Documentary Film and Dissident History in the Putin Era (December 2013)

Documentary film has come to play a key role in public discussions of history in the Russian Federation since the late 1980s. Provocative, creative, and occasionally scandalous, documentaries see competing visions of the past square up to one another on screen.

As part of my interest in the connections between documentary film and cultural memories of dissident activity, I recently talked with Andrei Loshak, a Moscow-based journalist and film-maker, while on a research in Russia trip.1 In particular, I was keen to discuss his recent documentary film Anatomy of a Trial, which charts the rise and fall of the democratic and anti-Stalinist movement in Moscow during the 1960s and 1970s through the life stories of Petr Yakir (1923-1982) and Viktor Krasin (b.1929). The film follows the rise of samizdat circulation and reactions of the Moscow intelligentsia to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, before turning to the arrest, interrogation and trial of Yakir and Krasin in 1972-1973.


Released on the internet TV station Dozhd, Loshak’s film draws parallels between the interrogation and trial of leading dissident figures in 1972-1973 and its effects on the intelligentsia, and the fate of the contemporary Russian opposition. Indeed, the film’s title references Arkady Mamontov’s exposé documentaries Anatomy of Protest (2012), which suggested, for example, that Left Front activists, closely involved in protest actions last year (and before), were taking their financial and organisational cues from Georgian security services personnel.

The film paints the period 1972-1973 as something of a breaking point in dissident history: the effect of Krasin and Yakir’s private and eventually public cooperation with the authorities would lead directly not only to a string of searches, arrests and imprisonments at the heart of the Moscow rights defence movement, but would also prove a clear warning to those on its edges. This was particularly clear when the pair’s cooperation extended to confessions of “criminal connections” with emigre and foreign state organisations before a press conference in August 1973. These organisations, it appeared, gave them the literature that circulated in samizdat and, in return, Yakir and Krasin gave them entirely fictitious information: the concerns of dissidents with legal abuses were revealed as a hoax. This ‘performance’ was later broadcast on central television and as part of an documentary film exposing dissidents for their lack of patriotism.

During the 1940s and 1950s, both Krasin and Yakir had served lengthy camp sentences – Yakir spent 14 years in the Gulag after his father, the Red Army commander Iona Yakir, was arrested and shot in 1937 – before they rose to the fore in the rights defence movement during the 1960s. Both participated in establishing the first human rights committee in the USSR in 1968, the significance of which, as pointed out by Robert Horvath, should not be underestimated: the Initiative Group on Human Rights was the first such group to use human rights language in its appeals to Soviet and Western governments, utilising new techniques to make their message effective and ensure that their organisation remained as public as possible.2 Yet despite their leading roles in openly defying the Soviet system and particular their criticism of the legacy of Stalinism, Yakir and Krasin were broken one after the other during their interrogation by the KGB: Krasin would later claim that he cooperated after being threatened with a re-qualification of his charge to Treason, which potentially carried the death penalty; Yakir wished to protect his daughter, who was pregnant at the time.

This process eventually resulted in Yakir and Krasin handing over a significant amount of information concerning samizdat, and roughly 200 people in Moscow and other major cities were interrogated as a result. The cooperation with the interrogators led to the KGB blackmailing the rights defence community with demands for them to curtail the Chronicle of Current Events under threat of random arrests if they did not. Eventually, Yakir and Krasin gave confessional speeches at a press conference in Moscow. During this event, Yakir and Krasin talked of their involvement in activities hostile to the Soviet state, as well as their criminal connections to emigre organisations responsible for equipping them with anti-Soviet literature. While the KGB had already been pumping out this sort of propaganda since the late 1960s, the fact that it was spoken by individuals considered leaders of the rights community demonstrated the security service’s ability to make anyone sing to their tune.

As Loshak told me during our conversation, he was particularly motivated to make this film following a sense of disappointment in the stylistic limitations of other documentaries about dissidents, but also by the parallels he saw with the wave of protests in Russia following December 2011. The film is certainly stylish, and it uses reconstructed scenes and interviews with prominent members of the rights community to re-trace the history of the trial. As a result of the interviews, it shows a distinctly human side to the history of dissent: to paraphrase a famous dissident aphorism, these individuals are shown as ‘ordinary people’ trying to live honest lives and, in doing so, resisted Soviet power. Yet while Loshak’s film has drawn positive reactions in homage to this humanising angle taken on Yakir and Krasin, it has also provoked fierce debate from other circles because it gave Krasin a platform with which to enhance his reputation. This is considered especially suspect when the experiences of dissent is not, generally speaking, a popular conversation topic for Russian society.

While Loshak received a certain amount of stick for his interpretation of dissident history, the film also offered comment on the situation of the Russian opposition. Many of those who have critical views of Vladimir Putin’s regime have been discussing and drawing on the parallels between the current situation and the 1960s and 1970s: claims of a new stagnation, references to the common places of dissent such as samizdat and kitchen conversations have proven popular on social media over the past two years. At the same time, pro-state commentators have returned to the rhetoric of treachery and foreign influence in their attempts to whip up support for the stability of the Putin system.

As part of my own interest in documentary film, the recent wave of Russian protests and dissident history, I decided to talk to Andrei about his film and his views of dissent.

TR: Andrei, it seems to me that you’ve recently been trying to expand the Russian public’s conception of the idea of dissent. For example, I remember your series of articles from the height of the protests that drew comparions between the Russian writer and thinker Alexander Herzen, figures from the human rights movement of the 1960s and the current opposition. Why is it necessary to rehabilitate the idea of dissent? And what’s more, isn’t your audience at least partially receptive to these ideas already?

I would definitely like to “rehabilitate” dissidents, as it seems that, nowadays, everyone has forgotten about them. For dissidents, their 15 minutes of fame came during perestroika in the late 1980s. But even by the mid-1990s it had become unfashionable to talk about them. On the whole, a strange thing happened in Russia back then: it became cool to despise the Sixties generation, the intelligentsia and, at the same time, nostalgia for the Soviet Union became popular. Dissidents dedicated their lives to struggling with the Soviet chimera and received nothing in return from the new Russia: no honours, no compensation. While the country lost itself in the delights of consumerism, no one remembered them.

But civil society began to wake up at the end of the 2000s and many people recalled that the freedom of choice is not only the opportunity to choose between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola [TR: This is a reference to Viktor Pelevin’s 1999 cult novel about Russia during the 1990s,Generation P].The most progressive part of society became interested in influencing state policy. I call this the “expansion of the comfort zone” – when people begin to be worried by problems outside of their family circle. At first, this demand clashed with the unwillingness of the authorities to change, and then the aggressive reaction to the protests. This situation soon became all too reminiscent of the Soviet Union. The key moment for me, which I’ve talked about before, was the switch-over between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin (‘Operation Successor’) and the well-known phrase of Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov from October 2011: “Brezhnev is a big advantage for the country”.

Then I realised that the issue of dissent, although unknown for wide sections of society, was going to become relevant again. And I became rather immersedin it myself by reading memoirs and academic studies. I just wanted to show dissident history to as many people as possible. The televison channel NTV agreed to support this project,and I even wrote a five-episode documentary series. Unfortunately, nothing came of it.

The usual audience of Dozhd TV is, of course, more “receptive”. But its awareness about the human rights movement is not that much greater than average. Forgive me for the slightly bombastic words, but one more reason that the story of dissidents seems important to me is what I see as the profound moral crisis of modern Russian society. In the struggle with the authorities in far tougher conditions, dissidents still knew what they were getting into. Some held out under pressure, some didn’t, but nevertheless they “dared to go out to the square” [TR: This is a reference to the song ‘Petersburg Romance’, which was written by the guitar poet Alexander Galich in connection with the hesitations over public demonstrations against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.]. And the moral idealism of those people, the fact that they were ready to sacrifice themselves, is a significant trait that is badly lacking in our country today.

At the moment, the situation is far better than, say, five years ago, but the lesson of dissidence is still as important as before. Especially for the audience outside of Moscow which is not part of the White Ribbon movement, as well for that one too.

TR: Obviously there is a strong human element with the trial of Viktor Krasin and Petr Yakir in terms of the human cost. While I came away from the film with feelings of pity and compassion for Krasin and Yakir, many dissidents and other commentatorshave found it offensive that you chose to produce a film about them. Do you think this film addresses certain issues withindissent that are beyond discussion? In that sense, is it commenting on similar problems of the Russian opposition? At the same time, I’d like to question the view of dissident history taken by your film as it seems to me that you portray the Krasin-Yakir trial as a kind of breaking point in terms of the further development of dissent.

Your commentary about the film on the radio station Echo Moscow suggests that the Krasin-Yakir trial was the ‘beginning of the end’ of dissent in the Soviet Union, and this idea certainly comes through in the film itself. You have these scenes of drinking, of prior knowledge that something tragic could happen if the KGB arrested Yakir and Krasin, which seem to suggest the main characters’ naivety. Indeed, you describe dissidents as ‘Don Quixotes fighting the Soviet dragon’. Yet while 1972-1973 saw a crackdown on dissent across the Soviet Union (in particular, Ukraine), I don’t think you can argue that this trial was some sort of ‘fall from grace’ for dissidents as a whole. The impact of the trial was important, to be sure, but why do you think it foreshadows the ‘dark times’ of the 1980s? And what does this somewhat pessimistic interpretation of the Krasin-Yakir say about the current situation?

These issues that you touch on here are quite complicated, as it is difficult for me to talk about these issues of “dissent” – I’m outside of that world. (The English word “dissident” is a useful one as it covers a lot of ground.) But judging by the reaction of dissidents to the film, it is clear that they exist. Sergei Grigoryants even wrote that the film was probably paid for by the FSB with the aim of discrediting the [dissident] movement.

Of course, I had different motivations. In my opinion, the story of Petr Yakir and Viktor Krasin seemed relevant for this historical moment and for the audience of Dozhd. A lot of people are currently somewhat despondent and disillusioned after the highs of the winter of 2011-2012. In terms of politics, nothing has changed for the better. Indeed, it has got a lot worse. President Putin is acting like a dictator. He’s prepared himself to rule the country forever. There’s a sense of things freezing over, of stagnation, of the screws being tightened. And the political show trials of the regime’s enemies reflect this. One only need to look at the Bolotnaya case, for example, which has already found its own traitors, such as the Left Front activist Konstantin Lebedev. On the whole, the parallels are obvious, and the Dozhd audience definitely sees them too.

Another matter is that few saw the optimistic message that I wove into the film. I wanted to show that, no matter how much the Soviet regime stifled freedom, nevertheless the regime fell because that is how history goes. And the current attempts to stifle freedom will end the same way – you can halt progress, but stop it completely is impossible. But many people just saw how the dissident movement sank into depression and nearly ended right there and then after the Krasin-Yakir trial. I actually don’t recall describing the Krasin-Yakir trial as the “beginning of the end” – the movement was already in decline after August 1968. The liberal intelligentsia folded its arms and quietly moved away, but the final break definitely happened after 1973. The intelligentsia was frightened, and the heroic image had also given way, which justified non-action for people on the sidelines.

There is a great quotation from the translator Liliana Lungina (1920-1998) in the book Podstrochnik (‘Line by line’), where she talks about the trial from the Soviet intelligentsia’s point of view:

“As this trial was prepared and fabricated (and it carried on for many months), fear returned with a new strength. Just like everyone else who had close ties to the rights movement, we got rid of everything that could compromise us – books, samizdat texts, letters from abroad, and everyday we waited for them to come and search us. At the same time, the atmosphere was almost poisoned: it wasn’t so much a lack of faith or belief, but rather disillusion and dejection, and we even stopped wanting to see and talk to our friends.

The authorities tried with all methods possible to isolate those who could provide examples for others: exile, deportation and exile, prison, forced psychiatric treatment and detention. Everything was possible, as long as it made you silent. When those people were deported and disappeared from civic life, the country became stuck in a bog of mediocrity, cultural life suffered. The few remnaints of individual expression, morality, and intellectual standards were destroyed, atomised.”3

After the intelligentsia stepped to one side, dissent became the reserve of heroes. This process of demarcation became permanently fixed after the trial of Yakir and Krasin. Unfortunately, I did not make this idea clear enough, although the story of the heroic renewal of the Chronicle of Current Events and the imprisonment of Sergei Kovalev is in there. It seems that I went too far with the dark tones towards the end of the film, although I didn’t think so at the time. But judging by the reaction of the audience, I’ll just have to admit it.

Finally, what you refer to in terms of tragic victimhood, I call being ‘Don Quixotes’. Dissidents really were Don Quixotes. Yury Aikhenvald (1928-1993), an ideologue well respected by dissidents, even wrote a huge study titled Don Quixote on Russian soil (1982-1984). It was devoted mostly to pre-Revolutionary events, but it also concerned contemporary problems of the late Soviet period too. After all, dissidents knew what they were getting into. They had no illusions left after August 1968, and especially after the trial of Yakir and Krasin in 1973. One only has to think of their favourite toast: ‘Let’s drink for the success of our hopeless cause!’ But all the same they published proclamations, went out to demonstrations and were imprisoned as a result. And what I find fascinating is that sense of sacrifice – without any hope of really improving the situation in their own lifetime or of gaining any recognition in the here and now. That is what is absent not only in Russia at the moment, but all over the world. This is behaviour worthy of the true Russian intelligentsia. And thank God that those few dozen people existed in the history of the Soviet Union. To a certain extent, they compensate for the horror of the Soviet empire.

As to how this trial foreshadowed the ‘dark times’ of the 1980s, the trial of Yakir and Krasin became the first clear manifestation of the internal policy of the Central Committee and the course taken by Yury Andropov’s KGB: the suppression of any dissent whatsoever. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, they re-imprisoned all of the opposition activists. This continued the policy of tightening the screws. The regime refused to change on principle. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote: ‘God relieved them of the sign that something is alive – flexibility’. And under the weight of its own blunt monumentalism, the regime fell.

1 I am grateful to Dr Alexei Evstratov (Oxford) for organising this interview. This trip was made possible by a CEELBAS Doctoral Overseas Travel Grant.

2 Robert Horvath, ‘Breaking the Totalitarian Ice: The Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR’ (Forthcoming).

3 The 1997 video interview with Lungina by Oleg Dorman later became the basis of a book. The interview was eventually broadcast on the Rossiya TV channel in 2009.


October 1993 and the Pluralism of Dissent (October 2013)

Having just left Moscow via Saint Petersburg (thanks to the European University in Saint Petersburg) and Tallinn, I’ve been translating and writing up a short interview with the documentary film-maker and journalist Andrei Loshak. And while I translate that interview, I’ve decided to focus on a photograph I found during my strolls around Krasnopresenskaya in Moscow.

P1010467 (7-10-2013)

Alexei Dobrovolsky. Picture: Tom Rowley

The image to the left shows a portrait of Alexei Dobrovolsky (1938-2013) fixed to the October 1993 monument, located behind the White House. Dobrovolsky is a figure with a somewhat chequered biography: after serving a camp sentence in the late 1950s for his involvement in an anti-communist group, Dobrovolsky became involved in the democratic anti-Stalinism movement in Moscow. Following his imprisonment in January 1968 as part of the trial of Alexander Ginzburg, Yury Galanskov and Vera Lashkova, Dobrovolsky broke with the rights movement upon release in 1969 and gravitated towards more nationalist and pagan religious circles. As a frequent visitor to this part of Moscow, I noticed this picture was added to the barricade monument after the 20th anniversary commemoration of October ’93 last month.

For me, the image is a striking illustration of the “plurality of dissent” and its continuing relevance in Russian society: after all, the monument is organised and tended to by a range of anarchist, nationalist, and communist groups (including the Communist Part of the Russian Federation), as well as the families of those who died during ‘Black October’. It’s worth pointing out that the flyers, proclamations and information boards near the barricade monument are generally of an anti-Putin and anti-Western nature. Indeed, Dobrovolsky would later become involved with the anti-semitic political platform Pamyat’ (Memory) during perestroika. Before his death earlier this year, Dobrovolsky had become a figure of inspiration for nationalist gangs in the Kirov region, including certain ties to the ‘Russkii obraz’ movement.

Having just left Moscow, I am struck by two competing trends within dissident history. Such thoughts are mainly provoked by the case of Dobrovolsky, as well as examining a documentary film on the return of political prisoner Mart Niklus to Estonia in 1988 (courtesy of the Estonian Film Archive). One trend, of course, concerns the possibility of solidarity across ethnic, religious and cultural identities within the Soviet empire. Dina Zisserman-Brodsky’s book Constructing Ethnopolitics in the Soviet Union and Rory Finnin’s article on the poets Boris Chichibabin and Viktor Nekipelov explore this and other issues in terms of dissident responses to nationalities policy. One is reminded of this possibility time and again when reading dissident memoirs, and particularly the sections on their experiences in prison. As Kronid Lyubarsky recounts, he and Alexei Murzhenko were careful to chose the 30th October for the Day of the Political Prisoner rather than 4th November in an effort to bring in as many political prisoners of different nationalities as possible: they were concerned that choosing 4th November in memory of Yury Galanskov would alienate Lithuanian and Ukrainian prisoners given Galanskov’s patriotic beliefs and his position as a martyr figure for Russian nationalists.

Yet it is important not to romanticise the mutual understanding found in the samizdat public sphere. This space played host to a range of opinions that most of us would consider extremist, or at least extreme. I recall reading an incredible text from the 1950s recently as part of my work on the group of Evgeny Fedorov. Stuffed in the back of a criminal case file, it outlined a mystical Russian imperial nationalism that saw every nation as the channel for one idea: while Jews are the people of the Antichrist and responsible for revolution, the task of Russians is to maintain the purity of Christ’s teachings and the holy monuments of Europe.

Of course, such a point of view only brings us back to platitudes such as ‘those are the perils of a free press, after all’. But it is worth considering the differences between the movements and ideological trends that populated this space. While the aims of the rights defence movement changed over time, often serving as sources of internal conflict, people aligned with it generally wished to see a curtailing and, for some, the destruction of Soviet power (i.e. the Communist Party Central Committee). They were not, for the most part, interested in dismantling the Soviet Union. Nationalist movements in Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine  and elsewhere often desired the former, but were most of all interested in achieving state sovereignty and an opportunity to develop national culture beyond the confines of Soviet ideology. In short, and without really outlining an argument, one might think about why dissidents have such trouble in transmitting a legacy in Russia by looking to the problem of plurality: does it simply defy a clear-cut message?

Reading Habits and Dissent (September 2013)

Although I’m breaking my rule of not posting more than once a month, I’d like to draw the attention of any readers (few and far between) to the newly-launched project Reading Habits and Dissent during Stagnation. In its own words, the project aims ‘to find out what dissenters were reading, why they were reading, what they were reading, and how their reading was reflected in their own texts.’ By focusing in on the specifics of reading as a part of intellectual life in the late Soviet period, Josephine von Zitzewitz (MML, Oxford) and Gennady Kuzovkin (Memorial, Moscow) hope to shed light on how texts shaped world-view, political opinion, religious vision and literary aesthetics.’ It is a great project and willbring interesting results, whether it be in connection with the Religious Seminar in Leningrad during the 1970s, or the sheer amount of literature referenced in the Chronicle of Current Events. ‘Reading Habits and Dissent’ is open to volunteers and is already working in partnership with the University of Toronto’s English-language database of samizdat, run by Ann Komaromi.

For my own part, I’m running up a list of references to literature, samizdat and otherwise, in the (extensive) memoir series of Anatolii Levitin-Krasnov published during the 1970s. Thankfully, it is available online through the efforts of the Krotov library. So far then, I’ve written up notes in a spreadsheet for two volumes of Levitin-Krasnov’s memoirs. His memoirs make for fascinating reading as they are an up-close account of the phenomenon variously known as the anti-stalinist or democratic movement during the 1960s. They are also full of literary references, acting as a kind of digest of what was popular in samizdat at the time. Perhaps what is most interesting is the breadth of material that Levitin-Krasnov was reading throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The popular political-publicistic samizdat of the 1960s merges together with religious and philosophical works to create a picture of just how active Levitin-Krasnov was at the time. It also gives insight into Levitin-Krasnov’s perception of the world or, at least, how he would like it to look. The constant references to 19th century Russian literature bring us back to the idea that, for many, dissent and thinking for yourself was a reaction to reading.

In any case, I’m compiling similar spreadsheets for the memoirs of Natalya Trauberg and Viktor Krasin. Trauberg’s is an especially interesting case as she was involved in the translation of English-language texts for samizdat from 1959 onwards. Indeed, I hope to work further on her translation of C.S. Lewis’s essay ‘The Problems of Human Suffering’, made during the 1970s, as it seems to have been used in the correspondence between Father Sergei Zheludkov and Kronid Liubarsky, later published under the title Christianity and Atheism.

This is the kind of fascinating information available through working with memoirs. So if anyone is interested in getting involved, particularly in connection with writing up references from Levitin-Krasnov’s memoirs (as there is rather a lot of them), it would be great to hear from you!

Research Trip (September 2013)

Archives come in different shapes and sizes, so I’m told. (Big ones, small ones, some as big your head.) Recently I’ve been using the Centre for Self-made/independent Song (a literal translation of Центр самодеятельной песни, as you can imagine), which has a rather impressive archive of recordings (bootleg, official), photographs, newspaper extracts, magazines, and essentially anything to do with bard music. It is situated in the Moscow House of Independent Activity (Московский дом самодеятельности) and after getting in touch with their archivist, I managed to get in to have a look at the material they had on Alexander Galich, Yuly Kim and the theatre group ‘Third Direction’. Overall, it is a very nice place to work. There’s tea, biscuits, spontaneous performances and Galich references slipped into every third sentence. For obvious reasons, the people who work there really know their stuff: they were all, at some point, part of the Moscow Club of Independent Song.


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While Galich is something of a known quantity, I know less about Kim, and even less about Third Direction, so this was a great opportunity to ask questions and hopefully move towards a few answers. Indeed, given the lack of access (for me at least) to basic information about Third Direction (the name of which now unfortunately sounds like some sort of boy band cover act), I was rather hoping that this would begin to solve my logistical questions regarding the group. And to a certain extent, it did. Its collection of newspaper cuttings, arranged by the bard they concern, has helped me track the development of the idea of Third Direction, which in essence was a platform for theatrical performances of bard music. What’s more, I also managed to get in touch with the group’s administrator, who happens to live down the road from me and kindly gave me some video-recordings of the plays performed by Third Direction that I’m interested in: ‘Когда я вернусь’ (‘When I return’ – based on Galich’s songs, surprisingly) and ‘Московские кухни’ (‘Moscow Kitchens’ – written by Kim).

While I’m more interested thesis-wise by Kim’s play as it is more overtly about dissidents, I’ve been increasingly intrigued by the Galich play mainly because its content has remained a mystery. Based on the interviews published at the time (and collected by the Centre), it seems that Third Direction took it on themselves to finally make the theatrical aspects of self-made song or avtorskaia pesnia reality, in the sense that they acted out plays based on the characters and plotlines of Galich. Formerly considered evidence for a 190-1 charge, Galich’s songs were now being acted out on stage by young students from GITIS. Indeed, one article I read from 1980 was written by a guitar poetry collector who, perturbed by the rumours about arrests for collecting Galich’s music, put all his Galich tapes in a wardrobe and hooked the door up with a trip switch that would magnitise the tapes if it was opened during a house search. Yet in 1988, 70th anniversary of Galich’s birth, guitar poetry enthusiasts held evenings in his memory where they played his songs and talked about his life all over the Soviet Union (Tashkent, Odesa, Murmansk, Kishinev, to name a few). It seems, though, in Moscow, they didn’t just play his songs, they brought them to life.

‘A whole detective story’

Although the lack of disk drive has plagued my other efforts to find out more about documentary films made during and after perestroika, again after much effort, I recently got in touch with the director of ‘Диссиденты’ (Dissidents, 1990) from Центрнаучфильм. While Tsentrnauchfilm used to be something of a powerhouse of Soviet documentary film, it does not exist any longer, and it has proven rather difficult to find out anything about this film. This suggests, of course, that perhaps it is not worth investigating. Yet as I finally managed to watch the film, it turns out that it has a few gems, not least of all footage of Brodsky. I had originally been interested in this film about a year ago because it appeared to be the first film about dissidents in the Soviet Union made without the familiar conspiratorial-CIA undertones (I’ve since found out that there was one made in 1989 about Boris Chernykh). ‘Диссиденты’ aims to depict dissidents on their own terms, while also performing a kind of mourning for a culture slipping away in the tide of perestroika.

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My interest was recently renewed when I realised that special stagings of scenes from ‘Московские кухни’ by Third Direction had been filmed as inserts for the film. At the same time, it has interviews with Andrei Sinyavsky, Alexander Ginzburg, ex-KGB officers, Laris Bogoraz, and Yuly Kim. Although it was not shown in on Soviet Central Television despite the encouragement of Goskino and Mikhail Shvidkoi (Minister of Culture at the time), it was in fact not broadcast in the Russian Federation until the late 1990s. Meanwhile, as a joint Soviet-French production, it was shown in America, France and the UK. As a document(!) of its time, however, it seems to confirm that sense of mourning that pervades depictions of dissidents during 1989-1991. The insert scenes from ‘Moscow Kitchens’ shift from the singing and dancing of the 60s to a requiem for the dissident dead and footage from Andrei Sakharov’s funeral. As the director said to me: ‘Looking back, its really quite a sad film…’

Last Man in Russia (August 2013)


From the cover of Last Man in Russia

As you might expect from the title, Oliver Bullough’s new book The Last Man in Russia: One Man’s Struggle to Save a Dying Nation is a tough story. Bullough pulls no punches in his travelogue-cum-history-cum-biography, combining doomsday tales of alcohol abuse and the diminishing birthrate with attempts to find out more about the life of Father Dmitrii Dudko (1922-2004). It is a book with a message, and it isn’t a particularly positive one.

A prominent figure in Moscow intellectual and religious circles during the 1960s and 1970s, Dudko first played the role of confessor and teacher before being broken by the KGB and recanting live on television during the Moscow Olympics in June 1980. It was a tragic event for many of his followers and sympathisers, and Bullough takes the reader through what happened sensitively and in detail. He never recovered his followers and was destined to unsuccessful attempts at recapturing them. Dudko’s move into nationalism during the 1990s through his work with the newspapers Den‘ and Zavtra completes this ‘fall’ for Bullough.

What is interesting, though, is how Bullough combines an individual rise and fall narrative with the rise and fall of Russia. As Bullough exposes Russian society’s lack of memory about Soviet crimes and the continuing problems of opposition activity, the message becomes clear: the security services are at fault for Russia’s current situation. By breaking and exiling the most dedicated, Russia shot itself in the foot.

Initially, Bullough takes the reader back to the experience of the countryside under Soviet rule. Here he offers a moving story of famine, collectivisation and the sentencing of Dudko’s father to two years in jail for failing to pay taxes in the early 1930s. But there is also the religious side of Dudko’s upbringing, which Bullough suggests is vital to understanding his later beliefs and activities: the importance of discussing religious texts and belief over blind adherence. Indeed, the need to question and think for oneself is one of the main themes of the book’s journey through dissent, alcoholism, conformity and the Soviet system of control and manipulation.

In 1947 Dudko enrolled in the first seminary in Moscow to open after the war, having previously fought before being wounded. A year later, the newly-arrived student from the countryside was arrested on a political charge (Dudko had shared his poetry with another pupil) and sentenced to ten years in the camps. In the 1960s, after his release, Dudko started serving as a priest in Moscow, and would go on to baptise many during the resurgence of interest in religion of the 1960s and 1970s.

Bullough shows how Dudko’s popularity stemmed from the possibility of real interaction on spiritual and societal matters at his gatherings. Having recently read the published version of the discussions held by Dudko with his followers and other people interested from 1973, it is clear that the possibility of free conversation is a real draw for those asking the questions. Indeed, the account of people’s experiences living with Father Dmitrii during the 1970s is fascinating: the scenes where Dudko urges Christians and Jews to live in peace are particularly memorable. Equally interesting are the interviews with people who later went on to become priests as a result of their time with Dudko, as well as accounts of Dudko’s work with people suffering from alcoholism. Bullough draws out the common ground between personal, religious, political issues well, and evaluates these experiences on their own merit. At the same time, he is keen to place the post-war development of Soviet society within a common European and American context, seeing dissidence in the Soviet Union alongside student protest and counter-culture in France and Germany.

Yet while there is keen attention to Christian-Jewish relations and Dudko’s attempt to forge common ground between different groups in the 1970s, Bullough keeps his focus tight on Dudko and his circle: he mentions Alexander Men’ on several occasions, but does not talk about Sergei Zheludkov, Il’ia Shmain, Georgii Edel’shtein, or the recently deceased Pavel Adel’geim. These priests too gained devout followings of young people during this period. The interview with Gleb Yakunin is interesting, but feels constrained by “atmospheric” details. Sometimes Bullough drifts into his own journey when more information about the wider picture or the intricacies of Dudko’s own teaching could be expanded upon. It is a highly personal book; Bullough has obviously suffered for it. But it feels like it could do with less first person asides on the temperature and the problems of getting around in the provinces.

Nevertheless, the way that the intellectual trajectory of Dudko morphs from genuine hope and pluralism in the 1970s into statism during the 1980s and 1990s is an interesting if depressing parallel to the picture of diminishing birthrate, rampant alcoholism, and creeping orthodox authoritarianism charted by Bullough. This is set in opposition to the ‘few who care, yet are forgotten.’

According to Bullough, the corrosive influence of the KGB and the plight of dissidents lies largely off the map in today’s Russia. If the dissidents’ message had been heard, then Russia would be in a different situation, and ex-KGB officers would not form a significant part of the ruling elite. (Liudmila Ulitskaia has made a similar point regarding Solzhenitsyn.) Indeed, in the final section, those who remember Soviet crimes and the protest movement of 2011-2012 are the new dissidents destined to repeat history at the hands of the Russian authorities. Essentially, then, it is a book about Russia’s (spiraling) decline. Still though, it is hard to bring together Dudko’s ‘conversion’ to that peculiar yet familiar brand of KGB-orientated orthodox statism and Russia’s demographic problem. It is not that they are not linked, merely that Bullough does not provide a solid enough case for it. While Bullough opts to use Dudko’s life to tell this story, which is admirable in its ambition and very often in its execution, the connection between the two narratives is too loose. What remains, however, is a colourful account of lives lived with purpose and at their fullest.

Georgia Trip (August 2013)

I came back from Georgia assured of two things. First, the rumours are true. Georgia is incredibly beautiful. (Stereotype moment: it also has a fascinating history, great food, and interesting people.) But the main thing is that it is disconcertingly pretty. Second, holidays are great. Not least of all because they can surprise you in a number of ways. As soon as I told a few people I was going to Georgia, they tried to put me in touch with a whole range of friends and acquaintances living there – all of whom sounded lovely and yet none of whom I managed to meet. One contact even tried to put me in touch with one of the cameramen from Tengiz Abuladze’s 1984 (released 1987) film Repentance. The combination of four days up in Tusheti and a growing fondness for being ‘out of touch’, however, meant that, much to my regret, none of these potential meetings happened. That said, a few things related to certain broader interests still managed to crop up. Most of these were in Gori, a medium-sized town northwest of Tbilisi. And while there were other sites in Georgia worth discussing, such as the Museum of Occupation in Tbilisi, I’ve decided for reasons of brevity to write a few words about Gori.

One of these was, of course, the Stalin museum. The museum is situated at the top of Stalin Avenue, which is split down the middle by a newly renovated tree-lined walkway. (A few streets away there is a road named after Merab Kostava, one of the founding members of the Georgian Helsinki Group.) From the outside, it is admittedly a rather pleasant looking neo-classicist building with a tower and a colonnade, and is flanked by a statue of Stalin, the railway carriage that took him to Yalta in 1945, and the house in which he grew up.

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The first room you enter is mocked up as Stalin’s office, with a range of personal effects (including pipes!) dotted around in cabinets. Then you enter the main exhibition, which takes you through a detailed account of Stalin’s early years. This is prefaced by an interesting quote from the man himself: ‘Man is not immortal. I too will die. What will be the judgment of the people and history? A lot of mistakes, but there weren’t there achievements too? Naturally, the mistakes will be ascribed to me. They’ll heap a pile of rubbish on my grave, but the day will come when the wind of history will mercilessly sweep it away.’ Unsurprisingly, this is one of the main themes of the museum: the combination of ‘necessary’ mistakes with great achievements. While Stalin’s years in the Bolshevik underground and the revolution feature prominently alongside propaganda objects and photographs, there was a definite sense of attempting to place Stalin ‘in context’. This amounted to pointing out the role of other prominent Bolsheviks in Soviet crimes, and at the same time, shaping Stalin as a saviour in various fields: industrialisation, the war, church. Indeed, this was particularly true of the latter as the following excerpts presented show.

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Yet it was the final two rooms of the museum that were the most striking. After having been presented with a minor attempt to present Stalin as protector of religion in the Soviet Union, one then enters a strange darkened room. The centre of this room is enclosed with a semi-circle of columns and a death-mask (one of only six, apparently) of Stalin lies in the middle of the floor. In effect, it is a re-staging of Stalin’s lying-in-state.Upon exiting the room, you are met by a selection of gifts given to Stalin as part of his elaborate 70th birthday celebrations in 1949: plates, fur coats, pipes, samovars and so on.

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Afterwards you are taken into the house of Stalin’s childhood, which sits underneath a protective frame, and then the Yalta conference railway carriage. There is a small gift shop that sells books, matches, t-shirts, lighters, mugs, and all the usual paraphernalia you might expect to be emblazoned with Stalin’s face.

There were two more sites of note (at least for this blog) in Gori. The first was the War Museum, which is located further down Stalin Avenue. Tucked away to one side, the exterior is dominated by a mural and a wall of soldiers’ names who died during World War Two. While this is at least superficially familiar to anyone acquainted with the memorialisation of the war, it is striking because of its recent additions. Photographs of Georgian soldiers who died during the 2008 conflict in Gori, which was bombed and occupied during the war, are staked out in front of the mural. (It was also targeted in a cluster bomb attack in which 11 civilians were killed.) This mingling of Soviet war memories and more recent conflict continues inside, as the main part of the museum gives a local history of the Second World War before presenting pictures, uniforms, personal effects and even grenade fragments responsible for the deaths of soldiers in 2008. A few minutes walk away, lying underneath the hill-top fortress in the centre of Gori, is a more formal monument to 2008. A circle of giant Georgian warriors sits under the fortress. The statues, though, are disfigured: arms, legs, heads and hands are missing, as if at random.

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Galich on Pasternak (August 2013)

I’ve been increasingly interested in the transmission of texts and information back into the Soviet Union via radio stations recently. There has been quite a number of books written about this by American and Russian authors who were involved in the day-to-day operations of these stations, yet there has been less analysis of what exactly was broadcast. Obviously this is a huge area of study, but I have been looking to see what is available, and there is a surprising amount to be found on StaroeRadio.
Understandably, I’ve been looking into the transmission of memoirs and memorial texts about dissidents in an effort to appreciate how individuals found out about what going on, and how the routes this information takes affect the nature of this information. I suppose the wider point is about how the memory of dissent is an international phenomenon, which is unsurprising given the ‘transnational’ nature of rights activism as shown by Sarah Snyder in her recent book. (Gal Beckerman’s study of the links between Jewish emigration activists in the Soviet Union and America is another good example.) Coming back to Maurice Halbwachs’ theory of memory based on social groups, the routes of tamizdat publishing and emigration are relevant ways of thinking about how memories of dissent are just as international as national. The social groups involved were, on the whole, the urban intelligentsia on both sides of the Iron Curtain. (The cross-border religious activism strikes me as a much broader phenomenon, however.) Yet this is generally true only of the movements or causes that interested the stations’ management, their operatives and sponsors. Certain Russian nationalists, for example, did not receive the level of exposure to which the rights activists and cultural dissidents were treated.

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From left tor right: Vladimir Maksimnov, Aleksandr Galich and Vadim Delone in Paris, 1977. Photo from the website dedicated to

One interesting example I found on StaroeRadio was a set of short programmes made by the guitar poet Aleksandr Galich (1918-1977) in 1975. These programmes were dedicated to the history of Galich’s songs, and he tells a short story about how each one was written before performing it. Here is one that seems particularly relevant. It concerns Galich’s visit to Boris Pasternak’s grave on the anniversary of Pasternak’s death on 30th May 1974, just before Galich’s compulsory emigration later that year. It is an interesting story precisely because Galich wrote a song in memory of Pasternak. It recounts the callous way Pasternak was treated by the authorities in life and death.(This performance is particularly fiery.) Indeed, according to Yuly Kim, the unexpected performance of this song at the Novosibirsk Bard Festival in March 1968 led to the scandal that followed. Here then, alongside the oft-quoted fact that Siniavskii and Daniel’ were pall-bearers at Pasternak’s funeral, is another instance of the importance of Pasternak for dissidents.
The May 1975 programme in honour of Pasternak is a moving story of Galich’s last visit to Pasternak’s grave. Despite the fact that Galich got to Peredelkino early, he reports that there were already many people there. But as he moves through the crowd, he spots three KGB agents pretending to eat sandwiches just beyond the cemetery fence. Galich recognises them as being of exactly the same physical make-up of those who had followed Pasternak’s coffin at the funeral in 1960. Even now they are trying to listen to everything that is being said as people talk among themselves before poets, known and unknown, and including Galich, begin to read a mixture of Pasternak’s poetry and their own beside the poet’s grave. Afterwards, a few people went round to Pasternak’s house on Evgenii Pasternak’s invitation. Galich says that everything there is just like it was before he died: the spirit of Pasternak hung in the air.
Galich talks of a photograph given to him by Kornei Chukovskii after Galich read him his verse in memory of Pasternak: it apparently shows Pasternak, smiling craftily in front of the camera, clinking glasses with Chukovskii on the day the Nobel Prize of Literature was awarded to him for Zhivago. Galich retells Chukovskii’s anecdote about how Pasternak, who usually ‘dressed down’, would have to buy evening dress for the ceremony with the King of Sweden. But then it is revealed that this photograph was taken 10 minutes before Dmitrii Polikarpov would send Konstantin Fedin to Pasternak’s dacha in order to bring the poet in for a ‘conversation’. It is a moment in which, according to Galich, Pasternak is still happy, eternally so. But then Galich changes track, he says that every time he looks at this photograph, he remembers something different.
Instead, Galich remembers the moment in his youth when he would read memoirs of Pushkin’s contemporaries. Galich would get to the point just after the duel, when the doctor announced to Pushkin’s friends and family ‘He’s doing better. He might live!’ and then stop. That is what Galich thought about when he looked at that photograph.
The story finishes with a short story about one of the few meetings Galich had with Pasternak in the late 1950s when Galich was staying at the House of Writers at Peredelkino. As they walk through the woods there (is anyone never walking through those woods?), Pasternak turned to Galich and said: ‘A poet either dies in life [pri zhizni] or never dies at all.’ Galich ends by saying the same about Pasternak: he will never die.
P.S. This meticulously researched biography by Mikhail Aronov (pseud.) seems like a long overdue effort to do the same for Galich