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

Dialogue by the Television Set (July 2013)

This month I managed to write something for the newsletter put out by Memory at War. It is basically a review of recent events regarding the memory of the singer, actor, and poet Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980). I try to offer a short analysis of Petr Buslov’s recent film (2011) made about his near-death experience in 1979 alongside debates over his legacy and public morality in Russia at the moment. You can find it here.

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Here is a samizdat collection of Vysotsky’s songs compiled after his death. Via Katherine Bowers and Rossica blog (Russian book shop in Berlin).

On a personal note, I’ve been a fan of Vysotsky for a while. When I came back from a four month stint in 2009, it was the only thing I could listen to for weeks. It was as if I could preserve my rather fragile bond with the language and culture by listening to his songs over and over again. I then went through a period of watching as many of his films as possible. The meeting place cannot be changed (1979) is still a firm favourite, not least of all because it is ‘the Soviet version of the Wire’ according to one friend, but also because it contains possibly one of the best lines in Soviet television history. As the team of detectives, headed by Vysotsky, chase the bandits through the winding alleys of 1940s Moscow in rather battered-looking old trucks, Vysotsky leans out the window to fire off a few rounds.

Высоцкий: Иване! А ну поди сюда держать меня!

Иван (с недоумением): Как держать?

Высоцкий: Нежно!

I believe at one point I had even made this quote into a message alert for my telephone. Anyway, as these personal details of my admiration for Vysotsky lore suggest, I find the man and the myth fascinating. On a more serious note, Vysotsky is rather interesting in terms of the ‘plurality’ of dissent. By this I mean that his role, his views, his relationship with the authorities and the underground (in various senses) can be contradictory, confusing, and subject to change. His songs are part and parcel of this issue. The number of different voices which emerge from his huge (500 songs) repertoire make untangling the knots of the ‘real’ Vysotsky a difficult task. Indeed, just like the car chase in Mesto vstrechi, sometimes it is nice to just sit back and enjoy the legend’s twists and turns.

This month I managed to write something for the newsletter put out by Memory at War. It is basically a review of recent events regarding the memory of the singer, actor, and poet Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980). I try to offer a short analysis of Petr Buslov’s recent film (2011) made about his near-death experience in 1979 alongside debates over his legacy and public morality in Russia at the moment. You can find it here.

Click for full-size image

Here is a samizdat collection of Vysotsky’s songs compiled after his death. Via Katherine Bowers and Rossica blog (Russian book shop in Berlin).

On a personal note, I’ve been a fan of Vysotsky for a while. When I came back from a four month stint in 2009, it was the only thing I could listen to for weeks. It was as if I could preserve my rather fragile bond with the language and culture by listening to his songs over and over again. I then went through a period of watching as many of his films as possible. The meeting place cannot be changed (1979) is still a firm favourite, not least of all because it is ‘the Soviet version of the Wire’ according to one friend, but also because it contains possibly one of the best lines in Soviet television history. As the team of detectives, headed by Vysotsky, chase the bandits through the winding alleys of 1940s Moscow in rather battered-looking old trucks, Vysotsky leans out the window to fire off a few rounds.

Высоцкий: Иване! А ну поди сюда держать меня!

Иван (с недоумением): Как держать?

Высоцкий: Нежно!

I believe at one point I had even made this quote into a message alert for my telephone. Anyway, as these personal details of my admiration for Vysotsky lore suggest, I find the man and the myth fascinating. On a more serious note, Vysotsky is rather interesting in terms of the ‘plurality’ of dissent. By this I mean that his role, his views, his relationship with the authorities and the underground (in various senses) can be contradictory, confusing, and subject to change. His songs are part and parcel of this issue. The number of different voices which emerge from his huge (500 songs) repertoire make untangling the knots of the ‘real’ Vysotsky a difficult task. Indeed, just like the car chase in Mesto vstrechi, sometimes it is nice to just sit back and enjoy the legend’s twists and turns.

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.

Vladimir Bukovsky (August 2012)

Last weekend, I visited a part of Cambridge usually reserved for my bi-annual attempts at getting fit. Usually I like to run for about 15 minutes before stopping because my knee has burst into flames. This time, however, the exercise was shifted upstairs as some friends arranged (and kindly invited me to) a meeting with the rights activist, political prisoner and writer Vladimir Bukovsky. My friend and colleague Tanya Zakharchenko suggested that we record our impressions of the evening, and you can read Tanya’s account here. And looking at them now, I think the posts complement one another nicely.

I’d also like to add that Tanya has written a touching post on the recent passing of the philosopher and scholar Grigorii Pomerants, Pomerants is a writer I’ve become increasingly taken with lately. This is particularly down to his book Otkrytost’ bezdne (Sovetskii pisatel’, 1990), which is a collection of lectures Pomerants made at the Dostoevsky Museum in the late 70s (and which later circulated in samizdat) tied together as a dialogue with Dostoevsky. This obviously makes it fertile ground for my interest in dissidents’ reading of Dostoevsky. I was also struck by Pomerants’ ability to abstract himself from difficult moral problems and offer a point of view which accepts its own bias but nevertheless strives for the impartial and ethical. And in a last brief point on the notion of dissidents’ relevance for today, Tanya remarked that Pomerants’ interpretation of dealing with traumatic modernisation and Stalin in one of his first samizdat texts reads as if it was written for today.

But back to the main event, and first, a little biographical information. Vladimir Bukovsky has lived and worked in Cambridge since 1978, after he was exchanged in 1976 for the Chilean communist leader Luis Corlávan, who had been imprisoned after Pinochet’s coup. Bukovsky continued the struggle against state repression of dissent, particularly in the field of psychiatric abuses. In the early 1990s, he was involved in the now infamous ‘Trial of the KPSS’, and managed to spirit away masses of archive documents detailing the activities of the Central Committee and KGB. In 2008, with the help of Vladimir Kara-Murza, Bukovsky ran in the Presidential Election in order to draw attention to the plight of political prisoners in Russia. Last year, during Gorbachev’s birthday celebrations in London, Bukovsky requested that the British government detain and try him for civilian deaths in Tbilisi (April 1989), Baku (January 1990), Vilnius (January 1991) and Riga (January 1991).

For me, meeting Bukovsky was like coming face to face with a world which I have read and thought so much about, but never experienced directly. His memoir I vozvrashchaetsia veter (often given the alternative title To Build a Castle in English) is fascinating both for its philosophical asides on the future of Russia and its stoicism. Bukovsky is a great story-teller, both on paper and in the flesh. The details of life behind bars have a grotesque pull to them; the behaviour of the security services is straight out of Kafka. But on a personal note, it was inspiring to see Bukovsky’s passion for justice and change in action.

He talked eloquently about what was happening behind the scenes during perestroika and why the plans of that time have not turned out the way he hoped. Peppered with anecdotes that made us laugh and grimace, Bukovsky’s responses to our questions took us all through twentieth century European history and touched on many different topics. Among others, this included the system of mutual respect (rather than authority) that existed among the rights activists of the 1970s and 1980s; the agreements between Western progressive political parties and the Soviet Union; and the connection between Anatoly Marchenko’s death in a labour camp outside Perm’ in 1986 and the amnesty of political prisoners in February 1987.

Иллюстрация: Corbis/

Photo via Corbis/

Besides this (and more), it was the connection between this man and the decisions and events that have shaped the past 50 years which hit home most of all: the real need for people to stand up and make their voices heard in the face of injustice. For some, this requirement was internalised and became the baseline of their decision-making. This sense of duty was partly responsible for the growth of dissident culture in the 1950s and 1960s: those born in the thirties, i.e. people who lived through the war as youths and saw/heard about the horrors of socialism and fascism, felt that their generation had been given a “moral originality” in the words of Leningrad author Rid Grachev.

The interests and worldviews of this generation reflected, in part, the revolutionary impact of the Second World War on society in the search for roots, sincerity, and rebirth in the 1950s and 1960s. In retying the threads with the 1920s (but still believing in the possibility of a positive turnout for the future), they were the generation that would not allow for a repeat of past mistakes. Although many would experience a disappointment in the discrepancy between socialist ideals and reality (often, but far from exclusively, stemming from threshold events such as the invasions of 1956 and 1968), Bukovsky told us how he had been an anti-communist from an early age. Regardless, it was his combination of energy, sincerity and fervent belief in one’s own abilities which echoed this commitment. Sometimes it is worth remembering that although the lines between groups and generations can be stark, they also merge and meld with one another

Solzhenitsyn and the Freedom of the Gulag (September 2012)

Seeing as I’m currently dealing with the idea of extreme indifference as the basis of true freedom in Evgenii Fedorov, I’ve had to revisit some ideas of spiritual ascension in Gulag writing. The Solzhenitsyn-Shalamov debate, now well-known, and perhaps over-wrought, comes into its own in Fedorov’s writing as he seems to eschew both points of view. Fedorov even begins to mock Shalamov’s aesthetic, philosophical and narrative choices in several of his camp tales from the 1990s which later came to form Bunt (1998). Interestingly, however, Fedorov does seem to share something in common with Solzhenitsyn’s views in Gulag Archipelago. Here I look back to Solzhenitsyn’s first attempts at camp verse in an effort to understand the similarities and differences in the two writers’ positions.

Although Solzhenitsyn’s belief in the prospect of moral elevation is discussed in Gulag Archipelago, it also receives attention in his camp verse.The 2004 edition of Dorozhen’ka contained not only the long poem of the same name, but also a further 28 poems divided chronologically into three sections, namely: prison, camp, and exile. The wide-ranging nature of his camp verse seems to correspond to Solzhenitsyn’s views on the possibility of ascent (voskhozhdenie) within the penal system. The poem cycle itself represents the freedom to think that Solzhenitsyn is concerned with in the fourth section of Gulag Archipelago, ‘Dusha i provoloka’. However, whilst in his philosophical work on the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn seems to privilege a singularly positive idea of voskhozhdenie, his poetry seems to suggest that it something is also lost in this process, as well as gained.

According to Solzhenitsyn, the possibility of moral elevation arises out of the perceived absence of guilt in the case of the political prisoners, as well as a need to ‘дожить любой ценой’ (Gulag Archipelago, p.570). However, the highly dangerous world of the camps, both in a physical and a moral sense, means that survival is not guaranteed. Leaving the problem of physical survival aside, Solzhenitsyn makes it clear that if you do survive physically, it may involve a loss of conscience due to the nature of camp survival. Furthermore, survival can be considered as reliant on change for Solzhenitsyn, at least to a small degree:

…эти три обстоятельства могут только объяснить, почему он остался в живых. Не было бы их — и он бы умер, но он бы не переменился. (А те, кто умерли — может быть, потому и умерли, что не переменились?)

(Gulag, p.571)

Solzhenitsyn then uses the example of the Italian writer, Silvio Pellico, to illustrate his point about the potential usefulness of transformation, ‘ всегда эти изменения идут в сторону углубления души’ (Gulag, p.572). Solzhenitsyn believes that this moral transformation arises out of the freedom to think in prison; the political prisoner under the Soviet system is forced to re-evaluate past deeds in the absence of guilt. The process of time also plays a role in this voskhozhdenie, as ‘изменимся неузнаваемо мы, и изменятся наши близкие — и места, когда-то родные, покажутся нам чужее чужих’ (Gulag, p.574). We are stripped of our previous relationships, both familial and social, and this frees us for deep self-reflection, which in turn leads to spiritual elevation. The disconnection between prisoners and those on the outside in terms of physical recognition has been dealt with Alexander Etkind in his 2009 Russian Review article, ‘A Parable of Misrecognition: Anagnorisis and the Return of the Repressed from the Gulag.’ This moral elevation brings with it a love for work, as well as a positive change in character. The process ofvoskhozhdenieseems to be too idealistic in Gulag Archipelago, and is in fact found to be more realistic in his camp poetry. The verse sees the anger of wrongful imprisonment, as well as his concern over the state of Russia under the Soviet system. It plays host to youthful nostalgia as well as a exploration of his relationship with God. But ultimately it provides an account of the epiphanic moments in Solzhenitsyn’s camp experience, which I believe are linked to his belief in voskhozhedenie.

Several of the poems in this cycle express a belief in the total transformation of man during the process of internment, that the prisoner becomes someone entirely new. For example, in the ‘prison’ poem ‘Oтсюда не возврашаются’, Solzhenitsyn explores the problem of life after the camps in an address to those outside. He is already conscious of a significant spiritual change:

Душу новую, как новое растенье,

Я ращу в себе в недоброй гнили тюрем,

И растеньем этим я доволен.


The advent of a ‘new soul’ for Solzhenitsyn is accompanied by a reassessment of his previous prejudices and beliefs, described by him in Gulag(Gulag, p.575), as well as a renewed attention to the world around him:

С каждым днём я научаюсь видеть

То, чего не видел вчера…

Вижу мелким то, что прежде чёл огромным,

И большим, чем прежде я небрёг;


Such is the power of this transformation that when he announces his release from the camps, he describes it thus: ‘Это было бы приходом новым, / Это вовсе не было б возвратом!’ (p.221). However, despite the fact that this new ‘life’ supersedes the old (‘С той поры прошедшим не живу’), Solzhenitsyn has already been rendered powerless to regain the vigour of his youth:

А уж телом, телом


Этих лучших лет не наверстать.

Solzhenitsyn tempers his spiritual rebirth inside the camps with the knowledge that the decline in health will prevent any renewed physical activity reminiscent of his youth. Solzhenitsyn focuses on a similar theme in the ‘prison’ poem ‘Вечерний снег’. The evening snow has disguised the jail sufficiently that the narrator is reminded of similar nights before imprisonment:


На шапки вышек лёг бело,

Колючку пухом убрало,

И в тёмных блёстках липы.


The reduction of the world before him into black and white (the night sky/snow) represents the moment of voskhozhdenie, because, as he watches the snow fall in the prison courtyard, it reminds him not only of freedom, but also of being with his lover on a similarly snowy night. The mixing of memories and the present allows him to temporarily rise above his physical surroundings:

Двором тюремным, как во сне,

Иду — и вспыхнули во мне

Все чувства молодые…


In this poem, the fleeting return of his past represents a certain moral elevation, as he is able to momentarily escape the reality of prison life, which, as Solzhenitsyn argues, is potentially necessary for physical survival.

However, these moments of ‘epiphany’ are not always positive in the sense of aiding the narrator to survive the camps. The moments of clarity that accompany the general process of voskhozhdenie also reveal the helplessness of the situation for the camp inmates. The ‘camp’ poem, ‘Каменщик’, illustrates this by building up a sense of powerlessness. There are the obvious hallmarks of a Soviet camp: barbed wire, dogs, machine guns. But this is followed by a further attention on the prisoner’s inability to resist what is happening not only to him but also around him, including the interrogations, the walls rising around him, the amount of food he will receive. This is finally compounded by the final six lines of the poem:

А с лесов, меж камня — камер ямы чёрные,

Чьих-то близких мук немая глубина…


И всего-то нить у них — одна, автомобильная,

Да с гуденьем проводов недавние столбы.

Боже мой! Какие мы бессильные!

Боже мой! Какие мы рабы!


The point of view from outside the camp constitutes the moment of clarity, revealing the depths to which it also possible to sink in the camps. It is important to highlight the fact that this voskhozhdenie is not guaranteed, it is only one of many possible outcomes for the prisoners. After all, Solzhenitsyn is keenly aware that the majority of those who ended up in the camps under Stalin were corrupted by the realities of prison life (Gulag, p.593). However, other poems follow a similar pattern to ‘Каменщик’ including ‘Седьмая весна’, which focuses on the narrator’s resignation to his time in prison, and eventually the realisation of what he has lost in the process. In the second stanza, the narrator contrasts his position with typical images of spring before confessing: ‘А мне — себя не жалько, / И никаких желаний нет во мне’ (p.229). This acceptance of his position eventually ends with a confession of his own corruption (rastlenie):

Всевидящее! Кротко голубое!

Лишь ты одно свидетелем тому,

За эти годы чёрствые — какое

Я чувство погубил в себе святое,

Принесенное юношей в тюрьму.


Solzhenitsyn’s concept of voskhozhdenie therefore is open to movement down the axis of spiritual evolution, as well as up it. In fact, it seems as if the camp verse details this very wavering along the dividing line of elevation/corruption.

This idea of ‘negative epiphany’ is expanded upon further in the final poem of the collection, ‘Смерть — не как пропасть…’, which finds Solzhenitsyn confessing his distance from God in the final lines: ‘Больше не видеть тебя мне распятой, / Больше не звать Воскресенья тебе…’ (p.246). However, this ‘loss of faith’ is tempered with a positive vision of death as elevation for Solzhenitsyn: ‘А смерть — как гребень,/ Кряж, на который взнеслась дорога’ (Ibid.). This is accompanied by a prophetic vision of Russia itself, as Solzhenitsyn combines his fate with that of his country’s. However, it is the nature of the vision, the transcendental quality of Solzhenitsyn’s sight that suggests the possibility to simultaneously rise up, as well as sink down:

Вижу прозрачно — без гнева, без клятвы:

В низостях. В славе. В житье-колотьбе…


Having placed this poem in the ‘exile’ section, Solzhenitsyn has seemingly achieved true objectivity via previous suffering. He clearly sees his position in relation to God, as well as possessing an all-encompassing view of Russia. But, despite his suffering and apparent elevation, he is no closer to God.

Although Solzhenitsyn’s belief in the possibility of moral elevation through the extreme suffering of the Soviet penal system finds expression in his verse, it never draws attention away from the extreme adversity of the situation. For example, in one lyric we find him reconciling his Christian faith (‘Акафист’), yet in the final poem he is confessing his spiritual alienation precisely because of his new-found prophetic-like vision. It is this constant contradiction which suggests the influence of the camp system: it completely destabilises the inmate’s personal spirituality through the hardships and decisions they are forced to make. Yet the defiance of the final lines of ‘Ванька-встанька’ suggest Solzhenitsyn’s ability to resist: ‘Кто ж мне душу такую сделал, / Что опять могу смеяться?’ (p.215). Daniel Mahoney expands on this idea in his Ascent from Ideology (2001), ‘Human nature cannot be overcome, but rather in the course of confronting its sometimes deadly efforts, some are led to rediscover the meaning of human existence’. The peaks and troughs of camp life expressed in Solzhenitsyn’s verse, as well as the ambiguous final poem, would suggest that although this rediscovery of the meaning of human existence is possible, it comes at a price. For Solzhenitsyn in 1953, it seems to be the stability of his faith.