Keith Gessen

How It Was Done in Odessa

In LRB Keith Gessen takes a tour of post-revolutionary Odessa – and has some commentary on the historical background to recent events:

Concerns over the collapse of the Russophone political space are nothing new. In the 1990s such disparate writers as Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky and Eduard Limonov worried over it. Solzhenitsyn proposed creating a Russian-language superstate, encompassing the Russian Federation as well as the Russian-majority sections of northern Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. Limonov actually took up arms, or tried to: he was arrested in 2001 for trying to transport a cache of Kalashnikovs and some explosives which he may have been planning to use in an invasion of northern Kazakhstan, with the intention of declaring a Russian republic there. Brodsky’s poem ‘On Ukrainian Independence’, written in the early 1990s, excoriated Ukrainians for wanting independence from Russia. He read the poem once at a public gathering in New York, then forbade its publication, but it’s circulated online for years. It’s a furious poem, but I had never truly realised, until seeing the Russians in Odessa, just how nasty it was. Brodsky warns his Ukrainian readers that on their deathbeds they’ll remember the poetry of Pushkin, not the brekhnya (‘gibberish’) of the Ukrainian national poet, Taras Shevchenko. And maybe he’s right: maybe Pushkin is the better poet, and maybe a Ukrainian inclined to remember poetry on his deathbed would choose Pushkin. But maybe he wouldn’t. And in any case Ukrainian independence isn’t a poetry competition.

From Soviet dissent to Bolotnaya protest – 2



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

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)