Benjamin Nathans on Rights and Resistance (March 2013)

Benjamin Nathans’ recent talk on ‘Resistance and Rights’ in Cambridge was a fascinating look at the history of the Moscow human rights activists. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of dissident culture, Nathans brought out a number of novel (at least for me) ways of looking at the idea and actuality of rights in the Soviet Union. Some of it, of course, was familiar, but as another talk I went to recently pointed out, it’s not the ‘finding out’ about something that matters, but the moment when it starts to make sense.

Nathans began by sketching out the rights situation in Soviet Russia before the dissidents’ appropriation of rights language. He then moved on to examining the dissident tactic of trying to get the state to enforce its own laws. His discussion of positive/negative rights was particularly interesting, although as he pointed out himself, his switch from this into positive and negative liberty was perhaps somewhat abrupt. Nathans showed how negative and positive rights were aligned with Washington and Moscow respectively, i.e. that the emancipatory power of state laws which guaranteed social rights was emphasised in Moscow, whereas the rhetoric of non-intervention characterised Washington’s position. Here Nathans was careful to stress the provision by the Soviet state for the material conditions of rights in order to demonstrate their importance for state ideology. Dissidents would later combine rights protection with its material provisions in the form of samizdat, the key example of which is the transcripts of the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial (titled the White Book in the West). Before this, of course, the Revolution had promised the withering away of the state and the legal frameworks that came with it in the building of communism. Of course, the problem is the mismatch between what is said and what is done. This was famously described by the Moscow bard, actor, poet, novelist and composer Bulat Okudzhava in a 1975 poem written in honour of Iurii Trifonov:

Eloquent original Clumsy translation
Каждый пишет, как он слышит,
Каждый слышит, как он дышит,
Как он дышит, так и пишет,
Не стараясь угодить…
Each writes what he hears,
Each hears as he breathes,
As he breathes – that’s how he writes,
With no attempts to please…

Here Okudzhava’s poetic voice conveys the need to bridge the disconnection between the constraints of ideology and reality, which he does by threading his personal experiences in with those of his characters:

Eloquent original Clumsy translation
И из собственной судьбы
Я выдергивал по нитке.
В путь героя снаряжал,
Наводил о прошлом справки.
И поручиком в отставке
Сам себя воображал.
I drew threads from this fate of mine,
Equipped my protagonist for the road,
Made inquiries about the past.
And I imagined myself
As a lieutenant in retirement.

Okudzhava saw Aesopian writing as the main way of getting past the shackles of censorship, tying himself into his historical texts as a means of at least getting halfway ‘to shout out the words / Pent up for so long.’This mismatch was revisited in an original way by Nathans’ phrasing of the gap between ideology and real life as the gap between rights on paper and reality, which was enforced by the lack of an independent judiciary. And on a side note, its worth mentioning that this is often cited as the cause of the ‘dissident realisation’ (although far from exclusively), i.e. the apostatic moment in which the individual comprehends the vast distance between speech/signs and actions/reality. Moving on, the interplay between rights, reality and utopia is a productive one for many reasons. Not least of all in connection with the recent Samuel Moyne book The Last Utopia, which talks about how the vocabulary of human rights came to be so useful for projecting change and its historical origins. The stress on the universal in human rights language made it precisely the tool for thinking about a bright, equal future. (At the same time, Moyn makes the point that the rise of human rights language and ideas is historically conditioned and was far from predestined to become popular to the point of exhaustion.) Indeed, certain dissident groups did become like Millenarian sects, cutting themselves off and concentrating on their rights work in the vain hope that their ‘hopeless cause’ would someday come to fruition. Unsurprisingly, many of the rights defenders were shocked by Gorbachev’s use of their rights language for reform in the late 1980s. Although, as Nathans himself discussed, the exact origins of this change in Soviet ideology and policy are not necessarily to be found in dissident literature. Indeed, it is unclear as to where exactly they come from. The bitter pill is, of course, that the ‘rule of law’, i.e. the enforcement of the Soviet Constitution, was such an impossible goal – the nowhere place signified by the roots of the word utopia itself.

Nathans then went on to talk about the use of recent or ‘current’ texts such as the Universal Declaration or the Soviet Constitution by the rights activists, rather than older historical models. And while this is definitely the case in terms of resistance via rights, it seems that mentioning the other sources of resistance might have been useful. Apart from the means, there are other requirements in terms of spirituality, morality, psychology, religion – however and whatever you wish to call it – which were necessary to dissident culture. Indeed, these considerations shaped the basis for the ‘consciousness-raising’ culture of the post-war dissident intelligentsia, and would generate one of the main sources of friction between rights defenders and Russian/Soviet society: accusations of snobbery, isolation and disconnection. It would also cultivate the image of dissidents as hopeless romantic who saw themselves as incarnations of a new chivalry (cue references to Don Quixote and Pierre Terrail).

A still from Grigorii Kozintsev's late 50s adaptation of Don Quixote. Source:

If Nathans began his talk by stating that he was against continuities as a causal explanation for events in recent Russian history (and I agree with him on this), then he ended it by perhaps coming back towards this point. He talked of what he saw as the lack of rights rhetoric in the protest and opposition movement, which he linked to the discreditation of rights and the fact that the current movement(s) are agitating for political change, which the rights dissidents never did in the same way. The rights movement was pre-/proto-political versus the contemporary opposition movement, which is political. This fits in with the dissident rejection of politics as a ‘dirty business’ in favour of positioning themselves as a moral movement. Politics was rejected for many reasons which I won’t go into here, suffice to say the following:

  • Protests gathered people from all walks of life across the country. Some of these people were definitely re-politicised, some of them changed far less in their outlook.
  • Calls for ‘honest elections’, the rule of law, as well as the consistent monitoring of the authorities activities suggest that rights defence is still alive in the opposition movement, which has partially styled itself as the successor to the dissidents.
  • The intertwining of the moral and political is as plain to see now as it was then. In both cases, it is done for reasons of political expediency as well as personal considerations. The problem is that, as Il’ia Budraitskis points out, the half- or wholesale rejection of politics tends to lead oppositions into the twilight zone of martyrdom, which under the current regime is currently not an effective tool as it has become rather devalued since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

Coming back to the continuities, I asked whether continuities might well explain the dissidents’ lack of popularity due to the effectiveness of Soviet propaganda in discrediting them as well as their own ironically rather successful attempts at self-mythologising during the 1980s and 1990s. The ‘I’m not Sakharov, but..’ campaign running in Moscow last year, with which Nathans responded, is an interesting example of how dissidents can elicit public approval. Although the Levada Centre polls of 2011 show a distinctly downbeat picture in terms of Sakharov, highlighting the diverse range of associations he holds for those who remember him. Likewise, I’m not sure it is possible to equatapproval of the public with that of the educated elite.

However, the acceptance of the emulation of Sakharov as impossible is an important point. Instead of fighting it, people can begin to use Sakharov as a real model rather than the unachievable one he has become as the result of liberal mythologisation. Indeed this model has parallels with recent work on Soviet intelligentsia identity, which tends to work on emulation and a general refusal to call oneself an intelligent but to rather express a desire to be one. Regardless, although I accept Nathans’ point on the Sakharov campaign, dissidents as a whole are not a popular group among Russian society, let alone intelligentsia groups. Anti-Westernism is especially rife at the moment, as Nathans pointed out in the parallels between the recently introduced term ‘Foreign agent’ and ‘Agent of imperialism’ (and all the others) used in the 1970s and 1980s. Whether this is a conscious or unconscious invocation by the Kremlin is unclear. But rights activists remain in limbo while the current opposition attempts to complete Perestroika 2.0. While continuities do not explain everything, it has to be said that history does tend to take a long time. After all, despite the ‘utopian’ rally cries of ‘Openness’ and ‘Rule of Law’ to be heard during the period, 1989/1991 did not spring out of nowhere.Although it might have seemed so at the time.

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