The double bind that converted Soviet dissent into Reaganesque conservatism began to unravel slightly when the second half of the 1980s ushered in the period of perestroika and glasnost, though there were still vast areas of almost complete misunderstanding. With Gorbachev’s rehabilitation and release of political prisoners in 1988, Western media began to talk as though the repression was finally over, and a mood of exaggerated Western optimism vis-à-vis Russia and Eastern Europe took hold. Keith Gessen quotes from Paul Berman’s A Tale of Two Utopias on a visit Frank Zappa made to Czechoslovakia in 1989
which came to represent for the author the yawning gap between the cultures. “You’ve been living with secret police for a long time,” Zappa told an adoring crowd of time-frozen hippies in Prague. “It will take Americans a while to realize that we have them, too.”
1989 also saw the rebirth of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which had been dissolved in 1982 when because of arrests and repressions its membership was reduced to three. But many in the West wondered why this re-establishment was necessary – surely the old order had irrevocably changed, and there was no more need for such an organization?
What Western observers did not understand at the time was that the changes in Russia and the rest of the Soviet Union were not in themselves political — rather, they represented a huge shift in the consciousness of large numbers of people in a part of the world where freedom of speech and freedom of movement had been denied for countless decades, and where now for the first time in almost a century, hope seemed possible. At a political level, the changes were not significant — even under Yeltsin, many of the old Soviet government apparatchiks retained positions of power and influence, and the Soviet secret security and intelligence service, the KGB, which in 1991 had appeared to be dismantled, reconstituted itself first in 1993 as the FSK, and then in 1995 as the FSB. While on the surface of things a degree of openness and relative civic freedom came to Russian society throughout the 1990s, the basic practice of terror against opponents of the regime remained unaltered, though now it was implemented not primarily through the courts and the judicial system (that method has since returned) but directly, by means of shootings and assassinations. During the first post-Soviet decade over a hundred reporters and journalists were killed in such circumstances, and although not all the deaths can be attributed to their investigative work and publications, many did have such a connection.
The war in Chechnya, which began in 1994, saw the work of the rights defenders extend to the arena of military conflict, and there was the spread of a perception that the extreme brutality of the Russian forces against the civilian population of the North Caucasus was a demonstration of the officially sanctioned violence that lurked beneath the surface of life in the rest of the Federation. Meanwhile, the authorities took advantage of the fear that was aroused by events like Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis and the 1999 apartment bombings — the authorities presented themselves as the guarantors of social stability and order, and the first Putin presidency was ushered in.
Although the Soviet dissident movement had ceased to exist, in the new circumstances of a transitional Russia, where elements of the past coexisted uneasily with modernizing tendencies, the true nature of the movement became clear. It had not been a political movement – after the fall of Communism very few dissidents returned to Russia, and those who did mostly failed to take positions of power in the political system. In his correspondence with his sister, Keith Gessen points to the real nature of the movement, by summarizing the ultimate stance and message of one of its most prominent figures, asserting that
what remains of dissidence is what needs no real-world reference to make sense. You know what I would do? I’d start with Solzhenitsyn, with the Gulag Archipelago, the great monument to the immensity of will it took, the evil Solzhenitsyn saw in that regime, and I would ask: the archipelago is gone, the people whose memories this draws upon are dead, Solzhenitsyn is a silly and despised old man–what still remains here that is living truth? And most of it, I think, does. Solzhenitsyn is talking about the camps, of course, but in the context of a life. That scene at the beginning, when he’s being taken to Lubyanka and he’s taking the escalator up out of the metro, and he can see and touch all the people on their daily commute, who are not being taken to Lubyanka., but who do nothing to help him, who don’t even notice-what an astounding metaphor for urban life, or just life, for the crowds of people who walk by us each day without pausing to notice. And there’s another line I stumbled across somewhere in the depths of volume seven: “the sad thing is: we’ll all die, eventually, without having done anything worth the doing of it.”
In the new protest movement that had its inception in the Bolotnaya Square demonstration of May 6 2012, this “context of a life” – the principle and practice of individual protest that is not a political program but a statement that draws its collective power from the perception of a shared humanity – is what is uppermost. Above all, it is a movement to support the right of people to live their lives peacefully in the way that they choose, for better or worse, without intrusion and coercion by the State, and find their way towards a better way of living together. As Hufvudstadsbladet‘s Moscow correspondent Anna-Lena Laurén pointed out in relation to Pussy Riot:
Pussy Riot are a feminist performance group who are not interested in PR or making money. They are interested in changing Russia. This means that their activities are concentrated in Russia and they rarely travel abroad. They never announce where they are going to be in advance.
From Soviet dissent to Bolotnaya protest