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.


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