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Протесты общественности. The Forgotten History of Dissent and Hope

By Alexei Bayer
In the 100 years since the democratic revolution in 1905, Russia has suffered more wrenching, radical changes than probably any other nation on earth. Yet, strangely, it remains deeply rooted in its history, if not imprisoned by it. That was something Lenin's Bolsheviks found out soon after importing into Russia a creed born of the Western Enlightenment and further fashioned by German political philosophers. The system meant as a new stage in world history quickly became Russified, and its architects began searching for antecedents in Russia's past. The 1917 Revolution was variously portrayed as a descendent of the Cossack rebellions of Stepan Razin in the 17th century and Emelyan Pugachev in the 18th century, or even of the Decembrist plot hatched by high-born officers in 1825. The deep conservatism of Russian society and the lightning-fast changes it endured help explain one of the more ridiculous patterns of Russian politics: Each new Russian leader tends to reject and vilify his predecessor and promise a clean break, a renewal or a purification. Meanwhile, the population at large keeps pining away for past rulers and idealized regimes. There is, therefore, nothing new or extraordinary in the current wave of nostalgia for the communist past that has inundated Russia. Nor is it any surprise that the government of President Vladimir Putin both promotes and exploits such nostalgia for its own ends. Actually, it is a rational nation-building strategy: to honor the past, warts and all, while building a democratic future within the community of nations. That's what most other countries seem to do. The United States, for example, remains proud of its democracy and Constitution, despite harboring dark skeletons in its historical closet, such as slavery and racial discrimination. The question is which past a nation chooses to honor. In Putin's Russia, the rehabilitation of old Soviet heroes is now in full swing.
Deputies in the State Duma periodically cry for a return of the statue of blood-soaked Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky to its original place in front of FSB headquarters on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad. Monuments and memorials to Yury Andropov, a longtime chief of the KGB and Putin's old boss, have appeared in Russian cities. Even Stalin's name is attaining a measure of legitimacy under the pretext of celebrating the 60th anniversary of Russia's victory in World War II. The revival of this particular pantheon is all the more troubling since it is set against the backdrop of the complete oblivion reserved for Soviet-era dissidents, who are the true heroes of recent Russian history. A few months ago, while working on a column for Vedomosti, I tried to look up information on a group of Moscow ninth-graders who in 1966 were caught distributing anti-Stalinist leaflets. I had a personal interest in the story, since those kids were upperclassmen at my own school, and we all suffered from the resultant crackdown.
The leader of the group, Irina Kaplun, was later expelled from Moscow State University for organizing a protest rally on Stalin's 90th birthday. She became a human rights activist and in 1980 died in a suspicious car crash while collecting information for the samizdat journal, the Chronicle of Current Events. I found these facts in an old issue of the Chronicle on the web site of the human rights group Memorial. Another reference to Kaplun turned up in an old posting on the site of Gratitude, a charitable fund set up in New York to help former dissidents. Without naming them, the fund announced that Kaplun's elderly mother and teenage daughter were in dire need of financial assistance. In general, the Russian Internet has surprisingly little information about the dissident movement. And, as the popular saying goes, if you are not on the web, you don't exist. These days, on the 20th anniversary of Mikhail Gorbachev's important reforms, much debate has been focused on the nature of perestroika and glasnost. But all you really need to know about the post-Soviet Russia engendered by his perestroika is that people who fought for democracy and freedom in the Soviet Union have been utterly forgotten here. Though small, the human rights movement made an important contribution to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ousting of the Communist Party. Meticulously and nonviolently, human rights activists insisted that the authorities uphold their own laws. Just as importantly, they undermined the myth of monolithic Soviet society. And most importantly, demands put forward by dissidents -- such as the rule of law, the freedom of speech, religious tolerance, ethnic self-determination and emigration -- supposedly constitute the legal foundation of post-Soviet Russia, the basic law of which Putin has sworn to defend. For a short time at the start of perestroika, dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov provided a measure of moral authority. After the Soviet Union collapsed, some elements in the newly liberated Russia sought to establish a direct lineage between Boris Yeltsin's regime and the human rights movement. But it got no further than naming a sterile Brezhnevite artery through the center of Moscow Sakharov Prospekt. There were timid plans for a monument as well, but since the advent of the Putin administration, Sakharov's widow, Yelena Bonner, has been opposed to the idea. Today, the project seems utterly irrelevant. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," wrote author William Faulkner. It may still be true in the American South, and it is certainly very true in Russia. It is highly symbolic, then, that as the Putin administration slides toward Brezhnevism, its subservient prosecutors have decided to go after Yury Samodurov, the director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center in Moscow, for an exhibit related to religious freedom. The fact that Sakharov is, albeit indirectly, being tried on trumped-up charges in a kangaroo court means that, despite the false hope of the 1990s, the work of the Soviet dissidents begun in the 1960s and 1970s is far from finished.

Alexei Bayer is an economist based in New York and writes the Globalist column for Vedomosti. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.
© Copyright 2005 The Moscow Times. All rights reserved
Monday, March 21, 2005. Issue 3128. Page 8.

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Региональная общественная организация «Общественная комиссия по сохранению наследия академика Сахарова» (Сахаровский центр) решением Минюста РФ от 25.12.2014 года №1990-р внесена в реестр организаций, выполняющих функцию иностранного агента. Это решение мы обжалуем в суде.