Month: May 2013

From Soviet dissent to Bolotnaya protest


In order to understand the present situation in Russia with regard to social protest, human rights, the growing censorship of media and the steady increase in violent repression by the authorities, I believe it is necessary to look at the history of the Soviet dissident movement and its post-1991 evolution. In a series of recent posts I attempted to summarize Ludmila Alexeyeva’s history of the movement as it appears in a section of her important book История инакомыслия в СССР (1983). What emerges from her carefully documented account is an enormous panoply of groups and individuals, many with widely differing views, yet united in their opposition to the cynicism and amorality of the Soviet regime, and their determination to hold it to the legal standards it professed on paper yet ignored in practice. Above all, Alexeyeva’s history provides the basis of a proper explanation of why in the post-Soviet period so few figures in the dissident movement took positions of influence in the new governments that were established after the fall of Communism, and why in Russia no process of “lustration” – the government process regulating the participation of former security police agents in successor positions – took place, as it did the ex-satellite countries of Eastern Europe.

In their published correspondence entitled What Became of the Soviet Dissidents? (2002) Keith and Masha Gessen have discussed some of the attributes and circumstances of the dissident movement in a way that exposes one of its central features: its location in two separate geographical and ideological/cultural regions, commonly called “East” and “West”. While the Soviet dissidents were cultural and social non-conformists, in political terms they had little in common with their counterparts in the West, the radicals of the 1960s and 70s. While Western radicals conceived their protest as a political act, for the Soviet dissidents resistance to the prevailing order took an essentially moral form. In this there was a fundamental clash, for while among the youth of the West political action was greatly valued, enjoying a high degree of respect, in the East it was viewed by most people with mistrust, as the language and practice of repression. In the West, on the other hand, the concept of morality had come to be equated with “bourgeois morality”, which was rejected in favor of new cultural and social norms. So there was little room for mutual understanding in these two important areas. While the political protesters of the West were eagerly exploited for propaganda purposes by the Soviet authorities, in the West the dissidents were championed mainly by right-wing politicians. In his remarkable essay Exiles on Main Street, which forms the starting-point for the correspondence, Keith Gessen explains some of the tensions and the sense of incongruity:

…to have a man dressed in an aging checkered sweater, over whose chair hangs a beige corduroy jacket with brown leather patches at the elbows, who is constantly smoking (Benson & Hedges), whose face radiates intelligence and skepticism and tolerance in the greatest tradition of the Left – to have such a man tell you he supported Reagan is remarkable! And then again, not so remarkable. Reagan was just entering office when we came over, and for the entire generation that arrived in the late seventies and eighties he will forever symbolize the welcoming arms that met us, the astounding difference of this new world. While the liberals shucked, shawed, and prattled on about universal health care in the USSR, Reagan believed us! Not only that, he was willing to act on this belief: he so hated the evil empire (how evil, we well knew) that he would plunge the country into debt, ship arms behind the back of Congress, bring us to brink of armed conflict to beat them!

This strange yet logical disparity, this almost surrealistic juxtaposition of two entirely different assessments of reality, is probably at the root of much of the bewilderment that is still felt both by radicals in the West and by oppositionists in Russia today when seeking to understand the protests of the past and present day on either side. For the Soviet dissidents were not, as is commonly believed in the West, a few courageous voices in the wilderness crying out in isolation – they were only the most audible voices, the tip of a very large iceberg, a social and cultural stratum that underlay almost the whole of Soviet society, from bottom to top, and was instrumental in the Soviet system’s downfall. The leaders, like Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Yesenin-Volpin, Brodsky and others, were not political figures in any accepted sense – indeed, their work went far beyond political activism and involved social, historical, literary, intellectual, biographical and cultural factors that are often hard to pin down. Yet in spite of all the internal divisions, the apolitical arena and the frequent displays of personal rancour, the strength of the movement’s resistance remained.

(to be continued)

The Shield of Achilles

By Tomas Venclova

To Joseph Brodsky

I speak alone that on the nerves’ taut screen
I shall see clearly now, as once you used to,
The key lying there beside the empty ashtray,
These railings by the chapels built of stone.
You weren’t wrong: all’s just as it is here.
For now. Even the scope of the imagination.
The same descent of kilometres to the shore-line
Where still the sea

Hears both of us. Beneath the green leafed roof
Gleam,almost as before, the heavy lampshades.
The different tempi that impel the clock’s hands
Are far more dangerous than the bitter wave
Between us. Moving far in space’s grip
You grow as distant as the Greeks, as strange as
The Medeans. In shame we’ve stayed, we others,
On board this ship

Which is not safe, not even for the rats.
And if one looks well, then one realises:
This is no ship, but brick walls, bright roofs, troubles,
A date that all too frequently comes round –
In fact, maturity. This tutelage
Sinks into all our brains. Expanses,
Each day growing emptier, would have come to blind us,
If by the verge

Where, vertical, the rain hovers and roves
A solemn vault of sound had not arisen,
Almost annihilated in this sudden summer,
But giving us the blessed manacles
That probably coincide with, fit the soul –
Exalt and burn, defining outlines, forming,
Because our heaven and our terra firma
Are in voice, all.

Peace be to you. To you and me, both, peace.
Let it be dark. Abd let the seconds hurtle.
Through densest space, that dream of many layers,
I read each character your pen’s released.
Whole cities disappear. In nature’s stead,
A whitge shield, counterweight to non-existence.
In its enrgraving both our different eras
Lie double-etched

(Were there but happiness and strength enough!)
As though in water. Or, put more precisely,
As though in emptiness. Waves beat the beach-head,
Distintegrate the mobile sketch. The squares
Of windows gleam with blackness. Late in dreams
The heated air seeps slowly through the glass panes.
Beyond the towers, a motor faintly rasping,
And into me

Roll day and hours. You see, between each chime,
The bell’s blind swing inside its belfry.
Till the foundations answer its peal dully
There flows an endless interval of time.
The portals quiver, tautened by the beat,
And archway signals out to neighbouring archway,
And souls and continents call out to one another
In living night.

A dirty gloom enshrouds the sails, and sticks.
The sodden quay exhales a pungent vapour.
You see Thermopylae, having seen Troy earlier –
The shield is given to you. You are a rock.
The pillars set above this permanence
Impact the wind with their scintillant metal,
Although the rock, too, stands near sham and swindle
And wordlessness.

Entrusting to each one of us our fates
You cross now to the level of remembrance.
But every mment that exists, exists twice.
Wee accompanied by a double light
Inside the ring that days, nights tighten more.
Low tide. On sand the ebb’s pools glisten.
Boat, stone don’t yet look different on the coastline,
The empty shore.

(translated by David McDuff with the author)

See also:

Nel Mezzo Del Cammin
Night Descended On Us With A Chill

Alyokhina Interview

Two months ago Fiona Cook interviewed Maria Alyokhina via webcam for Dazed magazine. In the interview Alyokhina talks about what she sees as the widespread misunderstanding of Pussy Riot’s activities, and explains her  views on social protest and art. The link to the video is here:

Alyokhina forced to accept defence lawyer

At the Berezniki City Court parole hearing today, Maria Alyokhina was forced to accept a defence lawyer to represent her against her will – but the lawyer, Evgeny Bardin, has said he cannot represent Alyokhina’s interests without her consent, and without her participation in the hearing. In spite of this, Judge Shagalov has told him he must act for Alyokhina, and after a short recess the hearing has gone ahead, with the head of the unit inside the penal colony where Alyokhina is held outlining the breaches of prison discipline with which she is charged: these are 1) Not keeping her bed tidy 2) Not wearing a headscarf while using the sewing machine 3) Writing a letter during dinner.

The court is now in recess. A judgment on Alyokhina’s parole is due to be given at 17.30.

Update: reports that parole has been denied.

This is the second day of Maria Alyokhina’s hunger strike.

Two Letters

To The Berezniki City Court, Perm Region, Russian Federation

It has come to my notice that  the  Berezniki City Court of Perm Region is to consider a request for conditional early release in connection with Maria Vladimirovna Alyokhina, who is currently serving her sentence at the FKU IR-28 of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service in the Perm Region.

I cannot justify the actions of those who took part in the demonstration in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, but I think that the further incarceration of Maria Alyokhina in a penal colony is harmful both for Alyokhina and for society as a whole, as it contributes to an atmosphere of intolerance and will  lead to a split and radicalization of society.

Regardless of Maria Alyokhina’s  personal relation to the action, I see no legal foundation or practical sense in her further isolation from  the society to which she poses no real danger.

The presence of Maria Alyokhina’s six year-old son, to whom every day of separation from his mother causes irreparable harm and suffering, is another strong argument in favor of Maria Alykhina’s early release.

I think there is a need to take note of the positive assessment of Alyokhina’s character given  by environmental organizations and the Orthodox Danilovtsy charity. They call her a kind and selfless person.

This leads one to hope that upon her release Maria Alyokhina will bring benefit to society – both as a caring mother and as a participant in ecological and charity work.

I am convinced of the need for Maria Alyokhina to be given parole, and I therefore ask the Berezniki City Court to show humanity and compassion for the fate of the imprisoned woman, her son and her family and I appeal to the court to grant her conditional early release.

Archpriest Alexey Anatolievich Uminsky

Dean of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Khokhly

Moscow, Khokhlovsky Pereulok 12

[my translation – DM]


To The Berezniki City Court, Perm Region,

Russian Federation

Monday 13th May 2013

Re: Maria Alyokhina

I am writing with regard to the release on parole petition of Maria Alyokhina now serving her sentence at the FKU IK-28 of the city of Berezniki, Pem Region, Russian Federation.

I believe that further imprisonment of Maria Alyokhina is harmful both for her and for all those who are following her situation. To keep her incarcerated will help to divide society even further.

Maria is a positive, generous person committed to making the world a better place in part through protest art, feminist ideals and the protection of the environment. She has also assisted social activists and worked hard to defend the rights and freedoms of individuals.

Many people all over the world are watching what happens to Maria, and I ask you please to consider treating her with compassion, and justice is seen to be done.

Thank you for considering this request.

Peter Gabriel

Update: Paul McCartney has written letters to Russian officials in support of Pussy Riot.

Alyokhina declares hunger strike

BEREZNIKI (Perm Territory), May 22 (RAPSI) – Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina has gone on a hunger strike after The Berezniki City Court in the Perm Territory denied her access to the hearing of her parole appeal.

Alyokhina takes part in the proceedings via videoconference. After being denied transportation to the courthouse, she refused to continue the conference and barred her defense team from representing her interests. Immediately after that court postponed the hearings until Thursday.

Alyokhina denied access to parole hearing


11:11 22/05/2013

BEREZNIKI (Perm Territory), May 22 (RAPSI) – The Berezniki City Court in the Perm Territory has denied Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina’s request to attend the hearing of her appeal for parole, RIA Novosti reports on Wednesday.

In response to this decision, Alyokhina has filed for the judge  [NB should be “prosecutor” DM][to] be replaced.


Alyokhina’s plea for the prosecutor to be replaced was refused.

Radio Svoboda has a live video feed from the courtroom on this page:

RS reports that Alyokhina has declared a hunger strike 

and because of many procedural irregularities she and her lawyers have ceased cooperation with the court.

The hearing is adjourned until 10 am tomorrow, May 23.

Gruppa voina says that Alyokhina will end her hunger strike if the court allows her to take part in the hearing.