Taisia Osipova being “slowly killed”


RFE/RL has an article on Russian rights activist Taisia Osipova’s third birthday in prison:

Osipova, who has a 7-year-old daughter, was initially sentenced to 10 years in prison for the possession and attempted sale of heroin.

The ruling sparked an outcry and was denounced by critics as a setup aimed at putting pressure on her husband’s political activities.

She got a retrial in 2012 after then-President Dmitry Medvedev criticized the verdict as “too severe.”

But her sentence was trimmed by just two years, although prosecutors had recommended that she serve a total of four years.

Osipova has complained of being subjected to humiliation by officials at her prison near Tver, including being held in a crowded cell and routinely barred from meeting with her lawyer.

According to Fomchenkov, she is also being denied proper medical treatment for diabetes. She is also reported to be suffering from pancreatitis.

Her health, he says, is rapidly deteriorating.

“She is not receiving suitable treatment. As a person with diabetes, she should have appropriate living conditions and diet,” Fomchenkov says. “This is impossible in prison. There is no endocrinologist there. In three years of detention she has seen an endocrinologist only twice, although she should be under constant monitoring by a specialist. This is not happening. They are slowly killing her.”


See also in this blog: Taisia Osipova sentenced to 8 years

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)

Soviet Dissent – 4

Authors_Andrei_Sinyavsky_and_Yuli_Daniel_during_their_trial_in_1956-66Underlining the literary nature of the rights defending movement, in 1965-66 the authors Andrei Sinyavsky (Abram Tertz) and Yuli Daniel (Nikolai Arzhak) were tried and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment  for works of fiction – short stories and novellas – they had written and then published in the West. The charges related to “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”, though the prosecution had difficulty in proving intent to do harm, and after the trial additional clauses had to be added to the penal code. Alexeyeva points out that while the rights defending movement had hitherto been largely the concern of the young, this trial drew the attention of a much wider cross-section of Soviet society, including the middle-aged, middle-class technological sector.

Another feature of the trial was the letter-writing campaign begun by Yuli Daniel’s wife, Larisa Bogoraz. Initially the letters  to representatives of the authorities, in particular the public prosecutor, were private and signed by her alone, like the letters that had earlier been written by others in support of Pasternak and Brodsky. As time went on, however, more signatories joined her, until the public “open letter” was born. After the harsh sentences passed on dissidents like Alexander Ginzburg, Yuri Galanskov, Vera Lashkova, Alexander Dobrovolsky, Vladimir Bukovsky, Viktor Khaustov and others, such letters were signed by as many as 700 people, most of whom fell victim to repression of various kinds: exclusion from the Communist Party and expulsion from university followed by loss of employment.

The rights defenders began to adopt other methods of exerting pressure on the authorities, including the circulation of petitions. Alexeyeva comments that the petitions against re-Stalinization and repressive judicial decisions were an indication that the USSR was beginning a transition from a totalitarian state to an authoritarian one – the petition had been an instrument used by the pre-1917 opposition in Russia, and its reintroduction suggested a return to earlier methods of democratic resistance.

The protests against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 developed the rights movement even further – Alexeyeva likens it to the growth of mushrooms. In Andrei Amalrik the movement acquired its first “specialist” in making contacts with supporters in the West: the institution of tamizdat was born, not only bringing in previously unavailable foreign texts but also books by Russian-language authors: Alexeyeva lists works by Sakharov and Amalrik, Anatoly Marchenko’s My Testimony, Vasily Grossman’s Forever Flowing, Lidiya Chukovskaya’s Moscow to the End of the Line, Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and The First Circle, and poetry by Iosif Brodsky, among others.

Soviet Dissent – 3

Soviet Dissent – 2

Soviet Dissent – 1 

Soviet Dissent – 3

In her discussion of the Soviet dissident movement Alexeyeva places an initial emphasis on two central points:

1) The movement is properly defined as a правозащитное движение – literally, “rights (or law) defending movement”. This name was entirely new and original: Alexeyeva notes that it came neither from the Russian traditions of constitutional democracy as practiced by the pre-1917 KD (Kadets), nor from the international human rights movement – instead, it described the experience and aspirations of people who had spent their lives in conditions of “lawless actions (беззаконий), cruelty and the trampling of the individual in the ‘interests of the collective’, or for the sake of ‘the bright future of all mankind’.” The situation and actions of the rights defenders were characterized by Andrei Amalrik as the expression of “something brilliantly simple: they began to behave as free people in a country that was not free and by doing so to change the moral atmosphere and the tradition that governed the country.” [my tr.] Thus, the rights defending movement was not a political movement, but a moral one. This enabled it to encompass national, ethnic, social, economic and religious borders and to reach out across them to the USSR as a whole and to the world beyond.

2) The movement had its roots in Russian and Soviet literature: the work of authors like Vladimir Dudintsev, Ilya Ehrenburg, Alexander Tvardovsky and Boris Pasternak created the moral and aesthetic context for much of the writing that appeared in the journal Novy Mir throughout 1960s, including the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Of primary importance, however, were the home-produced, clandestine publications of samizdat, which embraced not only civic texts but also many literary works, both Russian and foreign, that were banned from official circulation. The output of samizdat contained a strong component of poetry, which took its inspiration from an earlier twentieth century tradition of инакомыслие centering on poets who included Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva and Osip Mandelstam. While figures like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky dominated the official poetry scene, with occasional nods to the dissidents, the work of Iosif Brodsky was perhaps the best-known part of an enormous underground proliferation of poems by many different and often anonymous authors. Because of the relative conciseness of the medium of poetry, these texts could easily be committed to memory, thus bypassing the need for typing and printing. The poems were also frequently set to music and sung to the accompaniment of a guitar, which extended their availability and popularity. This literary work was able to express and convey the ideals of the rights defenders in a form that was far more attractive than the texts of civic documents.

Soviet Dissent – 1
Soviet Dissent – 2

Soviet Dissent – 2

Alexeyeva’s book is essentially divided into three equal parts, which deal with the Soviet national movements, the religious movements and the human rights movement, with the addition of chapters on the socialists, the social-economic protest and the Russian national movement. Of the three main parts, it is the section on the human rights movement which most closely corresponds to a history of what in the West has come to be known as the “Soviet dissident movement”.

It’s significant that the word  диссидентство (dissidence) doesn’t figure in the book’s title, which opts for the more general term инакомыслие (literally “heterodoxy”), rendered by the English translators as “dissent” (несогласие). This leaves the way open for discussion of movements which less related to human rights and more to freedom of thought and belief, such as the religious ones.

The methods of chronicling and historical analysis adopted in the book are for the most part strictly factual and statistical. The author’s personal view of the events and crises that are described and listed, though present, is not prominent, and the principal focus is on accuracy and detail, with the inclusion of as many movements, groups, societies and individuals as possible, giving rise to an extensive work that runs to nearly 400 pages in the Russian edition, and more than 500 in the English one.

The first third of the book is devoted to a history of the ethnic-national protest movements in the republics of the USSR, including Ukraine, the Baltics, Armenia, Georgia and Crimea, the Jewish refuseniks, the ethnic Meskhetians, and the Soviet Germans. The section that follows deals with religious movements – Baptists, Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists and Russian Orthodox – and it is not until page 205 that we arrive at a historical account of the dissidents most familiar to Western readers: figures such as Brodsky, Sinyavsky, Daniel, Gorbanevskaya, Amalrik, Bukovsky and so on.

Soviet Dissent -1

Soviet Dissent – 1

During a recent discussion of the Bolotnaya Square May 6 rally and the difficulty of determining the precise nature and composition of the various Russian opposition groups, I was reminded of similar debates about the Soviet dissident movement several decades ago. As many observers have pointed out, that movement, too, was not a coherent, united one, and could not be likened to a political party with a unifying ideology, program and strategy. The problems for historians trying to map out the structure and internal dynamics of the dissident movement are formidable, and it’s perhaps not surprising that Ludmila Alexeyeva’s История инакомыслия в СССP (published in English in 1985 as Soviet Dissent) still remains the only major study of the subject, though it stops at 1983, and the English edition is now out of print. The Russian text can be accessed online at several locations, including this one.

In future posts I’m going to discuss this book, and consider how its historical account of the dissident movement may be relevant to present-day conditions in the Russian Federation.

Dissidence and Division

In her Minding Russia blog Catherine Fitzpatrick discusses the conflicted nature of the political opposition in Russia, and points out that it is indeed entirely natural:

Long ago I said to myself — hey, it’s their country, they are going to do what they want and I’m not required here except to show solidarity as appropriate to what is appropriate. I think the frenzy that people like [Kevin] Rothrock get into over the Russian opposition is in part driven by the notion that if only they can incite enough indignation and even hatred, they will actually shame or compel people into changing — either the opposition themselves, or their default supporters. They likely truly believe that Putin needs protection.

So hey, I get it about the opposition.  They’re no angels; they have some iffy pasts; they are not effective; they fight among themselves; blah blah blah. But you know something? So do people in the State Department, about what to do about Russia — which strategy to use. And so do people in the European Union — there are huge splits over the issue of whether you coddle or curb Russia, or whether you foster capitalism or socialism, and how, and the role of religion or the secular state. So it’s not as if the rest of the world is in fact any better about the central problem at hand here, the figure of Putin, which is a construct of “the Kremlin,” as in “that fortified place”.

The post raises some basic issues about political and individual resistance in societies that are either totalitarian or are moving in the direction of totalitarianism. Meanwhile, the spectacle of Western indifference or hostility to opposition movements in Russia is not a new one: in a comment I noted that such lack of faith is frequently grounded in the often fragmented character of the opposition itself : after all,

there were similar divisions in the former Soviet dissident community – for example, between figures like Bukovsky, Brodsky, Venclova on the one hand and Etkind, Sinyavsky/Tertz, Medvedev, etc. on the other, though many other such splits existed. Some of the differences were probably personal, while others originated in issues of background, philosophy and outlook. Despite the superficial Western public perception of a unified Soviet dissident movement, the internal divisions were reflected in differences of approach among Western reporters, journalists and commentators, just as they are today where the Russian opposition is concerned. As Fitzpatrick makes clear in her post, however, now as then the divisions don’t really matter: what matters is to “not break faith with people being sent to the GULAG”.

Taisia Osipova sentenced to 8 years

Via Ekho Moskvy:

Today the Zadneprovsky District Court of Smolensk sentenced Taisia ​​Osipova to 8 years in prison. Even though the prosecutor had only  requested 4! Even though the case simply teemed with procedural violations. Even though President Medvedev asked for the case to be reviewed, just as he had asked for a review of the laying of a roadway through the Khimki Forest, for example. Even though Taisia is a sick woman. And a mother.

But in court she did not lose heart, even smiled once. Said she would not give up. Would appeal the sentence.

Officials and dissidents

…in our social system there are no “politicians of the governing majority”, in their place are officials, performers, whether outside the Duma or inside the Duma. There are no opposition politicians – instead of them there is a procession of clowns. Finally there are no politicians outside the system — the only activity possible is that of the dissident or near-dissident.

To sum it up baldly:  there are officials and dissidents. As in Soviet times, as under the tsars. As in Russia.

Leonid Radzikhovsky, in ej.ru [my tr.]