shared his mirth with me and another correspondent, still giggling as he noted the new Soviet meaning of “open.” “Open, but not to us,” he laughed. It was only after he began speaking seriously in his broken English that we realized he could enlighten us on the proceedings. He believed in the rule of law and explained his position eloquently.
He was a substantial intellectual figure, having studied applied mathematics at Moscow State University and, as I later learned, elaborated a theory on the emancipation of reason from emotion and produced several key works on mathematical logic. A Pennsylvania University history professor, Benjamin Nathans, studied Yesenin-Volpin’s life and works, and looked into the interrogations he underwent while confined at the notorious Serbskii Institute, the main psycho-hospital. In a scholarly paper published in Slavic Review, (Winter, 2007), he noted that Yesenin-Volpin was fascinated by the verbal cat-and-mouse games that inevitably occurred during such conversations. “For many dissidents,” Nathans wrote, “interrogations were the closest one could come to expressing one’s ideas directly to the Soviet government.” The modest demonstration launched by this man had expanded steadily into a mini-movement, and before we realized it we were locked into a strange co-dependency — the dissidents needed the foreign media as their megaphone and we needed them as a news source.
Bored with the daily gruel that we treated as news (“Pravda warned today …”) the foreign press corps gradually focused on the protesters as real news. Still, the Soviets often equated real reporting with a kind of spying so we erred on the side of caution to protect ourselves. Even the dissidents were unhappy with much of our work. They wanted our full commitment to their aims and they expected us to take sides and take risks, just as they had. Bukovsky wrote in To Build a Castle that early in the movement there was little interaction with the Western press. Perhaps overstating his case a bit, he came down hard on us:
Foreign correspondents in Moscow, partly because they were afraid of being expelled, partly because they had been cooped up and misled, were extremely shy of informing their papers of the repressions taking place… the authorities expelled anyone who got too friendly with us.
Was it even possible to do a sensible reporting job in Moscow by U.S. journalistic standards? Probably not. The quality of most journalists’ work from those days does not stand up well to close scrutiny. Coverage was often superficial, cliché-ridden and one-sided. We tended to report in an overtly pro-Western tone. Who were we working for? Even now, more than 30 years later, some people eye me suspiciously when I say I spent four years in Moscow. Just recently a lawyer friend in Paris looked me in the eye and asked, “Mike, were you a spook?” It’s a laughable idea, really. I was an absolute babe in the woods in espionage terms. I wouldn’t have known what to do with a secret missile silo if I had fallen into one. Anyway, I have far too big a mouth to be a spy.
But I did know something about political dissent, having studied Soviet affairs in graduate school in New York. It could be traced back to the loosening of the reins following Stalin’s death in 1953 and it was a seesaw process, manipulated by Khrushchev and his colleagues. One thaw became generally known upon publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovichin 1962. Alert Soviet intellectuals recognized that the ground was shifting.
It was another three years, though, before Litvinov, Yesenin-Volpin and friends dared to congregate in public. On Constitution Day, December 5, 1965, some 200 souls bundled up in their dark coats and fur hats and gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square in support of imprisoned writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel. The two accused, unknown outside of literary circles, were shortly to go on trial for publishing their works abroad and thereby “subverting the Soviet system”. This brought on a new freeze, orchestrated from the top.
Sinyavsky would later open his autobiography Goodnight! (1989) with this dramatic line: “They grabbed me near Nikitsky Gate.” He goes on to describe his sham trial, and at the end asks this question:
Have you ever heard applause for a sentence passed on you? In a jolly frenzy, the people in the courtroom bring down the rafters with applause for the charges that will bury you, pitiful you, who in a moment will be taken under guard from the courtroom, as prescribed by law…
On Pushkin Square, some of the demonstrators briefly succeeded in unfurling banners reading “Respect the Constitution!” and “We Demand an Open Trial for Sinyavsky and Daniel!” before being marched to the police station by plainclothes officers of the KGB. From this point on, the movement gained momentum, finally ending with arrests, expulsions, internal exiles and incarceration in psycho-hospitals.
Pavel Litvinov many years later returned voluntarily to Red Square with a group of his Hackley School students. He recalled for me how he walked them through his demonstration — actually a mere sit-down — and told his story to the wide-eyed American boys. The tension erupted in seconds, he said. “People (plainclothes police) came running toward us shouting ‘Shame!” “Disgrace!” “Kikes!” “Parasites!” and “Traitors!” He had no doubt that he would be beaten and sent to a labor camp for many years: “We did not resist but we did not come voluntarily either.” He said he was “pleasantly surprised” at the treatment he received during his interrogation, trial and exile. He was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974.
I too have made return visits to Moscow and found it an emotional experience to walk the streets I once feared while out chasing forbidden stories. Now talking openly with Russians, it was refreshing to hear them confidently criticize the political leadership and the police, comments that would have been hard to imagine when I worked there. Such were some of the gains of the Gorbachev reforms.
Only with many years of perspective have I come to realize that by reporting the discontent within Soviet society I was contributing to what many have called “the first rough draft of history,” a quip usually attributed to the late Washington Post president and publisher Philip Graham. These courageous men and women knew where they were going, and they were willing to give up their freedom, such as it was, their sanity, or even their lives, for it.
We barely grasped the importance of their initiatives. Even today, Russia remains contradictory and difficult for the Western mind. That’s what makes it fascinating. One journalist friend in Moscow liked to throw up his hands and declare: “It’s China, it’s Byzantium, it’s the moon.”
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Drawing of Pavel Litvinov by the author Michael Johnson: