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.
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?